Read more writing about set dancing in the Set Dancing Anthology, New Articles, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.
People played music chiefly at night - they were too busy working during the daytime - unless on Sunday. There might be little music sessions on Sunday, because no-one worked on Sunday: no-one done any farm work other than tend animals or something like that that couldn't be helped, but you never went out to make hay or dig potatoes on Sunday. That was a day of rest. You went to church first, and then you had the rest of the day for chatting the neighbours and for visiting - rambling, raking we used to call it back home. Our house was one of the principal rambling houses in the area, and we used to have a lot of country-house hooleys and little parties.
Sunday night would be the principal night for the dance, not Saturday night. Saturday was the night when you left everything ready for the next day. If it was the time of year when you dug the potatoes as you used them, you dug as much on Saturday as done you Sunday, and several other things like that. Anyway, everyone had to get up on Sunday morning to go to church, so you couldn't be too late on Saturday night. But Sunday night there were dances everywhere, because no-one gave a hoot about the rest of the week.
There used to be plenty of dancing sessions that would happen just off the cuff, without anything being organised or anybody being invited. A few girls would come into a certain house, just to be together and to work on embroidery ('sprigging'), or whatever was to be done. A few men would come in, and if there wasn't a fiddle in that house there was one next door, and some body ran out and took in the fiddle, and there was nearly always a fiddle player in the company, and there would be some dancing. It wouldn't maybe start until about eleven o'clock. They used be smashing nights, because on an organised night you would usually get too many people, and the house would be so packed that there would hardly be room for dancing. In those days the dancing took up some room - it wasn't standing the same ground like a diesel engine running, like they do now! Really they wanted a bit of space in those days, for the 'sets', and highlands and mazurkas and barn dances.
Then we used to have the organised nights, which we called 'big nights', especially when there would be a few visitors in the area. There would be two or three big nights organised in their honour, to give them a chance to meet the locals, and to see the customs. The musicians would be appointed three or four days in advance. The girls would be invited for miles and miles around. There was no need to ask the men, because they would follow the girls, they would come anyway. But all the girls would be invited, and if they weren't invited they didn't go.
We all looked forward to the big nights. There was the dancing, and the singing, and the music, and of course the females, and along with that, for someone like me that was interested in learning songs, there would be the chance of hearing a song I never heard before, or picking up one that I wasn't quite sure of. Oh yes, an arranged big night would be talked about for two or three days previously. Two people would meet, and the first thing one would say would be to tell the other that there was a big night in such-and-such a house tomorrow night. And that person would tell somebody else, and so on, with the result that the place would be like sardines before nine o'clock. Many a time I thought it was a pity we didn't have bigger houses. Mind you, the kitchens, especially the old ones where they pinned the table up to the roof, could hold quite a few people.
People would start to gather at about half-past eight or so. There were certain people that had their certain places, especially the older people who wouldn't be joining in the dancing all that much; they would be around the fireplace. The fire would be let die out - almost (because the fires never died out for maybe a hundred years back home); it would be let go very low so that it wouldn't be giving very much heat, otherwise in a small room with a thatched roof the heat would be putting the dancers out of the house. The people gathered around the fireplace would be talking about crops, or the price of cattle, or horses, or something and smoking pipes - mostly clay pipes that would be left over from wakes.
The pipes would be passed around too. That was part of the hospitality and part of the welcome, that when somebody came in to our house, it didn't matter whether they were smokers or not, my father offered his pipe to this person. I don't know where that fashion started, but it was going strong up until I left home.
There would be also news stories circulated around the fire. If somebody's wife maybe away two or three valleys back had a baby, that was big news, and if somebody was thinking of getting married, that was big news, and if somebody was thinking about building a new house, that would be thrashed out and talked over for ages.
Very often when a stranger would come in that didn't know that people talked about their neighbours like that, and someone would say to my father, 'You know Barney so-and-so from - ?' (maybe fifteen miles away), the stranger would wonder, how on earth does he know somebody that far away. They would have no idea that my father probably met that bloke every fair day, and saw him at church every Sunday. Another thing that they had trouble with was the pipe going round. That was not very hygienic in their eyes. I remember a Scotch woman, Mrs Kyles, and her daughter being in our house - a lot of Scotch people used to come over to our area on holidays - and there was a bit of a hooley going on. Of course my father was giving people his pipe, and they couldn't believe this. They thought that was being really rough!
On a big night there would be refreshments for the dancers. There was tea. There might even be a few bottles of whiskey going around, there might even be poteen, and maybe Guinness, which in those days we called stout. The people who lived very near didn't really eat in the house the hooley was in, 'twould be only people who had a far journey to do, like five or six miles out over the mountain, well then they got some refreshment to carry them along.
The musicians, of course, were number one. They had to be treated properly, anyway. There were usually two chairs put up on the kitchen table, and they sat away out up there. For two reasons: one was, they were right above the dancers, and they could see the figures of the dance and they could enjoy themselves, and along with that they were out of the way, because some of the dances were a bit hectic, and they were all very proud of their fiddles; and if there was a hectic dance going on and four or five people collapsed on a fiddle, that was the end of it! So the fiddle player was away safe, away in a corner or up on a table some where. So, let the dancers kill each other, who cared, the fiddles were safe anyway.
A big night would be chiefly dancing. The people that weren't dancing would sit right around the wall, and the fiddler or the two fiddlers would be in their seat of honour parked up on the table, and there would be about eight couples on the floor. As they danced around, people would be taking out the time, beating out the rhythm of the dance with their feet. You would know when you would be drawing towards a house, and they were dancing in the hobnailed boots on a concrete or a flagged floor - you would know two hundred yards away from the door what dance they were doing, by the timing, because they were keeping perfect time with the music.
As the dance went on and on it got more and more excited. They almost worked themselves into a frenzy - the sweat was pouring off them. If a man had to sweat that much working on the land, he wouldn't do it: he'd sit down and wipe the sweat off himself. But he wouldn't sit down while the dance was going on if he was fit to carry on.
The most popular dance at the big nights when I was a kid would probably be the highland. It was originally a Scottish dance as far as I know: in Ireland you'd very seldom see a highland danced outside Donegal and Tyrone. It was a pity, because the highland could be a fantastic dance - a lot nicer to watch than to do, because it was a bit strenuous to dance it. There would be about twelve turns of the tune, it would go on and on, and in the end somebody would drop out, and gradually there would be maybe only one or two left - the toughest would survive!
The mazurka wasn't as popular as the highland in our area back home. One of the reasons was that to do it properly took four couples. The kitchen of the house was small, and all you could have would be one set of eight people. I remember the open-air dancing, like crossroads dancing, and there would be maybe four or five sets of eight people; but you couldn't have that in a kitchen.
The beat never stopped for the mazurka. Sometimes in the highland you could ease off a little, but the mazurka went all the time from beginning to end of the dance. The old four-couple mazurka would be four couples joining each other, dancing face to face. It didn't mean a damn what you were doing in the dance, you kept the timing going all the time. They reckoned that that was one of the reasons why they had tips on the heels of the shoes and little iron plates called toeplates on the soles. People reckoned that's why they were invented. 'Twasn't true of course, but it made a nice story.
But you didn't need any space at all for the highland, because you could dance it round all the time. The first half would be done in semicircies, the second in complete circles. It would be very awkward to dance a highland like you would a waltz, coming around the whole floor. You would be turning so fast that if you hit someone you'd send them into another wall! And the timing would be a bit awkward when you would be moving around - it was much easier doing the beat standing on the same spot all the time. 'Twas a bit more like tap dancing.
In later years the people started doing the dances, sort of in slow motion - in time with the music, but with no beat action, only just doing the bare steps and not the in-between things. They never sweated! Whereas the old people - I remember men of up to seventy, and women the same age, they would sit down from the dance and they would be huffing and puffing, breathing very hard, and the sweat dripping off them. There was one bloke in particular, and like myself he didn't shave every day; he used to have a nice little stubble of beard on, and you could see the shiny drops of sweat coming off the front of his beard! So he was giving himself some abuse, with the great big hobnailed boots on. And believe me, a pair of them boots were about as heavy as a packed suitcase!
Naturally enough, after a few dances the dancers would be in need of a break, so then there would be a bit of a lull, and some body would say,
'Packie, give us a song!'
So if it was my turn I sang a song, and then some other body sang one, and somebody would tell a story or do their party piece. They never went to any particular part of the room - just wherever you were sitting or standing, that's where you stayed. Nowadays at folk festivals they have what they call 'singarounds': well they remind me very much of the big nights back home.
