THE DANCING MASTER
HAVING been unduly, perhaps tiresomely, liberal in devoting so many pages to the pipers and fiddlers, it may appear ungenerous to ignore altogether the dancing master-one of the trinity of peasant entertainers. By Shelton Mackenzie he is described as “the light-heeled, light-hearted, jovial, genial fellow who was Master of the Revels in his own particular district.” There used to be as much pride in a village dancing master, he tells us, as in a village schoolmaster in the Munster counties early in the nineteenth century, and the forcible abduction of either, when persuasion and promise had failed, was not an unheard of proceeding. In the language of that charming writer: “To have a first-rate hedge schoolmaster was a credit to any parish. To have engrossed the services of an eminent dancing master was almost a matter of considerable pride and boasting: but to possess both of these treasures was indeed a triumph.” With the Irish peasantry dancing was a passion, hence the necessity for a teacher. On stated evenings (luring the winter, regardless of the condition of the roads. Or the inclemency of the weather, a large company of aspirants for skill, ranging in age from ten to forty years, would assemble in some roomy barn having a smooth hard Boor of clay to be instructed in the saltatory art; and once the lessons commenced. The hours passed away on swift pinions, we may be sure.
As Carleton-that versatile delineator of Irish life-has included the dancing master among his character sketches, a quotation from his pen cannot fail to be enlightening:
“Like most persons of the itinerant professions, the old Irish dancing master was generally a bachelor, having no fixed residence, but living from place to place within his own walk, beyond which he seldom or never went. The farmers were his patrons, and his visits to their houses always brought a holiday spirit along with them. When he came there was sure to be a (lance in the evening after the hours of labor, he himself good-naturedly supplying them with the music. Few indeed were they having the right element in them for the profession, who could not play the riddle or flute passably well.
“In return for this the `boys’ would get up a little underhand collect-ion for him, amounting probably to half a crown or so, which some one under pretence of taking the snuff-box out of his pocket to get a pinch, would delicately and ingeniously slip into it. On the other hand the dancing master, not to be outdone in kindness, would at the conclusion of the little festivity, desire them to lay down.
A door, on which he usually danced a few favorite hornpipes to the music of his own fiddle. This performance was the great master-feat of his art, and was looked upon as such by himself as well as by the people.
“Indeed, the old dancing master had some very marked outlines of character peculiar to himself. His dress, for instance, was always far above the fiddler’s, and this was the pride of his heart. He also made it a point to wear a Caroline hat whatever may have been its condition, but above all things, his soul within him was set upon a watch, and no one could gratify him more than by asking him before company what o'clock it was. He also contrived to carry an ornamental staff made of ebony, hickory, mahogany, or other rare description of cane, which if possible had a silver head and a silk tassel. This the dancing masters in general seemed to consider as a kind of baton or wand of office, without which they never felt content. But of all the parts of dress used to discriminate them from the fiddler or piper, we must place as standing far above the rest the dancing master’s pumps and stockings, for shoes he seldom wore. The utmost limit of their ambition appeared to be such a jaunty neatness as might indicate the extraordinary lightness and activity which were expected from them by the people, in whose opinion the finest stocking, the lightest shoe, and the most symmetrical leg, uniformly denoted the most accomplished teacher.’,
It does not appear that the profession can boast of any claim to antiquity in the pages of Irish literature-at most not beyond two centuries. That the dancing master nourished quite extensively in the latter half of the eighteenth century is beyond question; the zenith of their glory having been reached in the early part of the nineteenth.
Carleton describes “Buckram-Back,” the dancing master, in his character sketch, as “a dapper, light little fellow, with a rich Tipperary brogue.” Shelton Mackenzie mentions two in his article on “Irish Dancing Masters”, ”Ould Lynch,” a County Limerick man, on the confines of “the Kingdom of Kerry,” and Hearne, his predecessor at Fermoy, in the County of Cork. Considered in connection with the fact that Thomas O'Kearin and the equally renowned Tadhg Ruadh O’Scanlan also hailed from the Counties of Kerry and Limerick, respectively, there seem to be good grounds to sustain the claim that the Munster dancers were unrivaled. In support of this view it may be added that even in our own day in the cosmopolitan city of Chicago, such noted dancers of the old school as Richard Sullivan, Officer Timothy M. Dillon, Sergeants Michael Hartnett and Garret Stack, were born and brought up within a radius of a dozen miles or so of where the Counties of Kerry, Cork, and Limerick come together.
It was O’Kearin, who nourished at the end of the eighteenth century, and O’Scanlan after him, who consolidated Irish step dancing, and reduced it to a system based on precise fundamental movements. Men of genius in their art, both made the Kerry and Limerick schools of dancing famous throughout Ireland.
TADHG RUADH O’SCANLAN
In A Handbook of Irish Dance, published in Dublin since the Irish Revival, the authors make complimentary but brief mention of Tadhg Ruadh O'Scanlan, the Limerick dancing master, as being a veritable rival of the “Great O’Kearin,” of County Kerry. A man so remarkable in the social life of the Irish people in the middle of the nineteenth century deserves better of his country than the mere preservation of his name.
