An Irish Dance Master

An Old Tale of Ireland’s Past

There was a time in Ireland when the speech and manners of the Irish man were simple, rural, and kindly. They did not, in the least resemble the manners and speech that fill the lives of modern-day Irishmen. But, in those old times, dancing was cultivated as one of life’s chief amusements and the ‘dancing-master’ was a vital part of a community, if it was to enjoy this recreation activity to its full.
Irish Dancing 1Storytelling, dancing and singing are popular among the Irish people. But it was dancing that was by far the most important recreation, although much less so now in these modern times. Nevertheless, Irish traditional dancing is an indication of the spirit and character of the Irish people, who may not have experienced the best things in life but are apparently filled with a joyous hope for their future. Being Irish, it is not surprising that I believe that no people dance as well as us and enjoy it as much as us. Dancing, most will agree, is a delightful amusement for the people, but Irish dancing is not a simple recreational activity. It is, instead, a very distinct form of dance that belongs to the people of our nation, providing its people with a happy and agreeable way of enjoying Irish music. In the dance the person feels the music in their heart and move their body and limbs in time with its rhythm. Not only Ireland, however, but every nation has a feeling for music and, through it, a love of dance. Music and dance, therefore, dependent on each other, and I am confident in my opinion that the Irish nation excels at both.
It is my contention that, unless you have seen it and taken part in it, you cannot truly know the fantastic exhilaration that Irish dancing gives to the people of Ireland. This exhilaration was caused by an emotion much deeper than enthusiasm and to properly understand you should put yourself in the place of a person among those who are gathered at a house-dance, or Ceilidh, and feel the change which occurs in the temperament of an Irish man. When the dance was called, he would lazily get to his feet, select  a girl for whom he may have some romantic attachment, and would then place himself and his partner on the dance floor with both facing the fiddle player as he begins his tune. The dance would begin, quietly at first, and gradually the man’s steps would become even more lively. Then, his right hand would rise a little and his fingers would crack, to be followed a short time later with the raising of both hands and the sound of two cracks. His eyes would brighten as his enjoyment of the moment increased, and he tried hard to keep pace with the tempo of the music and the others on the floor. His eyes would be lovingly fixed on his partner who, in her modesty, would not return his gaze. She would, however, give her partner a quick glance which encourages him to dance more enthusiastically, aided by a little kindness, love, pride in his own ability, and whiskey. Encouraged by this he would begin dancing at a constantly increasing pace, flinging himself about, cracking his fingers, cutting and trebling his feet, heel and toe, right and left. You would see him fling the right heel up to the buttock, up again the left, the whole face reddening as if in a blast-furnace fed with the ecstasy of delight. “Yo! Ho! Ye boy ye! Move your elbow a little quicker, Mickey!” he would call to the fiddle player. “Quicker! Quicker! man dear, or you’ll have me ahead of you! That’s it, Jenny! That’s my girl! move your feet, my darling. That’s it, sweetheart! Keep up with me! Yahoo for us! Irish Dancing 6And in this manner, he would proceed with renewed vigour, and an agility, that incredibly keeps in time with the music, especially when we consider the great burst of excitement that he would have to direct through his body. Meanwhile, his partner’s face would be lit up with enthusiasm to a modest blush. Who could resist her partner’s great joy, though she demonstrates her own with great natural grace, that is combined with a delicate liveliness? Her movements are equally gentle and animated, which is precisely the way in which ladies ought to dance i.e. with a blend of healthful exercise and innocent enjoyment.
It is not that long ago that I witnessed a dance by a very talented young man, and it was good, except for the performance of his female partner. The entire programme of the dance was, sadly, made to look amateurish by her actions, to say the least. She did not dance with the modesty that is expected of the female Irish dancers but performed some of the unseemly movements of a drunken hellcat, or one of those unfortunate women from the red-light areas of the city. Her face had a maliciously desirous expression on it that would remind you of posters you may find outside places of ill-repute. Such things cannot be allowed, and we must always endeavour to portray in our dances the most chaste and modest females.