Then the dancing would start up again. And there used to even be rows about the girls, men used to fight about the women. Oh, it was all a very interesting commotion. And right enough, sounds like blowing me own trumpet, but in our area back home I can remember, all the girls were beautiful. They were mostly red-faced, of course, and a lot of that came from getting so much outside air. In the hay time they would all be working, working like men in the fields, and they were so healthy-looking: they all had red cheeks, and in those days they all had long hair, and they looked smashing. They did. Looked really nice.
After the dance, at four or five in the morning, the people would go home. Especially if it was the summer time, when it would get light early. They would try to be home before day, before the sun would shine, anyway. Although it was nothing new for a hooley or a country-house dance to carry on to the next day, just like the weddings.
Packie Manus Byrne, Recollections of a Donegal Man, 1989, compiled and edited by Stephen Jones
In 1893 the Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was formed with the aim of promoting the use of the Irish language and arousing in the Irish people a greater awareness of their history and culture. The members of the London branch of the Society were particularly concerned about the large number of Irish men and women who had fled their native land during the potato famine and settled in London. These immigrants, they feared, were becoming more London than Irish. In an attempt to remedy this state of affairs they set up Irish language classes and organised social gatherings (céilithe or, in modern English, ceili, or ceilidh, pronounced 'kaylee') where traditional Irish songs and stories were performed.
It soon became apparent that if these social gatherings were to succeed in attracting a larger attendance it would be necessary to include social dancing as part of the programme. The first of these gatherings in London to include dancing was held on 30th October 1897 and the major part of the programme consisted of waltzes and quadrilles, as would be natural for any ball held in London at that time. The League, however, were acutely aware that members of their Scottish branches could demonstrate their nationalism by performing country dances, jigs and reels in an easily recognisable Scottish style and wearing a distinctive (if of doubtful authenticity) dress - the tartan kilt or plaid.
The Irish members of the League were determined to find 'pure' Irish dances for their gatherings. Unfortunately, rejecting the popular dances of the day - the waltz, polka and quadrille - as being too English, the League found themselves, as de Lauze would have said, "at the foot of a wall without a ladder". Frantic searches among the more easily reached areas of Ireland itself only revealed what one might have expected - that 19th and 20th century people danced 19th and 20th century dances. It was, I feel, somewhat naive of the League to suppose that there remained in Ireland a race of two or three hundred year old people who could demonstrate the dances of their youth. For years past, the social life in Ireland had been determined at the higher level by the influence of the English governors and landlords. Their dances, in the main derived from France, percolated down through the various social strata of Irish society and there would be very few parts of Ireland that had not succumbed to the allure of the European couple dances and quadrilles. The only flourishing form of older dance still to be found was the solo step dance and even here the inexperienced collectors tended to ignore or repudiate any style which did not suit their ideas of what was Irish.
In dismay at the poor return from their search, the League turned to professional dance instructors in London and elsewhere. These dance instructors, together with certain members of the League itself, took upon themselves the task of inventing a whole new repertoire of 'old Irish dances' to be used at their ceilidhs, some of them in a quadrille form.
The League has always insisted that these ceilidh dances were genuinely Irish but the modern dance historian has difficulty in believing this. The secrecy that surrounds their origin would be enough to create doubts but, additionally, the reaction against them in Ireland shows how unconvinced the Irish themselves were that these were their own dances. Nevertheless, the League pressed on and in the early 1900s these were the only dances taught by the League's dancing masters, the contemporary quadrilles being totally banned from their social gatherings.
The new repertoire for the ceilidhs included not only these newly invented dances but also English style progressive longways dances with Irish names and tunes. Some of these dances had been known in England, Scotland, Ireland and indeed most of mainland Europe for much of the 19th century but had fallen out of fashion. These dances simply had their names changed. The more cynical of modern historians have said that one can tell which members of the League invented which name, as they usually refer to the district in which that member lived. For example, the dance known all over Europe since 1820 as La Tempête became The Siege of Ennis.
Later, in the 1970s and after, there was a great revival of quadrille or 'set' dancing in Ireland and this has lasted and is flourishing today. As a result, the ceilidh dances have suffered an eclipse and I am afraid that, due to a backlash of opinion, some wonderful quadrille-type dances promoted by the League will be ignored or forgotten. Whatever one may think of the possible deceit practised on their own people, there is no doubt that many of the League dances are of a very high quality - in fact I would say that The High Caul Cap is one of the best square set dances ever invented. I can also recommend The Sweets of May and the Eight Hand Jig to my readers.
The style of these ceilidh dances appears to be based on a combination of the characteristics of the French 18th century cotillon and the early quadrille. The true beauty of the figures in these dances can only be felt or observed if they are danced at the tempo their originators intended but, over the last twenty years of the 20th century, the speed at which Irish reels and jigs are played by most Irish dance bands has been steadily increasing to cope with the demand for such tempos for modern Irish set dancing. While the skill and ability of the musicians to play at these speeds can be admired, it is unfortunately true that these same musicians now find difficulty in reducing the tempo of their music to one suitable for the ceilidh dances.
I said earlier that when the Gaelic League attempted to introduce its dances into the normal dance repertoire of Ireland it met with a good deal of opposition from the general public, who were quite content with the usual European dance programme of their day - a mixture of waltzes, polkas, schottisches, polka-mazurkas and quadrilles. As a mainly middle-class, special interest group the League might have had little effect on the general public who, in the main, regarded them as a bunch of interfering do-gooders, but one particularly influential group favoured them. This was the clergy.
The Church in Ireland had a long history of opposition to dancing, associating it with promiscuity and immorality. The introduction of the close hold in the waltz and other couple dances did not improve matters and when the quadrille adopted the close-hold pivot swing instead of the turn with hands, this hitherto unremarked dance form joined the ranks of the damned. Unfortunately, a substantial part of the Church's income was derived from hiring out its many church halls for the purpose of dancing and it could not afford to lose this income. The League offered the Church a partial, very welcome solution to its problem. None of the new ceilidh dances used the close waltz hold. In all of them, partners were held at arm's length. Thus the morality of Ireland's young men and women could be saved by allowing nothing but the League's ceilidh dances in the church halls. This rule became generally adopted and enormous pressure was therefore exerted on the Irish dancing public to adopt the new dances.
This change in the dance repertoire was most noticeable in towns where other venues for dancing were limited. In the rural districts the Church's ruling was less effective, as there had long been a tradition of dancing at cross-roads or on dancing platforms set in nearby fields. Friends would also hold small gatherings to dance in their own homes, a small quadrille set or a display of solo step dancing fitting nicely into a domestic kitchen. The general effect seems to be that ceilidh dancing moved into the larger towns and quadrilles moved out to the rural districts. Naturally, the close hold dances, which now included the quadrille, were no more welcome to the rural clergy than they were to the urban and many of the dancing masters who had toured the country districts giving dance classes were discouraged by the clergy, who sometimes went so far as to threaten them with excommunication.
Thus, the regular contact between dancing masters and dance enthusiasts became rarer and this led to an increase in the number of local variants of standard quadrilles as complicated figures were forgotten and locally invented alternatives substituted. One final blow to the unfortunate dance enthusiast came in 1935, when the Irish government passed the Public Halls Dance Act. This Act prohibited the use of any place for dancing unless it was licensed by the local magistrate and a government tax was added to the admission price. Politics and religion then combined. All the church halls became licensed and the police, under government influence, opposed the licensing of any private halls. The police went even further, ruling that even dancing in private houses was prohibited if someone attending contributed to the expenses involved. When cases involving dancing in private houses were brought before the courts, much depended on the attitude of the local magistrates. Some dismissed the cases as frivolous but enough convictions were obtained to make anyone wishing to give a private ball very careful in publishing his intentions. Private balls became secret balls, with only 'known' locals present. This again tended to generate local favourite variants of quadrilles.
The combination of religious and political pressure on the development of social dance in Ireland had a remarkable effect which, as far as I know, was confined solely to Ireland. When, in the 1970s, interest in the quadrille sets began to revive, enthusiastic collectors found a hitherto unsuspected plethora of these dances. It seemed that almost every small town in the provinces could provide its own local quadrille set. It was these locally preserved sets that formed the basis for the revival in Ireland and, later, other countries, of what is now referred to as Irish set dancing.
At the present time (December 2000) recently published books list some hundred or more of these sets. As even more are announced, I begin to suspect that necessity continues to be the mother of invention. After all, with all this interest, how could one bear to live in the only village in Ireland without its own set!
