Riverdance: Have we lost what captivated us so?


22 years ago, when the Eurovision song contest was being held in Dublin, there was a filler act for the interval that was initially met with modest, uncertain applause when it started. What happened after that performance  is now history, but I wanted to go back and have a look at the performance to see what it was that so transfixed us all.

Quite simply, it was beautiful, effortless and dream-like. It looked elegant and it sounded amazing, from the incredible singing introduction from Anúna, the gorgeous lyrical music and those stunning percussive rhythms, dancers synchronised playing off and responding to drums and each other. It had a story moving from the spiritual spell of water to a slick, modern city backdrop, in a kind of Clannad-meets-An-American-in-Paris moment.

And people responded in their hundreds of thousands, flocking to unprepared, dazed Irish dance schools, wanting a piece of that dream they had glimpsed and experienced. I know, I was one of them. Up until Riverdance, Irish step dancing had been something that young Irish girls and boys and those of the diaspora did as an obligation, taking their weekly classes or more often than not, skivving off and spending their sixpence on sweets (I’ve heard that story from many a dance friend).

The image of Irish step dancing was a little old-fashioned, a bit dowdy but reliable. As a student, you knew the rules, you knew the repertoire of dances, what to do to pass an exam and you got on with it. Costumes were modest, competitions and performances were regular and classes were strict.

Young irish step dancers 1970s. Image: www.crossexaminer.co.uk

Now, with the influx of thousands of young hopefuls, the sheer volume of interest has begun to move the dance in a whole different direction: a tidal surge causing it to lose it’s mooring of grace, rhythm and a deep connection with the music.  I am concerned about much of what that means for the dancing, the dancers and the Irish culture it supposedly represents.

It’s now all about the extremes, intensity and deadly seriousness, and a slightly nasty edge that comes with all that- I have written more about this from an Australian viewpoint. For many dancers, there is an expectation of very intensive training, that dancing on pointe and extreme ballet turnout is the norm, that getting injured is de rigueur, that money is no object and that dancers will do almost anything to win including moving schools – sometimes even moving country to improve their chances of winning a competition.

Modern champions. Image: www.PhotoMagic.ie

And those dresses, wigs and make-up – what can I say. It is natural that styles will change over time and is part of all development. However, t’would give the haute couture of Louis XIV, Sun King of France a run for his money. And look what happened to him and his court!

Louis XIV The Sun King

Image: Gavin Doherty Design

The saddest part for me is seeing the music applied like wallpaper – a background only for the dancing, and not integral or cherished in any way.

There seems to be very little attempt to fit the steps to the music and to really connect with the complexity and beauty of it. Irish music is so full of character and life and much of the music I see in many Irish step dancing performances is pretty dreary stuff, in my opinion.

Not a patch on those beautiful compositions of Bill Whelan, nor any of the thousands of wonderful recorded uplifting music tracks available online for a few dollars. Music and dance work best in harmony, not submission.

So, while I genuinely applaud the interest in Irish step dancing, I am hopeful we will come full circle, back to a more beautiful and elegant form of dance that appreciates it’s cultural roots, more reflective of the emotion and rhythm in the music and just plain joyful and free.

Food for thought, I hope.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

From Clare to Canberra: The Jack Canny Story Part 3-The Half Set

This half set began it’s life in Canberra over 3 years ago at the King O’Malleys music session with Libby and Richard Conrick, amongst others. Richard and Libby knew Jack well : in fact, one of their sons is named after him, and Jack Conrick is now a fabulous fiddle and concertina player himself.

Go directly to each figure of this set:

Figure 1: The Clare Cosy

Figure 2: The Bridge

Figure 3: The Canny Chase

Martin and I would often go to the session on Tuesday nights, and occasionally, we would get up and “throw a few shapes”, as they say, just the two of us in a very small dance space, enjoying whatever music they were playing.

Some of the signature moves came from experimenting at the session. But mostly, the influences have come from my years dancing in Ireland, and in Clare, reflecting many of the Clare dance moves we know and love, with a few twists.

Martin and Nora dancing with Jack Conrick playing concertina in the background at King O’Malleys, Canberra.

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From Clare to Canberra: The Jack Canny Story Part 2-About Jack

Jack Canny would have been just over 3 years of age when the Easter Rising of 1916 took place in Dublin a hundred years ago, miles and worlds away from his home in the small townland of Glendree, two miles West of Feakle, Parish of Tulla in County Clare.

Maghera Mountain, close to Jack’s home in Co.Clare, where Jack’s friend fell down a peat hole one foggy night coming home in the dark from dancing.                                     Image: www.ClareBirdWatching.com

The eldest of three sons of Patrick Canny and Catherine MacNamara, Jack was active,  and lively – “happy as a sand boy”, as he recounted, and was a natural sportsman including regular games of hurling, and later, cycling.