There are a considerable variety of dances in Ireland, from the simple “reel of two”, to the team dance, and the step dance, all of which are filled with fun. But there are, however, other dances of a more serious note, which could be considered to have had their origins in the sad times that are a great part of our small country’s history. It is a sad fact that the difficulty of communications in previous times and the remoteness of many areas has led to the loss of many of these less joyful dances, some of which may only have been danced on mournful occasions. With the state-sponsored efforts of the English overlords to suppress Gaelic culture and language it was only at wakes and other funereal rites held in the remote parts of the country where these old dances were stubbornly clung to. At the present time, I believe, that the only remnant of these old dances can be seen in some of the Slip-jigs and hornpipes that are danced. These dances of ancient days may not have been performed to music but depended upon the steps of the dancer to tap out the rhythm, and were symbolic dances used in various pre-Christian rites.  But, having said this, I must make it clear that this is just a thought on my part without real evidence to support it. But, the old dancing masters of past years would probably have more knowledge about such things. Unfortunately, like the old dances, none of these old masters remain.
Irish Dancing 9The old dancing-masters of past generations were itinerants, having no settled home or family, but lived from place to place within a specified area, beyond which he would seldom or never go. The farming community were his patrons, and when he visited their houses the old bachelor brought with him a holiday spirit that brightened the lives of all. When he arrived at a farm you could be sure that there would be a dance that night, after the working day came to an end. The crowd would be gathered, and the old dancing-master would good-naturedly supply the music and, in return for this, they would have a little underhand collection for him. This collection would amount to no more than a couple of shillings or half-a-crown which, under some pretence or other, would be ingeniously and delicately slipped into his pocket. The covert action was so that the dancing-master would know that his patron thought him to be on a higher level than a mere fiddle player. To show his own kindness and generosity, at the end of the dance, he would ask for a door, or other hard surface to be laid down on the floor, on which he would dance several popular hornpipes accompanied by his own fiddle. This would demonstrate to his audience just how great a dance-master he was and further build up his reputation within his chosen area.
The dancing-master was a peculiar character who stood out in the community within which he lived. His dress was peculiar to him and, because it made him stand out in the crowd, he always had an air of self-pride about him. He almost always wore a ‘fedora’-style or ‘bobble’-type hat, whether it made him look good or bad. He also appeared in public carrying an ornamental staff, made from ebony, hickory, mahogany, or some other rare type of cane, which almost always had a silver head and a silk tassel, or other adornment. This staff or cane was seen by the dancing-master, and others, as a type of baton or staff of office, without which he would never be seen in public. Yet another necessary adornment that was so much a part of the dancing-master’s dress code was a gold, or gold-plated, ornately decorated pocket watch which he was always ready to produce when asked for the time of day by anyone. But of all the items of dress that he chose to wear, and which made him stand-out from a fiddler or piper, were the dancing-master’s pumps and stockings, for the man seldom wore shoes. They would always keep themselves in a neat and tidy condition, and constantly able to demonstrate his lightness of foot that their customers would expect of them. In those far off days among the ordinary rural people of Ireland the man wearing the finest of stockings, and the lightest shoe, upon the most symmetrical legs usually denoted the most accomplished of dance teachers.
Irish Dancing 5Though dancing was the main business of the dancing-master he would also have a side-line in the business of matchmaking. Indeed, it was not uncommon for a dance-master to be employed as a negotiator between families, as well as individual lovers. He had practised the use of his eyes to detect the slight mistakes in a dancer’s feet,  and this talent would serve him well at the dances. After all, during a dance, there is always opportunities for a keen observer to notice any signs of passion between the assembled dancers. Even in today’s dancing clubs and parties you can witness the blushing, admiring glances, squeezes of the hand, and stealthy whisperings between couples that would signal a strong affection between the two. It is no wonder, therefore, that a knowledgeable observer, such as the dancing-master, could offer his experience as a go-between for a price. He would soon become a necessary part of the marriage of the two people in a time when arranged marriages, dowries, and matchmakers were common. More strangely, there are earlier reports that the dancing-master would also advertise himself to be a skilled teacher in the art of fencing. In a time when duelling was common, fencing-schools of this class were almost as numerous as dancing-schools and, therefore, it was not unusual for one man to teach both.