Ellis A Rogers, The Quadrille, 2003
"No good saying good-bye, you'll be back again," shouted Sage as we clung to the rail of the car and held on our old felt hats. Off we went, wearing every coat that we possessed, one on top of the other, joggling down the stony road to Kilronan. Even from our elevation in the car we could see no green thing on the island. To the right, grey stone walls rose to the sky, one behind another, each enclosing a secret field which might hold grass or might hold only slabs of rock. The last hedge on the hill-top had the appearance of a thorn hedge with the light coming through many interstices. Below us, grey rock in terraced formation sloped down to the grey sea that was flecked with numberless white crests. I shall always see Aran just like this, I thought.
The wind followed us more quickly than we could move. If we looked back its breath was still like that of cold iron.
When we arrived at Kilronan post-office they could only tell us: "No steamer yet. If she comes they won't telegraph from the other side and if she doesn't they will, there is no telegram yet and faith, perhaps she will leave at nine-thirty or perhaps she won't leave at all and perhaps she will come tomorrow or maybe not till the day after." That was the official report.
Then we telephoned to Galway. No, they said, she would not be over to-day. It might be she would be over Tuesday and if so she would not come on Wednesday but possibly on Thursday. Or it might be she would not be over Tuesday and then she might come on Wednesday.
There was nothing left for us, after we had given Pat Hernon a drink, but to jog back the four miles to Kilmurvy and break the news, if it could be called news, to Sage and Pomus.
They rose to the heights of hospitality without a moment's pause. "We'll celebrate," they said: "how splendid to have you back. We'll have a ceilidhe to-night." They pronounced it "kalee" with the correct Gaelic accent.
Peter was at once sent to the westward to deliver verbal invitations. The faithful Pat Hernon had to turn round once more and drive back to Kilronan for a keg of porter. We got busy in the kitchen and living room; everything, books, papers, jerseys knitted by the Aran women and brought for our inspection, drawing-blocks, sketches, litter, all were pushed into the Cave of Winds and piled beside the beds of Sage and Pomus. My bedroom was barricaded from the rest of the dance-hall by the simple device of tying a cord from the screen to a rafter in the roof. All benches, tables and chairs were pushed back against the wall to provide sitting-room for on lookers. A few mugs were borrowed, Maggie baked two loaves and Peter, on his return from the westward cottages, was sent up to James, the rich man of the island, for a pound of butter and the loan of two lamps.
When the keg of porter arrived our preparations would be complete.
At about eight o'clock the guests came drifting in by twos and threes; men and women, girls and boys, each group would enter quietly to settle down on chairs, tables, benches or even the floor, as if they were birds alighting on irregular branches. Sage put one record after another on the wheezy gramophone. The wind roared down the chimney with a hollow boom, it eddied through the cracks of doors and window frames, the room was cold even with forty or fifty people in it, and for quite an hour the guests all sat there, each one mute as an image. We began to wonder if a ceilidhe was always such a solemn affair as this.
The young men sat apart from the girls, but at last two of the lads stood up and each one beckoned to a girl who then came out from among her companions. A set of four was formed and danced in stately manner, then a set of eight; at the end of each dance they would link hands round each others' shoulders and the four or eight dancers would gyrate at full speed until the girls' feet flew out into the air like flying boats at a fair, but even this was only a part of the set piece, just a pre-arranged crescendo movement as finale.
At last the lighthouse-keeper's son came in with his accordion and then things livened up. His music drew the young men from their corners as if he were the Pied Piper himself; more and more men and boys stood up, more and more girls were beckoned out to join the dance and soon the room was full of moving figures, but still there was in the dancing no abandonment of reserve. The pattern was more important than the individual. After a while refreshments were handed round, slabs of bread-and-butter laid out in lines on a tray and mugs of strong tea, and then after a while two of those women who habitually wore black shawls outlining the contours of their patient faces would withdraw to the kitchen and wash up the mugs for the next section of the party.
Then, the keg having arrived, there was a scene in the kitchen worthy of celebration by a Rembrandt or Jan Steen, when Patcheen broached the barrel. I can see it all now, the half dozen men gathered round to watch him, their hard-bitten earnest faces, the shadows on the wall, the dim light of candles. All the lamps had been used to light up the dancing room.
Two of us held candles in empty bottles beside the stooping head of Patcheen and suddenly the scum broke forth from the bung-holes on either side of the tap and gathered in pools of froth beside the Wanderer's bed until Pat Mullen and some other Pat arrived with enamel cans to catch the liquor. Then, as the drink circulated so the dancing gathered momentum and became more and more expressive of each dancer's mood. Every dance began with the same stately set of partners but always it grew wilder and wilder with the expression of individual energy and always when hands were linked on shoulders the whole circle became possessed by one frenzied impulse until it was twirling madly like some gigantic top.
When you took part in such a dance you would lose all sense of your own identity and when your feet had left the ground you would become just a little atom, or perhaps a particle of dust caught up from the floor and made one with the spirit of circular movement.
A few hours later, when the revels were at their height, it was not possible to believe that the same people had sat there mute as images, or had begun each dance with quiet dignity. By what stages our dawn delirium was reached I cannot now remember, for I see that ceilidhe in its night-long progress as a series of detached pictures.
There was one dance which involved us all in changing partners at a given moment, though how the signal to change was given or received I never could discover. I would be flung away suddenly from the arms of my own partner into a seething mass of figures produced by a sudden break-up of the circle and any one of these figures might seize me and twirl me round until another exchange was due. After one such signal I found myself in the embrace of Big Patcheen, the finest curragh man in all the islands.
I was lifted high off the floor, aware only of the immense paws and the iron grasp of that pale-eyed, aquiline-nosed giant and his vast blue jersey which seemed to extend across a chest as broad as the wall of a house. He was by this time three-quarters drunk and I felt as if an enormous and rather delirious bear had me in its power, yet as I rose from the floor towards the ceiling, borne upward by his tremendous height, I did not feel any fear. The whirlpool of faces, the blaring notes of the music, the vibrations through the roof and walls and chimney of the gale which seemed to threaten our whole assembly with assaulting blows, all these things were but a background to my own share in the frenzied dance. Before I had awakened from this frenzy enough to realise my extraordinary situation another exchange of partners took place and I was released from the grasp of the giant bear.
Another scene. Big Patcheen had left the dancing room and was kneeling on the kitchen floor beside the Wanderer's bed; Pomus and Pat Mullen and I were sitting on the bed. The giant was singing a weird, wild song which he had surely learned direct from the winds and the waves or from ancestral memories. It was resonant, nasal, distressed, sung in queer half tones as the Moslems sing through the night of Ramadan. His eyes were closed and one of his great paws held my right hand, squeezing the fingers together as if they were berries, while with the other paw he grasped Pomus by her left hand. He sang slowly, or rather he chanted, in that Gaelic fashion which is the inheritance of ages; he sang of timeless things, or so we imagined, of the terrors of shipwreck, the loss of comrades, the dangers of the sea, the struggle for existence in an islander's life. At one moment his face was like that of a dare-devil hypnotized by his own music and in the next it would be like that of a worshipper praying to his god.
In the dim candle-lit kitchen the younger Patcheen was still presiding over the keg and Pomus was going to and fro with white cans of porter, filling glasses. The Wanderer, who had clad herself in everybody's gayest scarves and garments for the occasion, went whirling past the open doorway every now and then, like a tin top with its red and blue and green concentric lines. She was spinning like the earth, as if for eternity.
There was a pause in the dancing when suddenly, without invitation or warning, a young man beside the hearth broke into a Gaelic chant. His face had the strength of a classic profile, he had fair hair and a look of sweet kindliness. He wore the stiff homespun trousers of the island men and a white knitted jersey, above which his beautiful neck and head stood out without constraint from a collar. He was crouching on a bench and all about him there were walls of faces. We could see on many of those faces the impress of age-long dreams and memories, while on the faces of the older men the struggle for existence had engraved a proud and solitary and courageous look.
The young man, sitting upright now, with head thrown back and eyes closed as if in pain, seemed to be conscious only of the things about which he sang. The unfamiliar chant had, for our ears, neither tune nor music, but it held us by a spell, for there were long, unrecorded memories in it, heart-shadowing memories of struggle and parting and danger and death, and always at the end of each verse there was a drop in his voice, like the dying out of a wail. Sometimes he would open his eyes for a moment and roll them upward in the manner of a sightless man. He seemed to be in a kind of trance and we felt that his song was inspired by the cruel strangeness of destiny with never any softening influence of religion to bring peace and consolation. It was a song of warring with the elements and with life itself. It was a gloriously pagan song.
No wonder the priests look askance on dancing and music, for these two arts can liberate all that lies below the surface in the souls of the island people, and their hidden soul, for all their attitudes and customs of religious observance, is nourished on very ancient pagan beliefs.
