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This week the sun was shining in Larne and the Orange Hall steps were ornate with dancers in emerald green, black, burgundy, royal blue, scarlet, navy blue and cerise. The festival was a positive experience made special by the charm of the dancers, the spirit of the musicians, the enthusiasm of the adjudicator, the generosity of visitors from across the province, the support from local people and the dedication of wee fairies who made it happen.
There was also a strong sense of history: the lady at the door danced competitively in the same hall as far back as the 1930s; the pianist had danced as a toddler in a variety concert in Ballymena during the second world war, and the wee fairies on the stage and in the kitchen included grandmothers, mothers and daughters who have been dancing their whole lives.
Few people realise is that Irish folk dancing, now primarily known as ‘festival dancing’ comprises Catholics and Protestants, almost in equal numbers. Even during the upheaval of ‘The Troubles,’ Catholics and Protestants continued to hold hands, literally and metaphorically, in towns like Belfast, Larne, Portadown, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Portstewart, Ballyclare and Bangor. Irish folk dancing, in fact, blossomed against the timbre of bullets and bombs. In 1975, one of the worst years for deaths during the conflict, the Larne May Day festival attracted 1,500 dancers.
Catholics and Protestants in the Irish folk dancing tradition have been dancing together for for ninety years, but further back in time, the harvest homes, lintings, punch dances and Mayday festivities also provided opportunities for Catholics and Protestants to come together. Traditional Ulster social dances like ‘A Soldier’s Joy,’ ‘The Sweets of May’ and ‘The Three Tunes’ were danced by Protestants and Catholics before the term “Irish dancing” was invented.
The video below is a QML production for the Northern Ireland Ireland Championships, which is available on Youtube. There are no videos of the Larne Festival, but hopefully this will give you a feel for the festival tradition or Irish dancing, otherwise known as Irish folk dancing.
Step (solo) dancing was also a popular pastime among Protestants and Catholics prior to the Gaelic Revival of the early 1900s. Just as Orangemen once provided party piece songs in the old style (known as Sean-nós in Gaelic) they also performed step (solo) dances throughout the 1800s and up until the first decades of the 1900s: the steps were the same as the steps approved by the Gaelic League and the tunes were the same same Scottish and Irish tunes that had been handed down in folklore. What was different was the style: a hand on the hip was common for both Catholic and Protestant dancers in Ulster. The Munster style was adopted by the Irish folk dancing teachers in terms of the solo dances in the late 1920s, but the team dances, two-hand, three-hand, four-hand and six-hand reels still have much of Victorian Ulster in them.
The women in the early days of the Irish folk dancing revival proved ever pragmatic in the face of politics and religion. One Protestant boy in the 1940s recalls his teacher sending him to a Catholic priest in Ballymena to learn a whole new version of Irish history so that he could gain entry to the feis by sitting the history exam. More recently, a Catholic dance teacher had to disappoint her local priest by explaining that she couldn’t provide her Irish dancers for his St. Patrick’s day hooley because the wee Protestants were all at school.
Irish folk dancing is not carved up into Gaelic and Ulster-Scots parts. Nor is it carved up into Protestant and Catholic parts. Irish folk dancing was a movement set up in the 1920s in order to record and save old dances in Ulster, regardless of their provenance. Festival dance teachers today are the custodians of traditions that stretch back to the old dance masters of the late 1700s and early 1800s and that cross religious and political demarcations.
And here's a wee anecdote that sums up the Festival dancing tradition...
On Tuesday night at the Larne festival, accordion music could be heard faintly at the back of the hall. The sound was coming from upstairs, where a local accordion band was playing hymns in a practice session that culminated in the National Anthem. Downstairs, at the other end of the hall, a pretty girl from Belfast with rippling, dark hair, and a black dress accessorised with traditional Irish lace cuffs and collars, was gliding slowly to an old set dance invented by a dance master from County Kerry at the start of the 1800s, not realising that her feet were also pitter pattering in tune to “God Save the Queen.”
The Larne Irish Folk dancing festival is an example of how to be tolerant and courteous and enjoy the Irish cultural traditions that we all share, regardless of religion or political affiliation. It is also typical of the real Larne and not the Larne that the papers have been describing over the past few weeks.
I have explored the phenomenon of Catholic-Protestant solidarity in Irish folk dancing in my current book and I’ll also be talking about it on Thursday 1st June at 7pm at the Larne Arts Centre.
Please join me on 1st June.
This is an opportunity for you to share your stories and to offer any memorabilia to the museum to display in a ninety year anniversary exhibition next year.
Bring along your dancing pumps just in case you feel like standing up and demonstrating some of the old steps!
Angeline King is the author of A Belfast Tale and Snugville Street and Children of Latharna and Irish Dancing: The Festival story. Click the links below to start reading or to purchase:
A Belfast Tale:(A novel)Troubles and misplaced passions course through rivers and oceans in this transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Snugville Street:(A novel)A tapestry of love and loss is woven through humour and heart-ache as we move from Belfast to Brittany on a journey of shame and redemption.
Children of Latharna: A beautifully illustrated keepsake for 'big weans' and 'wee weans' which includes: The Bully up the Brae; The Band Stick; The Children of Latharna. Please email me to place an order.
Irish dancing: The Festival Story: This book is in progress. In the meantime, I am available to do talks on the subject of the history of Irish dancing. Please email me to book a session.
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