And, of course, there was music. His father, Pat Canny, was a noted local whistle and fiddle player “It was their main hobby when their day’s work was done in the farms. We had no radios or televisions at that time. We had to make our own enjoyment and our main enjoyment was music.”

“My Dad played, he was a great inspiration to all of us. He used often take down the fiddle on the long winter evenings and he’d play there for half an hour, just to keep on practising. He used to do that once a week…sometimes once a fortnight.”

Jack Canny and Mark Tandy. Image: M.Tandy

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From Clare to Canberra: The Jack Canny Story Part 1-Threads

I used to think that a 100 years was a long time – ancient history. Now that I have just passed my own half century, I see it differently – close, not that far away, with threads that weave my own history into that time.

There is a reverberation, an echo from down the years, a depth of influence that County Clare has had, and is still having on, Canberra Irish musicians and dancers, like myself.

I was first alerted to this connection in 2004, when my husband Martin and I stepped into a King O’Malleys pub music session in Canberra on a Sunday night, for the first time. We looked at each other in surprise “Sounds just like the Tulla” we said, almost in unison. It was like an instant trip back to Clare – eerie and beautiful.

Pete Hobson, Sue Hobson and Mark Tandy at King O’Malleys session. Photo: N.Stewart

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Your Top 5 Céilí Bands for 2016

The Dartry Céilí Band from Ireland got the most votes this year in our popular poll, closely chased by bands from the USA and the UK – see full results in the table below.

A fantastic response from all over the world with just over 4,000 votes and 175 bands listed. I thank everyone who took the time to vote.

Special mention goes to a very late entrant, the Tanzanian Céil Band – I suspect this  might be our most exotic entry to date. They are raising funds for the Tanzanian Children’s Project and the band’s slogan is:

Traditional Irish Music for A Better World

My sentiments exactly. Congratulations to all the céilí bands for your dedication and all the enjoyment you bring, no matter how many votes you got-more power to you all.

Happy St.Patrick’s Day and enjoy the music and dance wherever you are in the world.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss



1 Dartry Céilí Band (IRL) 463
2 Pride of Patuxent Pond/ Southern Maryland Pond Scum Céilí Band (USA) 399
3 Ceol na hÉireann Céilí Band (UK) 351
4 Kilfenora Céilí Band (IRL) 275
5 Abbey Céilí Band (IRL) 259
6 Beartla Ui Flatharta Céilí Band (IRL) 251
7 Full House Céilí Band (IRL) 187
8 Long Note Céilí Band (IRL) 110
9 Four Provinces Céilí Band (SCOT) 91
10 Johnny Reidy Céilí Band (IRL) 82
11 Swallow’s Tail Céilí Band (IRL) 76
12 Rhine Valley Céilí Band (DEU) 74
13 Tulla Céilí Band (IRL) 69
14 Awbeg Céilí Band/ Five Counties (IRL) 48
15= Rise the Dust Céilí Band (IRL) 37
15= Salamanca Céilí Band (IRL) 37
16 Bridge Céilí Band (IRL) 36
17= Inishbofin Céilí Band (IRL) 34
17= Matt Cunningham Céilí Band (IRL) 34
18 Coast Céilí Band (AUS) 33
19 Moylurg Céilí Band (IRL) 32
20= Rambling House Céilí Band (USA) 26
20= Striolán Céilí Band (IRL) 26
21 Ceoltóirí Chicago Céilí Band (USA) 25
22= Knockmore Céilí Band (IRL) 24
Old Bay Céilí Band (USA) 24
Trinity College Céilí Band (IRL) 24
23= Four Courts Céilí Band (IRL) 23
Star of Munster Céilí Band (IRL) 23
24= Glenside Céilí Band (IRL) 22
Innisfree Céilí Band (IRL) 22
Triskell Céilí Band (IRL) 22
25= Bogwanderers Céilí Band (USA) 21
Uí Bhríain Céilí Band (IRL) 21
26= Cape May Céilí Band (USA) 20
Ger Murphy & Ken Cotter (IRL) 20
Taylor’s Cross Céilí Band (IRL) 20
27 Copperplate Céilí Band (NIRL) 19
28= Brian Ború Céilí Band (IRL) 18
28= Michael Sexton Céilí Band (IRL) 18
Templehouse Céilí Band (IRL) 18
29 Shaskeen Céilí Band (IRL) 17
30= Allow Céilí Band (IRL) 16
Ennis Céilí Band (IRL) 16
Gallowglass Céilí Band (IRL) 16
Jimmy Mullarkey Céilí Band (AUS) 16
31 St. Rochs Céilí Band (Scotland) 15
32= Lough Oughter Céilí Band 13
Pride of Erin Céilí Band (IRL) 13
Tim Joe and Anne O’Riordan (IRL) 13
33= Annaly Céilí Band (IRL) 12
Emerald Céilí Band (IRL) 12
J Patrick’s All-Stars (USA) 12
Kilmovee Céilí Band (IRL) 12
Shannonvale Céilí Band (IRL) 12
Táin Céilí Band (IRL) 12
Waterford Comhaltas Céilí Band (IRL) 12
34= Neily O’Connor Céilí Band (IRL) 11
Temple Michael Céilí Band (IRL) 11
35= Ceol na gCroí Céilí Band (USA) 10
Davey Céilí Band (IRL) 10
Heather Breeze Céilí Band (IRL) 10
Turloughmore Céilí Band (Irl) 10
36= Green Gates Céilí Band (USA) 9
Pride of Moyvane Céilí Band (USA) 9
37= Brosna Céilí Band (IRL) 8
Deenagh Céilí Band (IRL) 8
38= Burrishoole Céilí Band (IRL) 7
Céilí Time Céilí Band (NIRL) 7
John Whelan Band (USA) 7
Leitrim Céilí Band (IRL) 7
Liverpool Céilí Band (UK) 7
Micheál Sexton & Pat Walsh (IRL) 7
Roisín Dubh Céilí Band (IRL) 7
Tara Céilí Band (IRL) 7
39= Corner House Canberra Céilí Band (AUS) 6
Ilen Céilí Band (IRL) 6
Laochtain Naofa Céilí Band (IRL) 6
40= Aughrim Slopes Céilí Band (IRL) 5
Carousel Céilí Band (IRL) 5
Eska Riada Céilí Band (IRL) 5
Inishowen Céilí Band (CAN) 5
Jamaica Plain Céilí Band (USA) 5
Knocknagow Céilí Band 5
O’Carolan Country Céilí Band (IRL) 5
Parasol Duo (FRA) 5
Pipers Club Céilí Band (IRL) 5
Tempeall an Gleanntáin Céilí Band (IRL) 5
Thatch Céilí Band (UK) 5
Tipsy House Céilí Band (USA) 5
41= Cabbagetown Céilí Band (CAN) 4
Copenhagen Céilí Band (DNK) 4
Duntally Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Foot Tappers Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Ken Kelleher Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Kilina Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Kincora Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Lynch Family (IRL) 4
Moorings Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Naomh Padraig Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Roazhon Céilí Band (FRA) 4
Siamsa Céilí Band (IRL) 4
Toe for Toe Céilí Band (CHE) 4
42= Barefield Céilí Band (IRL) 3
Castle Céilí Band (IRL) 3
Cogar Céilí Band (IRL) 3
Doon Céilí Band (USA) 3
Fódhla Céilí Band (IRL) 3
Green Jacket Céilí Band (BEL) 3
Leeds Céilí Band (UK) 3
Loughmore Céilí Band 3
Munich Céilí Band (DEU) 3
Ormonde Céilí Band (IRL) 3
Shannon Céilí Band (USA) 3
Swaree Céilí Bandy (DEU) 3
Tangambalanga Céilí Band (AUS) 3
Traditional Irish Musicians Céilí Band 3
Twin Cities Céilí Band (USA) 3
43= All-Star Céilí Band (USA) 2
Blackwater Ceili band (IRL) 2
Broken Pledge Ceili Band 2
Ceoltóirí Mancúin Céilí Band (UK) 2
Crumac Céilí Band (USA) 2
Curragh Céilí Band/ Jerry McCarthy (IRL) 2
Devine’s Diner Céilí Band (USA) 2
Hamilton Céilí Band (CAN) 2
Herschel Arms Céilí Band (UK) 2
Lansdowne Céilí Band (CAN) 2
Living Bridge Céilí Band (IRL) 2
Longridge Céilí Band (IRL) 2
Lough Na Gower Céilí Band 2
Naomh Íde Céilí Band 2
Newborough Céilí Band (IRL) 2
Pete Kelly Céilí Band (USA) 2
Philadelphia Ceili Band 2
Richard Fitzgerald Céilí Band (IRL) 2
Sainak Céilí Band (JPN) 2
Sean Norman Céilí Band (IRL) 2
Slievenamon Group (IRL) 2
St Colmcilles Céilí Band (UK) 2
St.Albans Céilí Band (UK) 2
St.James The Great Céilí Band 2
St.Malachy’s Céilí Band (UK) 2
Tanzania Céilí Band 2
44= Athas- Milwaukee USA 1
Bofield Céilí band 1
Boston CCE Ceili Band 1
Bush Céilí Band (IRL) 1
Cathal McAnulty Céilí Band (NIRL) 1
Ceilidh Rogues Australia 1
Corofin Ceili Band 1
Cúpla Céilí Band (IRL) 1
Donal Ring Céilí Band 1
Green Linnet Céilí Band (IRL) 1
Lone Star Céilí Band (USA) 1
Loughree Céilí Band (IRL) 1
McIlroy Céilí Band (IRL) 1
Na Comharhsanna Ceilí Band 1
Northeast Céilí Band (USA) 1
Ottawa Céilí Band (CAN) 1
Portersharks (USA) 1
Reel Note Ceili Band (UK) 1
Reilly Clan 1
Rosclare Céilí Band (USA) 1
Seacoast Céilí Band (USA) 1
South Jersey Céilí Band (USA) 1