While, for the most part, dancing-masters were bachelors there were exceptions to the rule. My grandfather recalled having been taught Irish dancing by an old, married dancing-master who had to face a heart-breaking tragedy in his life. Tuberculosis (TB) was a deadly disease and it had been rife during the during the spring of the year when this tragedy occurred and had brought death to many. Grandfather told me that this poor man’s only daughter was taken from him by this terrible disease and he was forced to close his dancing school to mourn her passing. This period lasted for a month before he felt able to call all his pupils together again one evening, and my grandfather also returned to the class. The dancing-master’s daughter, a beautiful and intelligent young girl of sixteen years, was also a pupil at her father’s school until that terrible sickness cut her down like a blooming flower. The dancing classes began again much the same way that they had ended, until a certain young man who had been the dancing partner of the young girl came to the floor to dance. The old dancing-master tried to play as he had for the others, but his music was unsteady and erratic. He paused for a moment or two so that he could gather himself, and the dancing ceased as he wiped away a few hot tears from his eyes. The man tried to resume the class, but all he could see was the partner of his beloved daughter now standing with the hand of another girl in his. “I’m sorry,” said the old man as he lay aside his fiddle and burst into tears. “She was all that I had, and I loved her deep in my heart and now you are all here but her. Please, just go home, boys and girls. Go home and say a prayer for me, for you all know what she was to me. Allow me another two weeks to mourn her, for Our Lady’s sake! I am her heart-broken father and, as I see you all here, I know I will never, ever see her again on this floor. I miss the light sound of her foot, the sweetness of her voice, and the smile of those bright eyes that spoke to me, saying how much she loved me as her father and her teacher. Just two more weeks and we shall all meet again in less sorrowful circumstances”  There was a wave of sympathy that filled the room, leaving few dry eyes among those who were present, and not a heart that did not feel deeply and sincerely for his sense of terrible loss.
Irish Dancing 8In the local communities the dancing-master, despite his most strenuous efforts to the contrary, bore, in his habits and manners similar level of respect as that given to the fiddler. It was this struggle of superiority among these two characters that was the cause of there being no good feeling existing between them. One looked up at the other as someone a man who was unnecessarily and unjustly placed above him, while the other looked down upon him as being no more than a servant, who provided the music for those whom he taught practise  their skills. It was a very petty rivalry, which was very amusing to neutral observers and neither of them did anything that might put an end to competition. While the fiddler had the best of the argument being the more loved, the dancing-master had the advantage of a higher professional position and being more respected. It was particularly amusing to watch the great skill employed by the dancing-master, when travelling, to carry his fiddle in a manner that it would not be seen and, therefore, he would not be mistaken for a fiddler. To be regarded as such would have been the greatest insult that his vanity could have received and would be a source of endless anger. In our modern times, however,  things are different and neither the fiddler nor the dancing-master have the same influences in society.
My grandfather told me that one of the most amusing dancing-masters was a man who had started as a fiddler and travelled under the nickname of ‘Dodger’. This man had started life as an army musician, where he had also learned to play the fiddle. But, typical of many Irishmen, life in the British Army did not suit a free-thinking, free-drinking man, and he chose to leave without thought of informing anyone. Some, including the army authorities, would consider him to be a deserter, but he preferred to be known as a person who was ‘dodging’ the crown forces, which endeared him to many in the country and earned him his nickname.
Irish Dancing 4‘Dodger’ was stylishly dressed, small, thin, man with a rich Southern brogue, whose language could be described as being ‘rich’ with words and phrases undoubtedly learned while he was in the army. His dress, though stylish, were as tight as they could be without splitting and appeared to be second-hand. His creased thin face appeared to be just as second-hand as creased, closely fitting black coat. On his feet he wore his little pumps, with little white stockings, his neatly attended breeches, his hat,  and his tight coloured gloves. It was said that he was the jauntiest wee man that ever lived. He stood ready to fight any man and was a great defender of the female sex, whom he always addressed in a flattering manner that was very agreeable to most of them. He was also a man who enjoyed the public spotlight and was involved in almost everything. He could be seen at every fair, where he would only have time to give you a wink of recognition as he passed, because he was engaged in some deep discussion with another person. At races and cockfights, he was a very busy, and very angry, gambler waging whatever he had on the result. At these competitions he was always appeared to be a knowing fellow, shaking hands with the winning owner or jockey, and then looked about the crowd to ensure that people saw him in the company of those who were in the know.