The young man sang on and on. In the traditionary manner of island singers he held the hand of a comrade on either side, working their arms up and down with slow, rhythmical movements, drawing their vitality into his music. Then he stopped as suddenly as he had begun and the dancing started again.
The drink was running low. Very soon the dawn would come. A few of the guests began to trickle away, leaving the comfort of the fire with reluctance. Somewhere in the small hours, when the room was still a vortex of sound and movement wherein separate forms and faces had become lost, the Wanderer and I opened the kitchen door and stepped out on to the grass and the slabs of rock that slope down to the Fairies' Field. The air cut our faces as if with the breath of an iceberg but the sea was no longer roaring quite so loudly on the rocks. There below us was Kilmurvy bay asheen with moonlight and the black sky was lit up by a lunar rainbow, the colour of milk and silver and pale blue mist all blended. The wind still confronted us like a wall of iron but the perfect lunar rainbow arching over that little bay was the very colour of peace.
There, inside, were our friends, dancing, dancing, like unimpeded spirits and here on the shore was the peace of moon light after storm. We knew that we had found the timeless islands of the blest; and we were bound to leave them on this very day.
Lady C C Vyvyan, On Timeless Shores, 1957
'I remember that when I myself was a pretty hardy garsoon, pipers used to come into the Island here. You can well say that those were the musicians worth listening to. One of them used to give a spell in the Island every year and, of course, St Patrick's Day - for that was a "pattern" day. On that day the old man who used not leave home during the rest of the year would go to drink his "Patrick's pot", and look at the dancers, and listen to the piper. Perhaps he used to meet five or six of his own sort that he hadn't seen for a while before. One of them would say: "Well, neighbours and friends, let us go on in to drink our 'Patrick's pot', for it is seldom we meet, and as the old proverb put it,Choose your company before you go drinking,'The piper used be at the other end of the house, and you can take my word for it that he wouldn't be alone: a party of boys and girls was always there listening to him and dancing to his music. He used to sit in a chair with the bellows under one armpit and the bagpipe under the other. There was a tube protruding from the bellows through which he filled the bagpipes with air. The bagpipe itself had a narrow neck from which stretched a long yellow brass tube called the chanter the end of which was down on his knee. He used to blow up the bellows with his elbow until it was so full of air that it was fit to burst. Then he started to play by moving his fingers along the holes in the pipe. There were other pipe holes called drones in the end of the bag from which there poured a deep heavy hum accompanying the music and making it all the grander.
And see what's in your pocket before you walk in!"
'Two couples used then move out on to the floor and the piper played a reel and a jig for them; and when they finished that bout of dancing the piper was paid twopence, for that was the reward he got for every spell of dancing that was done. The girls returned to their seats and the two boys used then select another two girls for the next dance. Once again the piper was paid his twopence, and this time the boys stopped dancing and it was then the girls turn to choose two other boys for the next one.
'That was the way the time passed until everyone was half-dead with fatigue. However, if any sign of fading interest in the piper's music was shown so that he wasn't pleased, he began to sulk and would stop playing. He would then get a drink from one of the boys to put him in good humour again. After that he spoke up and said:When the piper has downed a drink'Straightaway the fit of pique was over and he would say: "Ye are far better than the four a while ago", and in the same instant he was squeezing the bellows, swelling the bag, and playing once again with vigour.'
The piper will play a fine jig.
Conchúr Ó Siocháin, Seanchas Chléire, 1940, translated from the Irish by Riobárd P Breatnach in The Man from Cape Clear, 1975
'Jazz-Hall' dancing may appear to be a harmless enough business, however unimaginative. Many of our clergy do not think it is and several of the Solomons of the district court are quite certain that it isn't. The dance hall was unknown before the last war and the prevalence of the craze to-day may be taken to be a symptom of a general social change that is bound up with altering conditions of living and working. To-day there are roughly 1,200 licensed halls in the 26 Counties accounting for perhaps 5,000 dances in a year. Golf and tennis clubs, Volunteer halls and the like do not require a licence. In all, it is a fair guess that 10,000 dances are held in a year, an average of three [thirty?] a day. In terms of time, this means that there is a foxtrot in progress in some corner of Erin's isle throughout the whole of every night and day. This is hard going for a small country. Is it appalling? Is it true that the rural dance hall is a place to be avoided by our sisters? Is it fair to say that Ireland is peopled by decadent alcoholics in pumps?
In 1935 the Public Dance Halls Act was passed. It was designed to control dancing - by then a vast industry and a country-wide neurosis - and to wipe out abuses bearing on everything from sanitation to immorality. The problem itself and the operation of the Act have occupied pages of newspaper space since. Bishops and judges have made strong comments. Satan has been blamed personally. There is, however, no great uniformity in outlook or conclusion. Here are some reported pronouncements, picked more or less at random. Probably very few of the pronouncers have ever paid fourpence [€0.02] to swelter for four hours in an insanitary shack.Some time ago the evil of commercialised dance halls was so great that the Government felt bound to legislate. This legislation has been a dismal farce. It is the opinion of many that it has done more harm than good. - Most Rev. Dr. Gilmartin.Let us visit some of these 'vestibules of hell'. If you want to go to a dance in the country, you buy a copy of the local paper and turn to the dance page. This, so to speak, is the countryman's leader page. Only after reading every word of it does he penetrate to the coursing notes and after that a long time may elapse before he reaches the customary holocaust involving those 10,000 Chinese coolies.
The Act was the most excellent passed since 1922. It only required a very modest quota of sweet reasonableness and goodwill to work it. - District Justice Johnson.
The provisions of the Public Dance Halls Act, 1935, were unworkable and had been recognised by the Bench as unworkable. - District Justice Little.
There is one agency which Satan has set up here and there in recent years that does incalculably more harm than all the others we have mentioned. It deserves to be called after his name, for he seems to preside at some of the dark rites enacted there. We have in mind the rural dance hall, owned by a private individual, run for profit, open to all who pay, without any exception of persons, conducted with no sort of responsible supervision. - Most Rev. Dr. Morrisroe.
He saw no harm in a well-conducted dance. It was his wish that people in Raphoe Diocese should get as much innocent recreation as possible and make the most of their opportunities. For that reason he was very pleased to see such a fine new hall being provided in Letterkenny. - Most Rev. Dr. MacNeely.
They were disposed to think that if the dance finished at midnight on a fine night, people would not be inclined to go home but would walk around the country. - Solicitor Lisdoonvarna Court.
All-night dancing should be abolished completely. No licence should be granted to a hall which is contiguous to or within easy distance of a public house.* - Rev. R. S. Devane, S.J.
* But is there any such spot in all Ireland?
In order to satisfy himself as to the suitability of a place proposed for public dancing, he would require that elevations and sections of the premises, accompanied by a block plan showing the position in relation to adjacent buildings, be lodged with the chief clerk of the court, and that certified copies be supplied to the Superintendent of the division concerned. - District Justice Little.
The Galway Hospital Committee have passed a resolution drawing attention to the prevalence of sexual immorality as shown by the number of illegitimate births in the Galway Maternity Hospital and stating that it deplores this departure from the Gaelic tradition of purity, caused, in their opinion, by the lessening of parental control and want of supervision at dances and other amusements. - 'Irish Independent'.
I am in position to state that the vast majority of unmarried mothers have met with downfall under circumstances remote from dance halls or dances. - Dr. J. F. O'Connor, Macroom.
Illegitimate births in the 26 counties, 1929: 1,853; 1939: 1,781. - Returns of the Registrar-General.
Father Devane is anxious to know how far dance halls set up a restlessness that causes girls to emigrate. He wonders, too, how far dance halls lessen 'the strenuous efforts so vitally necessary in the present agricultural crisis.' He asks why there are so many dance halls in Donegal. You follow Father Devane with your coat off. You ask no questions. You tie up dance halls and emigration and make the dance hall nearly as all-embracing a source of evil as the British connection, and hint darkly. . . . There is a background to the dance hall. Take Donegal, the black spot. Social life in the crowded areas there is a grand affair. Dancing played its part. During the winter there were endless excuses for raffles - a dance till midnight at 3d. a head. The schoolhouse was used for big nights. The parochial hall was there, but there was always too much style - and the charge was high 'to keep out the rough'. The raffle and the schoolhouse are no more. The parochial hall is still a pain in the neck. So the local dance hall arises. It does not come in. It grows. Nothing so natural to these areas is bad. To be sure, 'nothing human is perfect'. The men who built these halls are just neighbours to the boys and girls who attend them. The girls don't emigrate in search of dancing or glitter, but in search of wages. Many Donegal girls come to Dublin. Some get quite good wages. But they don't stay in Dublin, although Dublin has dance halls galore. They feel lonely in Dublin, so they go to Glasgow where hundreds of neighbours have made their homes. . . - Peadar O'Donnell in a letter to the 'Irish Press'.