Vote for Your Top 5 Irish Céilí Bands 2016

It’s on again – the battle of the Irish céilí bands to get a place in the top 5 for 2016. We had a brilliant response last year and looking forward to supporting our old favourites and the newer bands within the ever-expanding stable of wonderful Irish dance musicians.

We dancers are so lucky to have so many talented and energetic musicians to play for us  and giving support  and a vote to our favourite bands is like the least we can do, although you can vote whether you dance or not. You just have to love the music!

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Your Top 5 Sets for 2016

Thank-you everyone for your 669 votes over a 2 week period…and the winners are:

1 Merchant 52
2 Ballyvourney Jig 47
3 Clare Lancers 44
4 Connemara  (aka Connemara Reel ) 34
5 Clare Plain (Reel) 33
6 Cashel 26
7 Caledonian 22
8 West Kerry 20
9= Antrim Square 18
9= Aran 18
9= Claddagh 18
9= Moycullen 18
10= Borlin 14
10= Clare Orange and Green 14
10= Corofin Plain 14
10= Kilfenora Plain 14
11 Croisloch 13
12= Caragh Lake Jig 12
12= Paris 12
12= Sliabh Luachra (aka North Cork Polka ) 12
13= Labasheeda 11
13= Metal Bridge 11
14= Newport 10
14= Rinkinstown 10
15 Camp 8
16 North Kerry 7
17= Black Valley Square Jig 6
17= Boyne 6
17= Connemara Jig (aka Freres Nantes) 6
17= Derrada 6
17= Hurry the Jug 6
17= South Sligo Lancers 6
18= Auban 5
18= Ballycommon 5
18= Sliabh gCua 5
19= Armagh 4
19= Corballa 4
19= Kildownet Half 4
19= South Galway Reel(aka South Galway Half & South Galway Half ) 4
19= South Kerry 4
20= Ballyduff 3
20= Borlin Jenny 3
20= Clare Plain Polka 3
20= Dublin 3
20= Glencree 3
20= Mazurka 3
20= Melleray Lancers 3
20= Roscommon Lancers 3
20= Sliabh Fraoch 3

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Vote For Your Top 5 Sets 2016

Wow! The great long list of Irish set dances attached below – 236 in all – including many new ones this year, is a testament to the current health of set dancing.

Following the successful poll this time last year with Ballyvourney Jig Set at the top – see results from 2015 – I thought we’d give it another go.

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Your Top 3 Irish Céilí Dances

“Well, that was embarrassing!” Not a great start for a blog post but that is about the size of it. The results are in from the global poll and I received a grand total of 91 voters, the lowest response by far of the three polls I have conducted.

This is despite the fact that almost 3 times that many people read the blog post, two-thirds of you readers did not vote.

However, my thanks to those who did vote, and the High Cauled Cap was in front all the way. Continue reading

Vote for Your Top 3 Céilí Dances

Céilí (kay-lee) dancing has a relatively short, interesting and contrary history. Born out of the Gaelic League’s desire to create a clear Irish cultural and social identity, the League created a form of modern Irish step dancing in 1893 that would be an indigenous and codified form of dance: clearly Irish.

Sadly, as part of the ban on “everything English”, they also banished the round dances, country dances and quadrilles, which were loved by many dancers.

In 1929, the Irish Dancing Commission (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha) re-created some of those popular dances and they called them céilí dances. They were adopted to complement modern step dancing , and were also danced in social settings with gusto, particularly by Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Some examples include The Walls of Limerick, The Siege of Ennis and The High Cauled Cap to name but a few.* READ MORE DANCE HISTORY

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