The house where ‘Dodger’ kept his school, which was only open after working hours, was an uninhabited cabin, the roof of which was supported by a post that stood upright from the floor. This cabin was built upon a small hill that gave a fine view of the whole countryside for miles about it. My grandfather recalled how pleasant it was to see the modest and pretty girls, dressed in their best frocks and ribbons, coming in little groups from all directions. Often, they would be accompanied by their partners or boyfriends as they made their way through the fragrant summer fields of a calm cloudless evening, toward this place of happy and innocent amusement. But such scenes were also a picture of the general life in the community that was filled with passions, jealousies, plots, lies, and disagreements! Among those pretty girls could be found the shrew, the slovenly, the flirt, and the excessively modest, just as sharply obvious within their community as they would appear in the wider world with all its temptations to bring out such characteristics. Among the crowd, too, was the bully, the promiscuous, the liar, the pretentious, and the coward, each as perfect and distinct in his type as if he had spent a fortune in acquiring his particular character.
Irish Dancing 2‘Dodger’s’ system, in originality of design, in comic conception, and in the ease with which it could be taught was something that would have been difficult to equal, much less surpass. Had the impudent little rascal restricted himself to dancing as it was usually taught, there would have been nothing uncommon about it. But ‘Dodger’ always insisted in teaching by example, and he would not entertain any other manner of instruction. Moreover, dancing was only one of the things that ‘Dodger’ taught or professed to teach. At one time he undertook to teach everyone in his school how they should enter a room in the most correct and fashionable way. He also insisted that he was the only man who could teach a gentleman how he should greet a lady in the most agreeable and socially acceptable style. The man insisted that he had already taught this important lesson to many others and with great success, as he had the art of the curtsy or bow. He professed to be able to teach every lady and gentleman how to make the most beautiful bow or curtsey, by imitating him. So confident was he of this boast that he said if there was a great crowd present each would think it had been intended for them! In fact, according to ‘Dodger’, he could teach the entire art of courtship with all the grace and success of any Frenchman or Italian. He could teach how love-letters and valentine cards should be written, containing every compliment ever invented by that great lover ‘Casanova’. But he insisted that only he could teach a person a magical dance which would allow a gentleman to lead a lady to wherever he wished, and for a lady to feel free to go wherever she was being led.
With such instruction on offer and delivered in a most agreeable, his school quickly became the most popular in the county. The truth of his system was that he had contrived to make sure every gentleman would salute his lady as often as possible, and to ensure this he invented dances, in which every gentleman saluted every lady but, at the same time, every lady would return the compliment, by saluting every gentleman. But he did not allow his male pupils to have all the saluting to themselves, for the amorous little blackguard always started first and ended last. This, ‘Dodger’ said, was so that they might all catch the method from himself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I do this as an example for you, and because it forms an important part of system!” Then he produce a meagre attempt at a smile before twirling over the floor in a way that he thought was totally irresistible.
The one thing ‘Dodger’s’ system did not affect was the honour of our Irish women. My grandfather could not recall one single occasion when the system was shown to be incompatible with virtue to our countrywomen. This, of course, was a great advantage to the respect he had within the community, and a woman’s virtue was much prized the country. Several weddings, that might otherwise not have taken place, were unquestionably a result of ‘Dodger’s’ system, but in not one instance have we heard that such a union was brought about because a woman had suffered shame or misfortune. According to my grandfather ‘Dodger’s’ way of teaching was conducted in the following way:-
 Now, Paddy Curran, walk you out and enter the parlour, and Jenny Horan can go out with you and come in as Mrs. Curran.” ‘Dodger’ would direct.
Ah, sure, Master, I’m afraid that I’ll make an awful mess of it, but at least I will Jenny here to help me through it,” Paddy replied.
Is that supposed to be a compliment, Paddy?” asked the Master. “For Mr. Curran, you should always speak to a lady in a smooth tone.
Paddy and Judy left as instructed and the ‘Dodger’ turned to Micky Scullion, directing him, Micky Scullion, come up here, now that we’re breathing a little, and you, Grainne Mulholland, come up along with him. Miss Mulholland, you can master your five positions and your fifteen attitudes, I believe?