An application on behalf of Rev. Fr. Monaghan, C.C., Killanny, was made for extension of a licence for dances at a carnival.
Justice Goff - 'This is a marquee. I am afraid I cannot. - 'Irish Independent'.
When District Justice Walsh was told that a dance licence for a Milford hall was lapsing as the hall was being converted into a cinema, he said: 'That is worse. At least the dancing money is kept in the country.' - 'Irish Independent'.
Judging rural Ireland by these dance blurbs, one would imagine that the entire population are returned emigrants who spent their lives in the neon-spangled honky-tonks of the tough San Francisco waterfront. However congested the district it is one long list of dances, monster dances, grand annual dances, stupendous carnival dances, gala dances, cinderellas, excuse-me's, even an odd 'Irish and Old Time' for the cranks. Only the odd name of man or place gives a pathetic clue that there is some make-believe in progress and that the newspaper is not one of the English language sheets of abandoned Shanghai. You are asked to dance out the Old and dance in the New 'to the haunting strains of Mulvaney's Rhythmic Swingsters'. What do you make of 'Farmers annual dance (cocktail bar)'? Personally, I see no reason why our ruined farmers should not wear tails if they want to, but they have been misled if they think it is necessary to forsake good whiskey or beer for lethal noggins of chemical gin. 'Lime, flood and spot lighting installed for the occasion by the Strand Electric Co., Dublin. Carnival Hats, Novelties and Gifts for Everyone. A Night of Laughter, Gaiety, Fun and Surprise.' Where? In TUBBERCURRY! This notice appears in the paper upside down and the reader is finally warned that the dance 'will be as crazy as this advertisement'. At the Mayo Mental Hospital Staff Dance 'the floor will be specially treated for the occasion,' while that other dance in Fethard will be in aid of 'noteworthy object'.
Taking rural Ireland to include the towns, there are three or four kinds of dances. For any dance costing over five shillings [€0.32], you must put on what is known as 'immaculate evening dress'. You are on the border-line when you come down to 3/9 [€0.24]. A surprising number of young men own a passable dress-suit and work-a-day rags, with absolutely nothing in between except football attire. I have heard of dancing men being married in their evening clothes.
The dress dance in the country is run by those of the white collar and the white soft hand-clerks, merchants, doctors - and is usually taken locally to be a proof of progress or culture. When the plain people see handsome men in 'immaculate' evening clothes alighting from fine motor-cars and disappearing into a Town Hall that seems temporarily glorious and reborn, they know well from their cinema that there is city devilry afoot. Inside, however, the scene is very familiar. Think of an ordinary good dance (say in the European quarter of Shanghai) and then divide everything by two. The lighting is poor and the place is too hot. The floor is of thick planks (it was put there to accommodate a welcome for Parnell) and the knots will tell through the city man's shoddy pumps. The band may be good or bad. Bands vary enormously for this reason - a dance is regarded as successful according to the distance the band has to travel. For the best possible dance the band would have to come from India, This is the great immutable law that determines the local prestige of every event. A Committee is doing pretty well if they can get a band from a hundred miles away. What is regarded as a good band in the country will have 'own electric amplification' but may lack a piano. Their tunes will be old and grey and far behind the whistling repertoire of any diligent cinemagoer. 'Good-night, Sweetheart' is still a rage in the west.
Nearly every male who goes to dances likes drink and takes plenty of it. Some people may think this is an offensive state ment but it is the plain truth. It is often a case of little by little. There is no evil intention. It starts with a few half-ones merely to get into form and after that the reveller is on his way, even if he doesn't know where he is going. This part of the evening's work is performed in an adjacent hotel or pub. Nearly every pub is entitled to serve a toothful to 'travellers' but in practice very few of the locals fail to obtain suitable filling for their teeth. It is an old custom.
This custom carries with it an odd accomplishment that no stranger can acquire. It is the craft of going out for twenty separate drinks to a pub 400 yards away without ever appearing to have left the hall at all. It is a waste of time seeking to solve this puzzle by observation. If you are a lady, you can dance every dance with the one gentleman, talk to him unremittingly in the intervals and yet you will notice him getting gayer and gayer from his intermittent but imperceptible absences. If, on the other hand, you are a man who is seated in the pub all night concerned only with honest drinking, you will observe the complementary miracle and wonder how the inebriate in tails manages to satisfy all the requirements of his partner in the hall without ever appearing to leave the pub. There it is. I can offer no explanation.
These dress dances are not very interesting. They have scarcely any relation to 'the dance hall scandal,' 'the jazz mania,' or any other popular explanation of the decay of our country at the present time. The real thing is the cheap dance where the price of admission ranges from 3d. [€0.02] to 1/6 [€0.10]. To arrive at some idea of this, you must divide that recollection of Shanghai, not by two, but by high numbers that go higher as the price comes down. Most of the halls I have seen are old school-houses or new timber structures with a tin roof. There is no means of ventilation save the savage and heroic expedient of the open window. There is no attempt at having a proper dance floor, even where the hall has been built ad hoc. Light is provided by large paraffin lamps suspended from the roof, less frequently by incandescent paraffin installations on the walls. The music may be supplied by a solitary melodeon or piano-accordion, with possibly a fiddle and drums. Dance music as such is almost unknown. What seem to be vague recollections of Irish airs are churned out in an interminable repetition and nearly always bashed into a desultory three-four time that usually sounds very alien to what was intended by our ancestor. Even when a modern dance tune is attempted, it is played straight with no attempt at syncopation, and, being necessarily played from hazy memory, it sometimes finds itself mysteriously transformed into 'Terence's Farewell to Kathleen'.
The dancing itself is of the most perfunctory order. If the hall is small and the crowd enormous (and this is the normal situation) the parties quickly lock themselves into a solid mass and keep shuffling and sweating for ten minutes in the space of a square foot, like a vast human centipede marking time. If the hall is roomy and the crowd small, the dancers shuffle about in great circles and can travel a considerable distance in the course of an evening. If a lad cycles twenty miles to a dance and twenty miles home and does another ten miles in the hall, he is clearly in earnest about his dancing.
Just as the success of a dear dance depends on the extra-territoriality of the band, no cheap dance can be said to have succeeded if the door of the hall can be readily opened from without after the first half-hour. The crowd inside must be so dense that an entire re-packing and re-arrangement of the patrons is necessary before even the blade of a knife could be inserted through the door. When you do enter, you find yourself in air of the kind that blurts out on you from an oven when you open it. All about you is an impenetrable blue tobacco haze that is sometimes charged with a palpable fine filth beaten up out of the floor. Whether standing or dancing, the patrons are all i bhfastodh (Editor:- i.e., 'in a clinch') on each other like cows in a cattle truck, exuding sweat in rivers and enjoying themselves immensely. Nobody is self-conscious about sweat. It rises profusely in invisible vapour from all and sundry and there is no guarantee that each cloud will condense on its true owner.
There are certain general considerations which apply to all these dances. The girls always predominate and usually pay their own way. Behind the upright throng one can sometimes glimpse a low flat row of sitting people who look as if they were painted or pasted on the walls. Once there, they seem to have no chance of budging till the dance is over. There is always an official charged with accomplishing a hospitable rite known as 'looking after the band'. Late in the night there are signs on him that he has been looking after himself, but the boisterous revival of the 'musicianers' towards the end of the evening will prove that he has not made undue depredations on the trust fund. For a dance of any importance (say, a shilling [€0.06] dance) the average farmer's son will permit himself a half-pint of 'parliamentary whiskey' on the hip and will not hesitate to lace his blood with judicious nips of poteen if the stuff is to be had. The liquor is consumed in breath-taking gulps in a place apart and is never openly flaunted. Scenes of open or riotous drunkenness are rare. Notwithstanding any cloakroom that may be provided, complete with attendant, the general tendency is to bring the overcoat into the hall. No tax is payable on any dance that costs anything up to 4d [€0.02]. Tax and licensing provisions are evaded by calling a short dance a 'practice' or a 'dance class'. Where supper is provided, the beverage is always tea, never a nourishing or cooling draught like home-made lemonade. If a committee can rise to the swirling device that throws pretty and romantic coloured lights throughout the darkened hall, they are entitled to call their functions 'gala dances'. There are fine big halls here and there where dancing is attempted on a reasonable basis - the big converted railway shops at Dundalk, for instance, or the shirt factory building outside Buncrana.