Theigeen Rua O’Scanlan, as our friend Timothy M. Dillon calls him, lived at Glin on the banks of the Shannon, where he had a house and garden free of rent from the Knight of Glin. He was a neat, dapper little man, low-voiced and polite. Though not so “supreme” a dancer as John Kenny of Castlemahon, near Newmarket, he was a far better teacher; in fact, unrivaled in that line.
In those days all the young people had a passion for dancing, an acquirenient without which no one’s education was complete. Besides the sociability which it promoted, dancing induced freedom of movement and gracefulness of carriage.
Other dancing masters remembered by Mr. Dillon were James Scanlan, James Roche, Paddy King, and Benjamin Sheehy.
So much time and money were devoted to this alluring line of education that it was discountenanced by the clergy, who found the most effective way to put an end to it was to suppress the fiddlers and pipers.
JAMES ANTHONY COX
Around the middle of the nineteenth century there flourished in the County Longford a dancing master known as “Seamin” Anthony Cox. He made some pretentions to an education and was notoriously pedantic in his language. His request for the use of a barn for one of his dances was thus sententiously worded: “My name is Cox, from the rocks of Clooncarn, and will you please be so kind and condescending as to let me have the loan of your barn.” .
Once he encountered Lord Forbes in one of his hunting trips, Mr. Gillan tells us. To the question: “Did you see a hare cross about here my man ?” he replied, with conscious dignity: “Yes, your Lordship, I observed a diminutive quadruped hastily descend the adjacent precipitous declivity.” This oratorical response to such a simple question was so unexpected that Lord Forbes naturally asked: “Who are you?” “First, your Lordship,” replied “Seamin” with cool assurance, “I'm an artificial rhythmical walker; second, I'm an instructor of youth in the Terpsichorean art; and third-” “You’re the devil,” interposed his Lordship; “and fourth,” continued the dancing master, unabashed, “you’re my brother.” Lord Forbes took the banter good-naturedly and presented the egotist with a guinea.
Anthony Cox, “Seamin’s” father, was a genius and a “poet”, and in fact “Seamin” was no less gifted, so that, like others possessing the faculty of satirical rhyming, the people were afraid of them and careful not to incur their illwill or dislike.
“Paudeen” Fox, an aged relative, requested when dying to have a quart bottle of whiskey and a stout blackthorn stick put in his coffin, promising that “Paudeen” Forbes, ancestor of the present Earl of Granard, wouldn’t be alive the next morning.
PROF. PATRICK D. REIDY
Among the surviving dancing masters of the old traditional school, Prof. P. D. Reidy, formerly of Castleisland, County Kerry, but now of London, England; has special claims to distinction. From the fact that his father, who taught him, was one of the “Great O’Kearin’s,’ pupils, it can be said that he is a lineal exponent of O’Kearin’s art.
In his boyhood days the future professor was tested in his father’s dancing school, and approved by renowned authority. That success determined his choice of a vocation.
The authors of A Handbook of Irish Dance are under obligations to Professor Reidy for much valuable information, but he regrets not being given an opportunity to correct the proofs before the work was published.
As with most men who have passed the meridian of life, “there is no time like the old time,” and every page of his correspondence breathes a lament for the decadence of Irish ideals. “It is really a miracle that there is any Irish music or dancing in existence,” he says. “The parish priests, and sometimes the curates, finished the work of Lord Barrymore. It is like going into a churchyard to visit the villages now, which were formerly alive with music and dancing.,’ In 1868, he gave an exhibition at Letter House, the residence of Dr. Wren, in north Kerry. The Ballybunnian piper, Thomas McCarthy, commonly called “Tom Carty” played the music for him in fine style.
The talented and kindly “Professor of Dancing, London and Castleisland,” obligingly forwarded us a MS-. book of music and a treatise from his own pen entitled: Dancing-Theory as It Should Be. The latter, while decidedly interesting, especially on account of the celebrity of its author, cannot be utilized for the present, however.
In concluding this subject, perhaps a paragraph from an article by J. G. O’Keeffe on “Irish Dances” may not be inappropriate: “Professor Reidy, who has for years past taught the Gaelic League of London, is one of the best Irish traditional dancers living. He comes of a family renowned in Kerry for dance. Mr. W. Murray is the celebrated step dancer who has also taught widely in London. He learned dance in the City of Cork. In the intricacy and variety of steps, as well as in grace and lightness of movement, he has scarcely a rival. Mr. Hugh O’Neill of Limerick City is a famous dancer who has won many prizes at various dancing competitions in Ireland. Mr. James Ward of Tory Island, County Donegal, is one of the best dancers from the north of Ireland.”
The Irish dance of the present day is decidedly more rapid than that of a generation ago, and however much we may admire the agility and skill of the many excellent dancers graduated from the Cork Pipers’ Club, such as James P. Coleman, the Hennessy brothers, “Paddy” Long, “Tom” Hill, and a dozen others, we must confess that music has the first claim on our affections. If the charm and expression of Irish dance tunes must be sacrificed to meet the requirements of modern stage dancers, neither Irish music, nor Irish step dancing can expect to regain or retain popular favor.