Yes, sir.”
Very well, Miss. Now, Micky Scullion—ahem!—Mister Scullion, can you perform the positions also, Mickey?
Yes, sir! But you remember I got stuck at the eleventh attitude.”
 Don’t worry about that. But, Mister Scullion, do you know how to salute a lady, Micky?
Sure, it’s hard to say, sir, ‘til we try. But I’m very willin’ to learn it. I’ll do my best, and, sure, I can do no more.” Replied Micky
Alright! Now mark me and what I do, Mister Scullion. You approach your lady in this style, bowing politely, as I do. Miss Mulholland, will you allow me the honour of a heavenly salute? Don’t bow, ma’am, you’re to curtsy, you know. Just a little lower if you please. Now you say, ‘With the greatest pleasure in life, sir, and many thanks for the favour.’ There, now, you are to make another polite curtsy, and say, ‘Thank you, kind sir, I owe you one.’ Now, Mister Scanlan, proceed.”
I’m to imitate you, master, as well as I can, sir, I believe?
Yes, sir, you are to imitate me. But hold on a minute, sir! Did you see me lick my lips or pull up my trousers? By God, but that’s shockingly unromantic. First make a curtsy, a bow I mean, to Miss Grainne. Stop again, sir! Are you going to strangle the poor lady? Why, one would think that you were about to take leave of her for ever! Gently, Mister Scullion! Jaysus, gently, Micky! There now, that’s an improvement. Practice, Mister Scullion, practice will do all. But don’t smack so loud, though. Hello, gentlemen! where’s our parlour-room folk? Go out, one of you, for Mister an’ Mrs Paddy Curran.
Curran’s face peeped in at the door, lit up with a comic expression, from whatever had cause it. “Easy, Mister Corcoran, and where’s Mrs Curran, sir?
Are we both to come in together, master?
Certainly. Turn out both your toes—turn them out, I say.”
Sure, sir, that’s easier said than done with some of us.
Irish Dancing 7I know that, Mister Curran, but practice is everything. The bowed-legs are against you, Mister Curran. Sure, if your toes were where your heels are, you’d be exactly in the first position, Paddy. Well, both of you turn out your toes, look straight forward, clasp your beret, put it under your arm, and walk into the middle of the floor, with your head up. Stop! Take up your post. Now, take your beret, in your right hand, and give it a flourish. Easy, Mrs Horan, I mean Curran, it’s not you that is to flourish. Well, flourish your hat, Paddy, and then make a graceful bow to the company. Ladies and gentlemen.
Ladies and gentlemen.”
I’m your most obedient servant.”
I’m your most obedient servant.”
Jaysus, man alive! that’s not a bow. Look at this – there’s a bow for you. Why, instead of making a bow, you appear as if you were going to sit down with lumbago in your back. Well, practice is everything, for there’s only luck in leisure. Now, Dick Doran, will you come up, and try if you can make anything of that trebling step. You’re a pretty lad, Dick! Yes, a pretty lad, Mister Doran, with a pair of left legs, and you expect to learn to dance. But, don’t despair, man. I’m not afraid and I’ll make a graceful slip of a boy out you yet. Now, Can you make a curtsy?
Not right, now. I doubt.”
Well, sir, I know that. But, Mister Doran, you ought to know how to make both a bow and a curtsy. When you marry a wife, Misther Doran, it mightn’t be a bad thing if you could teach her a curtsy. Have you the ‘gutty’ and ‘pump’ with you?
Yes, sir.”
Very well, on with them! The ‘pump’ on the right foot, or what ought to be the right foot, and the ‘gutty’ upon what ought to be the left. Are you ready?
Yes, sir.”
Come on, then, do as I bid you. Rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on the ‘pump’ and sink on the ‘gutty’; rise up on – Hold on, sir! You’re sinking on ‘pump’ and rising up on the ‘gutty’, the very thing you ought not to do. But God help you! sure you’re left-legged! Ah, Mister Doran.it would be a long time before you’d be able to dance a Jig or a Hornpipe. However, don’t despair, Mister Doran. If I could only get you to know your right leg, but God help you! Sure, you haven’t such a thing! From your left, I’ll make something of you yet, Dick.”