Irish dancing is a thing apart. There is perhaps one céilidhe held for every twenty dances. The foxtrot and the Fairy Reel are mutually repugnant and will not easily dwell under the same roof. Very few adherents of the 'ballroom' canon will have anything to do with a jig or a reel. Apart from the fact that the Irish dance is ruled out in most halls by considerations of space or perspiration, there is a real psychological obstacle. It is a very far cry from the multiple adhesions of enchanted country stomachs in a twilight of coloured bulbs to the impersonal free-for-all of a clattering reel. Irish dancing is emotionally cold, unromantic and always well-lighted.
One occasionally encounters the barn-dance. This is the 'mind the dresser' business held to the tune of a lone Raftery in a farmhouse kitchen, to celebrate a wedding or an American wake. Most of the dances are sets and half-sets based on English figure dances and introduced to this country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the landlord class. There are also boisterous versions of Irish dances and an odd invitation to talented individuals to 'oblige' with solo items. Curiously enough, this sort of thing is beginning to smell of the stage Irishman.
Some district justices have a habit of taking leave of their senses at the annual licensing sessions. They want Irish dancing and plenty of it, even at the most monster 'gala dance'. They believe that Satan with all his guile is baffled by a four-hand reel and cannot make head or tail of the Rakes of Mallow. I do not think that there is any real ground for regarding Irish dancing as a sovereign spiritual and nationalistic prophylactic. If there is, heaven help the defenceless nations of other lands.
Little need be said about dancing in Dublin or Cork. In Cork nearly all the fun is concentrated in the spacious and well-run Arcadia. Dublin has six or seven hotel-halls where the all-important 'refreshment' facilities are available and some sixty other halls where there is dancing several nights a week. In addition, every junta of goodtime folk who care to register themselves as a sports or social club can dance and drink almost without restriction. In theory, only members can join in this diversion but in practice anybody can pay and enter. At 1 p.m. on Sunday morning these haunts are crowded with ill-slept revellers in search of healing ale.
Yes, strange and beautiful sights you will see at a dance in Dublin. Even a district justice, happy and mum, surrounding with his righteous tissue a sizzling tank of malt. That dance, however, does not cost threepence [€0.02]. The entry-fee is 7/6 [€0.48] or half a legal guinea.
Flann O'Brien, The Bell magazine, February 1941
The Etiquette of DancingThe sensation commonly experienced on entering a ball-room for the first time is a mixture of pleasure and hesitation; this doubt is occasioned by the mistaken reflection that all eyes are upon you, so that you fancy yourself a centre of attraction, and in endeavouring to appear at ease contrive to appear most uncomfortable. Few are graceful by nature, some are so by intuition, and some are so by art. It is my pleasing task to endeavour by a few words of advice to place you thoroughly at your ease on entering a ball-room for the first time. Conversation, merry music, and dancing will enforce the lesson in due time.
On entering a private ball-room, your first care should be to find your hostess and make your obeisance; but on entering a public ball-room, the gentleman, supposing he has a lady with him, merely conducts her to a seat. In private balls, where there are no programmes, engagements should not be made until the dance is announced. At a public ball, if you do not arrive too early, you will find yourself much more comfortable. The best course for a gentleman to adopt is to introduce himself to the Master of the Ceremonies, or one of the Stewards, for the purpose of obtaining partners. Commence with a square dance, it will give you more confidence to attack the round dances. When you have finished a dance, offer your arm to your partner, conduct her to a seat, bow slightly and retire; or you may ask her to take some refreshments.
If there should be a supper, the gentleman should conduct to the supper-room his last partner, unless he has a previous engagement, or is asked by the hostess to do otherwise. In the latter case he must provide a substitute, making at the same time his apology.
The introduction of a lady to a gentleman at a ball does not entitle him to claim her acquaintanceship afterwards. He must not bow to her if he meets her in the street, unless she does so first.
In attending a dance of any description, the hour of invitation, or starting, should be adhered to as nearly as possible; bear in mind that those who are too punctual feel uncomfortable until the other guests arrive.
It is scarcely necessary to say that it is a great mistake for any gentleman to attempt to take a lady through a dance if he is not master of it himself. He should bear in mind that it is his province to conduct, and not the lady's. A gentleman wishing to dance with a lady who is a stranger to him should request the Master of the Ceremonies to introduce him.
Bear in mind that as ladies are not privileged to ask gentlemen to dance, it is a breach of good manners for gentlemen not to ask ladies, or to stand about in a listless way whilst ladies are wanting partners. A gentleman should leave the room if he does not wish to dance.
It is not polite, nor does it add to the good opinion a company may have of you, to dance with one partner too frequently.
A gentleman should under no circumstances show any displeasure in the event of a refusal on the part of a lady.
If a lady for some reason refuses a gentleman, though she be disengaged, it is a breach of politeness to extend her favour to another for the same dance.
Any couple may take a vacant place in any set.
Having once taken your position in a quadrille, under no circumstances should you leave it for another; such an act is sure to give offence where none was meant.
Give all your attention to your partner, and avoid speaking to other persons as much as you can. See that your manner is easy and free from any restraint.
As a dance should be a combination of all the most agreeable qualities of a social assembly, always endeavour to look pleasant in a ball-room; and while dancing, if you happen to be dancing with a partner with whom you are not particularly delighted, do not make the fact evident by looking discontented.
Every man of sense would be glad to impress others pleasantly, but it is not every man of sense who knows how necessary it is to attend to little things in order that he may make the impression he desires. One man displays a profusion of outlandish jewellery, another affects a fantastic cut of his hair, another offends with an unshaven face or an ill-kept set of teeth; and yet each one, despite appearances, would pose as a gentleman. Refined ladies may have to tolerate such men, but they do it with ill-concealed reluctance.
William Lamb, How and What to Dance, London, 1906
Dance Etiquette - To Do Or Not To DoFollowing are some simple rules of etiquette to keep in mind. You will probably develop your own list as you go along, but this is a start.
MenPersonal hygiene - I place this at the top of the list because virtually every dance instructor, as well as every woman I interviewed, mentioned this as a problem most often associated with men. You are dancing very, very closely to your partner in many of the social dances. If you have a breath or body odor problem, please do what is necessary to keep it in check. Many men bring a change of shirts to lessen a perspiration problem for a hot night with no air conditioning. Women do not appreciate having to place their hands on your sticky shoulder or back. If you had garlic for dinner, pop some mints in your mouth before the dance.
Escort the lady on and off the dance floor. Thank her for the dance. This is good manners and will be greatly appreciated.
Be sensitive to how close your partner wants to dance. In many dances, this is dictated by the dance itself. As a general rule, most smooth-style ballroom dances necessitate a close partnering in order to execute the various moves properly. So, if you want to be joined at the waist, learn the tango. Rhythm dances tend to utilize a slightly more separate stance. Other dances, such as swing, are quite flexible with regard to proximity. Use your better judgment and don't make your partner feel unnecessarily uncomfortable.
Maintain eye contact. Don't scan the room to find your next partner while you are dancing.
Lead your partner. If she can't feel your lead, how can she follow?
Do not criticize. You asked her to dance, or she asked you. Neither of you asked for a dance lesson. As a beginner, it is unlikely you are in a position to be giving unsolicited advice. If, however, you feel you are the better dancer and there is a "problem" then it is your job to adjust. It is not your job because you are a man, but because it is always the responsibility of the better dancer to adjust. Consider altering your lead or your expectations.
If you are the victim of unwanted advice, you can politely suggest that "criticism ruins your concentration." It certainly will ruin mine. I've had this experience, and once something is said, you begin to second-guess everything you do for the rest of that dance. If the unwanted advice continues despite your request, it is reasonable to suggest (politely) to your partner that she is too good a dancer for someone of your skill level, and leave the dance floor.
WomenPersonal hygiene. This is as important for women as it is for men. There are few things that are more of a turn-off than poor hygiene. Also, if you have long hair, you may want to consider tying it back or up so that your partner doesn't get "whipped" during a turn or have trouble positioning his hand on your back.
Maintain eye contact. No one likes to dance with a partner who seems disinterested. Be relaxed and smile; it is fun you're having, right?
Follow your partner's lead. This is possibly the most important factor that makes a woman a good dancer, and a desired dance partner. As there is an art to leading, there is an art to following. Use every opportunity to hone your following skills. The biggest complaint a man has is when the lady tries to lead. Just as a man's ability to dance is judged greatly on his ability to communicate his intentions to his partner, a woman is similarly assessed on her responsiveness to the man's lead. Even if you feel the man is off the beat or not leading well, dance with him to his beat. Refrain from leading!
Let your partner escort you off the dance floor. Thank him for the dance. If you want to make sure he asks you again, compliment him on the way he executed a particular move, or one that he let you to execute.
