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The patron saint of Irish festival dancing
If Mr O’Rafferty and the Misses Mulholland shaped the dancing style of most of the dancers of the festival tradition in Larne, Ballyclare, Belfast, Bangor and Portadown, then Miss Agnes McConnell of Harryville is the patron saint of Irish dancing in Ballymena and north Antrim.
Miss Agnes McConnell, later Mrs Close, was born in 1901 at 1 Railway Street, Ballymena. It is not clear who taught Agnes McConnell to dance in the Irish style promoted by the Gaelic League, but it is likely that she learned from another family member. Agnes would have been accustomed to the style particular to her area before conforming to the Munster style at the festivals after 1928: much of the adjudicator commentary of the early festivals centred around the taming of arms and Scottish influences among the Larne and Ballymena dancers.
Ballymena was certainly a hub of traditional dancing in Agnes’ formative years: the Protestant Hall in the 1910s and 1920s regularly accommodated Irish night festivities. When Madame McConnell, a Ballymena singer from a separate McConnell line, invited Miss Louise Agnese from Cork to the Protestant Hall in 1911 for an evening of theatrical and musical entertainment that included Irish jigs and reels, hundreds of people had to be turned away. Likewise, local teachers, the Misses Millar, who taught Madame McConnell’s children, included Irish jigs and reels in their fancy dance displays.
Miss Agnes McConnell ran what the family called the “original and only dancing club in Ulster” in Railway Street from at least the late 1920s, if not earlier. Most of the McConnell siblings were involved in dancing, including Sam, who was born in 1911; Fred, who was born in 1915 and Pearl who was born in 1920.
The children grew up in Harryville, a working class area of town that provided manpower for the local linen mill. Most of Miss Agnes McConnell’s aunts and uncles worked at the mill: her mother, Margaret was a spinner and her father, David, a fitter.
Ballymena is a town of mixed religion, but the McConnell family, who belonged to the Church of Ireland, would not have been part of the Gaelic League’s new dawn of saffron and green. Those Protestants involved in the Gaelic League revival of the early 1900s tended to be from middle class or aristocratic stock. Harryville was a unionist, working class and Protestant heartland where the voices were ‘broad Scotch’ and a Twelfth of July arch was decked out in in red, white and blue.
That the family took in a young neighbour, Nan, a future champion dancer, from a struggling family, is symbolic not only of the good nature of the family, but of the tough circumstances in which the people of the area lived.
The McConnells appear at the 1929 Ballymena festival as ‘The Shamrock team,’ featuring Miss Pearl McConnell, younger sister of Agnes. Their performance was noted by adjudicator, Mr Denis Cuffe, as the finest he’d seen in a life-time. In subsequent years, the McConnell dancers were entered into competitions under the name of ‘Miss McConnell’s school.’
Miss Sally McCarley, who later taught her cousin, Mrs Sadie Bell (née Kernohan) to dance, was instructed by Miss Agnes McConnell in the early 1930s. Although Sadie went on
to perform with Miss Patricia Mulholland, her core training evolved from the McConnell line, and she remained friends with the McConnells when she set up the Seven Towers school of Irish dancing in 1950. She also travelled to Canada to help the McConnells teach the latest techniques in Irish dancing to their pupils.
The McConnell school of dancing catered for both Irish and ballroom in the 1940s with Sam McConnell at the helm of ballroom, and the school won many medals at dancing festivals during that time. In a 1946 advertisement, the school boasted 22 first prizes at the Ballymena and Portstewart festivals for Irish dancing. Future teachers, Miss Lily Agnew and Mrs Jean Tennant (née Graham) were taught by Sam McConnell in the 1940s. Sam’s adopted sister, Miss Nan McConnell, won the senior championships of the Irish folk dancing in Portstewart in 1946. She also performed with Lily Agnew in displays and concerts.
The factories continued to serve as a backdrop to the dancing scene when the Braid Water Recreation club opened in 1946. The team met at the Mill canteen and competed at the first Festival of Britain during the summer months of 1951. The Braid Water Irish dancing team competed across Northern Ireland and England under the tuition of Mrs Close (née McConnell.)
The Winnipeg connection
Mr Sam McConnell followed in his brother’s footsteps and emigrated to Canada in 1947. Travelling with him were his wife, Sarah, who he had met at a ballroom dancing competition, and his three children. His sister, Nan, also followed her siblings to Canada. Despite the relative peace of post-war Northern Ireland, many people travelled across the Atlantic to seek work as the linen trade went into decline, and whilst the USA had a strong Irish Catholic diaspora, Canada proved to be a natural home for emigrants from Ulster in the 1940s and 1950s.
Sam McConnell worked at Eaton’s department store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but continued the family dance tradition in his spare time. He became involved in show business, choreographing CBC shows and local productions. He also founded the Folk Arts Council for Winnipeg, for which he and his wife both received citizenship.
Sam’s dancing genes were passed onto his daughter, Pearl McConnell, and granddaughter, Shayleen McConnell Finucan. Shayleen now runs the Winnipeg-based McConnell School of Dance, a member of the feis Irish dancing governing body, Cumann Rince Náisiúnta (CRN.)
Sam’s brother, Fred, who stayed in Northern Ireland and who moved to Larne, was also a successful Irish dancer in his youth and ran ballroom dance classes in Larne, Ballyclare, Ballymena and Antrim in the 1950s. Fred’s son also Irish danced and his great granddaughters continue to dance today.
The McConnell Irish dancing line may well be one of the longest in Northern Ireland and the McConnell family can be credited with spreading Irish dancing to working class children and adults in Ballymena, Ballycastle, Coleraine and beyond. Miss Agnes McConnell was a pioneer of the festival tradition of Irish dancing and the fact that Irish folk dancing is so widespread in Protestant communities in County Antrim today, is a direct result of the work of the McConnell family.
This extract is from Irish dancing: The Festival Story by Angeline King.
Please email me to book a presentation in your area. The book will hopefully be complete in time for the 90th anniversary of the Larne Irish folk dancing festival, the festival that marked the dawn of the festival Irish dancing tradition.
Start Reading Angeline's novels by clicking the links below:
Snugville Street: Tears, laughter and a French exchange between Belfast and Brittany.
A Belfast Tale: A transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Also check out:
Children of Latharna: An illustrated keepsake of stories about growing up in 1980s Northern Ireland. Ideal for 'big weans' and 'wee weans.'
Soldier's Joy was a well known tune and country dance at the time of the revival of Irish dancing. The McConnells would have handed this dance down to teachers like Sadie Bell and Jean Tennant.
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