Competition between the Dancing-masters was rife and, although they seldom met each other, they still abused each other albeit from a distance. But distance did not lessen the virulence and disparagement that was spread. Now, ‘Dodger’ had just such a rival, who proved to be a constant thorn in his side. His name was Harry Fitzpatrick who, at one-time had been a jockey, but he gave up horse-racing and took the less injurious course of being a dancing-master. ‘Dodger’ once sent Harry a message, which said that, “if he could not dance ‘The Humours of Ballymanus’ (Slip Jig) on the head of a drum, then he would be better holding his tongue for ever.” To this insult Harry replied, by asking if he was a man able to dance the ‘Jockey to the Fair’ upon the saddle of a racing horse, with it travelling at a three-quarter gallop.
As the insults thickened, friends on each side prevailed upon them to settle their claims in a competition. The idea was for each master, with twelve of his pupils, to dance against his rival with twelve of his. The competition was to take place on top of ‘Kilberry Hill’, which had a commanding view of the entire parish. As previously mentioned, in ‘Dodger’s’ school there stood near the middle of the floor a post. In a new manoeuvre developed by ‘Dodger’ this post was convenient as a guide to the dancers when going through the figure in their dance. At the spot where this post stood it was necessary for the dancers to make a curve, in order to form part of the figure of eight, which they were to follow. But, as many of them couldn’t quite get it into their heads what he wanted, he forced them to turn around the post rather than make an acute angle of it, which several of them managed to achieve.
At last, the time came for the competition and it was, everyone agreed, a matter of great difficulty to decide who was best, for each was as good as the other. When ‘Dodger’s’ pupils came to perform their dance, however, they found that the absence of the post was an insurmountable problem. They had carried out all their training with the post in place and were accustomed to it. With the post they could dance, but without the post they pranced about like so many ships at sea without rudders or compasses. It fast became a scene of hilarious confusion, which caused some laughter. ‘Dodger’ stood, looking on, like he was about to explode with shame and anger. But, in fact, the man was in agony. “Gentlemen turn the post!” he shouted, stamping on the ground, and clenching his little hands in fury. “Ladies remember the post! Oh, for the honour of the school don’t let them beat you. The post! Gentlemen, ladies, the post if you love me! In the name of God, the post!
By Jaysus, master, that jockey will out distance us,” replied Bob Megarity, “it’s likely he’ll be winning!
Any money,” shouted the ‘Dodger’, “any money for long Sam Callaghan, for he’s be able to stand-in for the post. Mind it, boys dear Jaysus, mind it or we’re lost. The Devil a bit do they heed me! They’re more like a swarm of bees or a flock of sheep. Sam Callaghan, where are the hell are you? The post, you blackguards!
Oh, master, if we only we had a fishing-rod, or a crow-bar, or a poker, we might yet get it done. But, sure, we would be better giving in, for we’re only getting worse at it.”
At this stage of the proceedings Harry came over to ‘Dodger’, and making a low bow, asked him, “Ah, now, how do you feel, Mister Doherty?” which was ‘Dodger’s true name.
Sir,” ‘Dodger replied, “I’ll take the shine out of you yet. Can you salute a lady with me?—that’s the game! Come, gentlemen, show them what’s better than fifty posts, salute your partners like proper Irishmen!
My grandfather described the calamitous scene that now followed. ‘Dodger’ had his people trained to kiss in platoons, and those watching the spectacle were literally convulsed with laughter. No one could quite believe that ‘Dodger’ would introduce such ludicrous ceremony in an attempt to stem the defeat he faced. But he turned the laughter completely against his rival, and swaggered off the ground in high spirits, exclaiming loudly, “He doesn’t know how to salute a lady! Sure, that poor eejit never kissed any woman but his mother, and that only when the poor woman was dying!
Such, friend, is the manner in which my grandfather, God rest his soul, described the character of an Irish dancing-master. There few if any of these men left in Ireland and yet the competition between the current crop of Irish dancing-teachers is the same, though they try very hard not to show it. Whether your child does ‘Traditional’ or ‘Feis’ dancing just watch the next competition that they attend and you will be able to see for yourselves just how close the characters described by my grandfather still carry on the customs.