Clothing. Consider your clothing choices in various dance positions so as to make sure they are appropriate.
Don't turn someone down and then dance with someone else. Unless the person was impolite, had poor personal hygiene, or was on a reality-altering sub stance, wait out a dance if you decline a man's request to trip the light fantastic. As you will discover if you choose to ask men to dance, it takes a certain amount of courage to do so. Bearing this in mind, you should accept at least one dance with a man who asks you to dance with him. You can always make some appropriate excuses should he ask you again, but at least you will have given him the courtesy of one dance, a favor you would appreciate, I'm sure, when the shoe is on the other foot.
Do not criticize. Neither of you asked for a dance lesson - only three minutes on the dance floor. If you happen to be in a dance class, and you think your partner requires assistance - not too unusual since men, as we've discussed, often begin at a disadvantage - remain silent. You are not the teacher.
Criticism can destroy the confidence of any beginner. If you are the recipient of unsolicited advice, you may want to suggest that public criticism makes you nervous. If your partner continues dishing it out anyway, you may want to excuse yourself from the dance floor, saying something like, "You're just too good a dancer for me."
Craig Marcott, Three Minutes of Intimacy - Dance Your Way to a Sensational Social Life, 2000
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us our answer and let us be gone.
The dawning of St Stephen's Day marked the opening of the Christmas visiting season. After the traditional family gathering on Christmas Day, visits to relatives and neighbours were resumed once more. The bottles of stout were uncorked for the men, while the ladies enjoyed a discreet glass of port. One could feel the festive spirit in every kitchen and everybody was made welcome. It was a good time to 'patch up' minor differences which might have arisen during the year, such as trespassing cattle or problems with some right-of-way.
Most of the younger generation had been looking forward to St Stephen's Day for quite some time; they were planning to go out 'hunting the wren', or 'on the Wran' as it was commonly called. The anthem of the wrenboys, quoted above, was learned and rehearsed because it would be recited in chorus at each house that was visited. Some other song was also chosen, and practised for days beforehand. It was vital to know at least two verses, the first to be sung voluntarily while the second verse should be readily available should the listening household prove almost impossible to please before giving the wrenboys their hard-earned few pennies. Having prepared their musical programme, the next important step was to plan a route that would pay the highest dividend for the least amount of walking. The 'small Wrans', of two or three young boys or girls, rarely travelled more than a mile from home in any direction. Experience would have taught them the location of the 'good' houses and also the few where the reception might be less than enthusiastic. But even those latter houses would be visited in the faint hope that their generosity might have improved in the intervening twelve months. One other matter that had to be considered by the smaller boys was the danger, however rare, of being 'held up' by a group of bigger boys and forced to hand over whatever money they had collected. Even though this act of piracy was a rarity, the danger was always present, especially, if the small boys ventured too far beyond their own neighbourhood.
On St Stephen's morning old clothes were donned, some people disguised their faces with boot polish, others wore funny masks, or 'eye fiddles' as they were called. Lots of ivy and coloured bits of paper were pinned to their clothing and each group carried a small bush, decorated with pieces of coloured streamers. I always envied the carefree young wrenboys who seemed to have such fun roaming from house to house, getting pennies for sweets and of course boasting later about all the money they had collected. However, my father refused point blank to allow me go on the Wran and no amount of cajoling would alter his decision. Sulking only made matters worse as I found out to my cost, so I accepted the situation!
The small wrenboys usually finished their 'rounds' in an hour or two, being quite satisfied if they collected a few shillings for sweets. Much more enterprising were the groups of adults who organised what were called the 'big Wrans'. Their primary purpose was to collect sufficient money to organise a big Wren Dance - a soirée, a night of dancing, eating, drinking, and revelry. Wren dances were arranged for any time between early January and Shrove Tuesday and could be held any night of the week except Saturday and Sunday nights. Saturday night was unsuitable because of early Masses on Sunday morning and Sunday night was inadvisable because dances in local parish halls were always held on Sunday nights, usually to raise funds for the parish. Any confrontation with a local parish priest spelled disaster for a Wren Dance! The women of each house, especially the single girls, were formally invited to the soirée, though the menfolk would be asked to 'donate' a shilling or two at the door on the night of the dance to help cover the extra cost of the refreshments that would be consumed.
On St Stephen's Day, the big Wran travelled from morning to dusk, moving many miles from home, walking, cycling, or even using horses and traps, or a combination of all three. A group of ten to twenty would include musicians, singers, step-dancers and set-dancers. They always gave value for money; the better the entertainment provided, the bigger the donation. All members of a big Wran disguised themselves at least partially. However, the big Wran from the local fishing village, famed for traditional music, was an exception to this tradition. They dressed in their 'Sunday best', their sole decoration being a red paper rosette in their lapels. They confined their entertainment programme to one step-dancer performing on the flagged kitchen floor to the music of a sole musician, reserving the best wine until the night of their big dance. A different member performed on the 'flag of the fire' in each house. The 'flag of the fire', in front of the hearth, was always the largest and smoothest in any kitchen. When dancing a Caledonian set or step-dancing a jig, a reel or a hornpipe, the best dancers usually chose the 'flag of the fire' to display their mastery of the intricate steps. Boots and shoes had leather soles and heels, and to protect them from wearing out too quickly a U-shaped iron 'tip' was nailed to the heel and the soles had rows of irons studs, hence the term 'hob nailed' boots. The dancing of a set on a flagged kitchen floor was both a sight to behold and a sound to remember. The rapid tapping of the tips and studs would rise to a crescendo of rhythmic sound as the men tried to out-do each other in the art of heel-and-toe tapping, or 'battering' as it was called. Traditionally, an old iron pot or a bastible was placed under the 'flag of the fire' when it was being laid down. This gave it a certain hollow ring which amplified the 'battering' of the dancers. As the four couples dancing a set changed their positions during each section or 'figure' of a set, each couple had their moment of glory on the 'flag of the fire', giving the gentleman an opportunity to show his prowess at the 'battering', to the shouts of encouragement from the onlookers. They cheered every display of skill and shouted unasked-for instruction such as, 'Wheel her, Pat!' or 'Round the house and mind the dresser!' The friendly rivalry between some of the dancers would be well-known to the crowd who never lost an opportunity to fan the flames. With such encouragement the set-dancers usually finished a set in a red-faced welter of perspiration and breathlessness, as they wheeled their partners in one final flurry of intricate footwork that often saw sparks flying as studs and tips clashed with the polished flagstone. This probably gave rise to the phrase often used to describe a great dancer, 'He'd knock lightning off the floor!'
In rural west Clare in the forties, attending a Wren Dance was considered the ultimate in entertainment. From past experiences in running successful Wren Dances, an unwritten code of procedure, a code of ethics, had developed, though 'ethics' may be too strong a word! Much effort was needed to organise the big Wran and even greater effort was required to ensure the success of the subsequent Wren Dance. A suitable venue had to be chosen, the quality and quantity of the musicians who should be invited were discussed at length and, even more important, a date had to be decided that would not clash with another dance. These plans were supposed to be a closely-guarded secret but within days they became the worst-kept secret in the area. The reasons for the initial secrecy were many. One of the main reasons was that it would be much better for all concerned if the attention of the local Garda Sergeant was not drawn to the upcoming dance - the less he knew, the better. One or two over-zealous sergeants took an unwelcome interest in Wren Dances because of the alleged entrance fee and the selling of stout at the dance. Naturally, the organisers vehemently denied such malicious allegations, declaring that their Wren Dance was a private party at which everybody present was an invited guest and that the thought of charging a shilling at the door had never even crossed their lily-white minds. However, it was said that on a few occasions a thwarted sergeant had reaped a rich harvest of unlighted bicycles as the merrymakers made their way home in the early hours of the morning!
The attitude of the local parish priest was also a matter for consideration. There were a few who viewed the Wren Dances as a serious danger to the moral welfare of their flock and who took a dim view of any form of social entertainment. Perhaps they felt that a joyless religion ensured eternal salvation. If a person of such beliefs was parish priest in an area, the local big Wran had to tread very carefully in organising their Wren Dance to avoid any confrontation. It may have been for such reasons that friends of my father from a village about four or five miles away asked him for permission to hold their Wren Dance in our house. An added bonus for such an event was the big car-house beside the house which had a smooth concrete floor, ideal for dancing. And so it was arranged - the music and dancing in the car-house and the teas, especially for the ladies, would be served in the kitchen.
