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Irish Country music and dancehalls: 'The cause of the ruin of hundreds of young girls'

The Catholic Church campaigned against informal house dances and crossroads dances, seeing them as opportunities for immorality, writes Kevin Martin.

LIVE COUNTRY MUSIC is arguably the most popular form of public entertainment in rural Ireland today. Hotels host dance nights attended by hundreds in what has become a multi-million-euro industry, while the numbers of performers, concerts and media outlets have risen significantly.

Local and regional newspapers advertise huge numbers of dances and concerts. Local radio stations fill much of their schedules with Irish country songs, while the number of Internet radio stations and cable-television programmes broadcasting country music has dramatically increased in recent years.

Many pubs in rural Ireland feature live country music on their entertainment schedule more often than any other genre.

Yet up until the 1950s live country music was not one of the available entertainment options in Ireland. There was music and there was dancing – homes and crossroads had been the scenes of dancing in Ireland for centuries – but there was no country-music-led dancing.

Céilí bands

From the late nineteenth century, céilí bands were encouraged as an expression of national identity by the Gaelic League – a social and cultural organisation established in 1893 by Douglas Hyde (who would later become president of Ireland) to promote Irish language and culture.

The Irish word céilí simply means ‘a gathering of people for dance’. The first official céilí dance organised by the League was held in London on 30 October 1897, in Bloomsbury Hall beside the British Museum. The London branch of the organisation, set up in October of the previous year, aimed to create an attractive social environment where the sexes could mingle and practise their Irish-language skills.

These dances quickly became popular and spread to Ireland, where dancing masters moved around the country teaching dance formations. Céilí dances ranged in difficulty from the simple ‘Siege of Ennis’ and ‘Walls of Limerick’ to the complicated ‘Sixteen-Hand Reel’ and ‘High-Cauled Cap’. They could be performed by hundreds of people at a time; different dances catered for different numbers of people.

Wholesome entertainment

In Ireland, céilí bands playing traditional music became particularly popular and common from the 1920s onwards. Crucially, in the new twentieth-century Irish State, founded after the War of Independence with Britain, the Catholic Church was the greatest power and largely controlled the type of music played in public.

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Céilí bands were promoted by the Catholic clergy as a wholesome form of entertainment in opposition to any of the new-fangled types of dancing existing in other countries. The Catholic Church campaigned against informal house dances and crossroads dances, seeing them as opportunities for immorality, but was happy to hold céilí dances under its own watchful eyes.

In his Pastoral Letter of 1924, Cardinal Logue outlined the Church’s position: ‘It is no small commendation of Irish dances that they cannot be danced for long hours … They may not be the fashion in London and Paris. They should be the fashion in Ireland. Irish dances do not make degenerates.’[1]

Conservative approach

This conservative approach was in tune with the new State. The Carrigan Report of 1931, which dealt with the legislation pertaining to child prostitution, outlined the danger the authorities perceived in social dancing:

The testimony of all witnesses, clerical, lay and official, is striking in its unanimity that degeneration in the standard of social conduct has taken place in recent years. This is due largely to the introduction of new phases of popular amusement, which being carried out in the Saorstat in the absence of supervision, and of the restrictions found necessary and enforced by law in other countries, are the occasions of many abuses baneful in their effect upon the community generally and are the cause of the ruin of hundreds of young girls … The ‘commercialised’ dance halls, picture houses of sorts, and the opportunities afforded by the misuse of motor cars for luring girls, are the chief causes alleged for the present looseness of morals.[2]

[1] Smyth, J., ‘Dancing, Depravity and All That Jazz: The Public Dance Halls Act of 1935’, History Ireland, Volume 1, Issue 2 (1993), p. 51.

[2] Ibid., p. 52.

The first book of its kind in Ireland, A Happy Type of Sadness: A Journey Through Irish Country Music explores the world of Irish country music. It is published now by Mercier Press.

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