Preparations began a week before the big night. I found it all very exciting as I had never seen a Wren Dance. In fact I had never seen a big dance, apart from the occasional few sets during Christmas. But I soon became an authority on the subject, especially in the school yard! All the hay-making machinery was removed from the car-house and parked in the shelter of the haybarn. Everything was moved out. The walls were given a fresh coat of whitewash and the doors and window frames repainted with the usual red oxide paint. It was only when the car-house was empty that I realised how big it was. A few days before the dance, some men arrived to give it the final touches. The concrete floor was washed and scrubbed with boiling water and some coloured streamers were strung along the walls and across the bare rafters. The place was transformed!
The day before the dance, a meitheal or group of women arrived with their menfolk to complete the preparations. They brought with them all kinds of bread and sweet cake with raisins and currants, despite the great scarcity of dried fruit. There were a couple of cooked smoked hams and several cooked geese. The big square table in the parlour was laden down with food, and the beautiful smells made my mouth water with anticipation. Unfortunately, the parlour was made a restricted area for me to which I was denied access. But I still managed to sneak in a few times and pick at some of the raisins on the outside of the cakes!
Meanwhile the men were working hard in the car-house. Several long stools were placed around the walls and when the supply of stools ran out, makeshift seating was made from long planks of timber. Three doors were removed from their hinges in other sheds and used to make a raised platform or stage for the musicians, at the western end of the car-house. At the other end, near the big sliding entrance door, a rough counter was erected from which the patrons would be served the black liquid refreshment. Inside the counter on a raised stand stood a row of red-leaded timber stout barrels, or 'quarter-casks' as they were called, ready for tapping. Stacked high against the wall were several timber crates of lemonade and orange crush, in which I showed a remarkable interest. Several oil lamps were filled with paraffin and hung at intervals around the walls, with wicks trimmed and globes polished and with the usual hairpin balanced on the tops to prevent them cracking. One man brought his Tilley lantern which he hung high among the rafters. This type of lamp was pumped like a primus stove and, when lighted, the small white 'mantel' gave a brilliant white light, much more powerful than even a double-burner oil lamp. The only drawback was the continuous hissing noise it made. One man was assigned to looking after the lamps for the night. Every detail was taken into account because their reputation as a good Wren group was at stake and serious mistakes or oversights might well be forgiven, but never forgotten!
All the farm chores were finished quickly the evening of the dance. There was a buzz of excitement around the house. Supper was earlier than usual, the kitchen was tidied and both the oil lamp in the kitchen and the table lamp in the parlour were lit. This was also one of the rare times when there was a fire in the grate in the parlour. It seemed to change the whole atmosphere in the room, making it very cosy and warm. My father gave himself an extra careful shave and put on his best clothes. I overheard several of his 'prayers' as he struggled to attach the white starched collar to his shirt, using two studs, one at the back and another at the front. Mother eventually went to his rescue and then helped him with his tie. He looked so much younger when he was dressed up like that! Mother fussed about the house, postponing the changing into her best outfit until the last minute as she found so many little chores to complete first. I didn't escape either! I got an unmerciful washing and scrubbing that temporarily dampened my enthusiasm. I emerged clean as a whistle from the ordeal which I had considered to be totally unnecessary, and was dressed in my Sunday clothes. Dad told me I could stay up late but 'not too late'.
The first to arrive were the women who would look after the teas. They came on their bicycles and trooped into the kitchen, carrying their lamps, and some of them also had their bicycle pumps in their hands. When Dad made a joke about their not trusting the boys from his former parish with the bicycle pumps, one of them quickly retorted, 'It's not that I doubt their honesty, it's just that I'm removing the temptation!' Within an hour, hordes of people arrived in every mode of conveyance. Some had walked, while many had brought their bicycles, often giving a lift to a friend on the crossbar. A few came in their ponies and traps, complete with a candle-lit lantern in case they should meet a patrolling Garda. The ponies were unhitched and tied to the iron pillars of the hay-barn where they had their own 'party' with all that hay beside them. The ladies were dressed in their finery while the men wore their best navy-blue serge suits and white shirts with collars and ties. Many of them looked uncomfortable in the strangling embrace of the over-starched collars. Their discomfort could only get worse as the night wore on, but etiquette, and the watchful eye of their spouse, demanded that the front stud of their collar remain closed! Among the sombrely dressed men, a few extroverts stood out from the rest. Like flashy peacocks, they nonchalantly paraded in view of the girls. Invariably they wore a lighter shade of blue suit or even a light brown one, a bright canary handknitted pullover and highly polished brown shoes. Their hair was plastered down with an over-liberal application of brilliantine that glistened under the soft light of the oil lamps. The new 'rage' at the time, a silvery wristlet watch, was worn well down on the wrist where it was visible to all. These watches were widely advertised at the time by a firm of Dublin jewellers at the special price of a shilling a week for thirty weeks, though how many were fully paid off was open to speculation! Most of the men rolled their overcoats or 'top coats' into a ball and shoved them under the seats while the ladies left their coats and headscarves draped over chairs and beds in the house.
In a very short time the place was black with people. I thought everybody in Clare must be present! The men wanted to begin dancing to warm themselves. All the musicians had arrived but were clustered around the makeshift bar-counter, getting properly 'lubricated' before taking to the stage. My father produced the gramophone, his beloved Victrola, which he had brought with him from America with a good supply of Michael Coleman records. I was given the job of helping my neighbour Eileen to change the records, replacing the needles when they got too scratchy and winding the gramophone with the handle at the side, being very careful not to overwind the spring. The lively music filled the car-house and two, sometimes three, sets took the floor at the same time. All the cares, worries, problems and scarcities were forgotten as the happy smiling couples swirled around the concrete floor. Shouts of delight and encouragement rang through the rafters. After a while the musicians took to the stage, the few drinks having worked wonders on their good humour. There were some fiddlers, a few flute players, two with concertinas and one with a battered melodeon. At least ten minutes were spent tuning the instruments, tightening the strings, putting resin on the bows or calling for the concertina player to 'Gimme that high C again, like a good man.' At last they declared themselves in total harmony. Gnarled fingers, hardened and toughened by years of hard work with a shovel or fork, gently caressed the strings of the violin or flashed up and down the keyboard of the melodeon or concertina with a touch as light as a feather. Local musicians were considered a special breed, their gift of music making them welcome in every home. They never received payment for their night's work; their only reward was the joy of playing and their love of the traditional music. They struck up the first tune that set feet a-tapping. The Wren Dance was in full swing!
I watched in admiration as the dancers performed the intricate movements of the different sets and wished I was older, bigger and able to dance! I made sure to visit the drinks area from time to time where somebody always noticed my presence, asked me if I was enjoying the dance and gave me a bottle of lemonade. I kept constantly on the move between the dance and the kitchen where the ladies were serving the teas. I was having a wonderful time as slices of sweet cake, biscuits, pieces of ham and goose were gratefully accepted and devoured until a point was reached very quickly when I didn't want to even look at the food. Going back to the car-house, I was just in time to see Dad and Mother dancing a Caledonian set. I was amazed to discover that they could dance! I realised that I had never even considered the possibility. Dad was an excellent set-dancer. Suddenly I felt very proud of them as they wheeled and 'battered' the floor with the best of them. I was learning more about parents every day! They never ceased to surprise me!
Occasionally the musicians took a few minutes rest from their endeavours, leaving the stage to 'stretch their legs' and have a well-earned drink or two. During such breaks, we were treated to a song, some step-dancing or even a recitation from somebody on the floor who was pushed forward, however reluctant, by friends. The songs were old, the words known to all, yet the singer always got everybody's full attention with everyone joining in the chorus like one huge family. The spirits of a whole community were lifted by such a night of fun and enjoyment. One elderly man summed it up when he turned to his companion and remarked, 'Tis a night like this that makes it all worthwhile!'
Sometime after midnight, despite my best efforts, my eyes were refusing to stay open any longer. I fought it off for a while but the combination of the food, the lemonade and the excitement finally took its toll. I told Mother that I wanted to go to bed - just for an hour, of course, and then I would get up again. Several of the ladies had left their coats draped across the foot of my bed as they had used the mirror on the dressing table to make last-minute adjustments and repairs to their make-up. My last waking memory was the beautiful scent of face powder and perfume that filled the small room. When I woke again it was late morning. The crowds had left for home as the first rays of the wintry sun peeped over the hills to the east. The Wren Dance would be a topic of conversation around many a turf fire for a week or more. Life returned to normal. The machinery was back in the car-house by late evening. It was as though the Wren Dance had never taken place. No visible signs remained, just indelible memories. The aroma of the powder and perfume lingered in my room for several days.
Martin Morrissey, Land of My Cradle Days, 1990
The Set Dancing Anthology continues in Volume 2.
Read more writing about set dancing in the Set Dancing Anthology, New Articles, Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3 and Volume 4.
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