Launch Speech by Eugene O’Rourke, Koroit Festival, 1 May 2021
Jeanette Mollenhauer: Dancing at the Southern Crossroads: A History of Irish Step Dance in Australia 1880-1940, is published by Anchor Books, Sydney.
As I discovered from the book, in Ireland but also in Australia, the Gaelic League and the Catholic Church initially discouraged dancing in any form, but later allowed ceile dancing as being of Irish origin, while discouraging as much as possible the ‘demoralising influences’ of dances such as waltzes, and later the even more evil two-steps, three steps, turkey trots and ragtime. This of course was unsuccessful: when I was growing up in Ireland everyone went to rock to the showbands that played in specially built ballrooms in the countryside, outside the control of the parish priest. However, in spite of the lure of the big sound and the sparkling lights, set dancing has stayed alive and well.
As she says in her introduction this book, Dancing at the Southern Crossroads, a history of Irish step dance in Australia from 1880 to 1940, has been compiled largely from references to Irish step dancing in the newspapers of the period, and looking at the endnotes it is apparent just how much work has gone into it: for example one short chapter has been sourced from 167 references.
When I came to Australia in the 1970s I was told there were no Irish in South Australia, they were all in Victoria, but I find out from this book that my informants were quite wrong and I regret that I have never made it there, except for a couple of days. Another story I was told was that there used to be a time when every Irish person here knew where every other Irish person was working and what they were doing. Then a notice appeared in a Catholic paper announcing a St Patrick’s Day dance in Colac. Who was running it? They knew there was no work in Colac, so how were there Irish there? So some Irish from Melbourne drove down to Colac to the dance to investigate. They checked at the door that this was the Irish dance, paid, went in and on looking round could not recognise one face or hear one Irish accent. Even more strangely, they did not recognise any of the steps used in the dances. So after staying an hour they decided to go back to Melbourne. Now some years later one of them, while back in Ireland for a holiday, related the story of this mysterious Irish dance to some friends. As it goes, you never know who is listening to you, because a year or two later a lady visiting from Ireland turned up at his house in Melbourne inquiring about the story he told in Ireland and asking to be taken to the place of the dance. So he says: ‘Sure I will, and I’ll tell you what, I’ll ring the parish priest and ask him to arrange for some of the locals who did the dances to come and meet you.’ That’s what happened, and the visiting lady took lots of notes of all the steps she hadn’t seen before. When she returned to Ireland all the details of the steps were published in a new book on Irish dancing. From memory I think the steps at the Colac dance were those from the hard shoe dancing of an earlier period, which had been replaced in Ireland by soft shoe dancing. All this probably occurred in the 1960s, which is outside the main period covered by Dancing at the Southern Crossroads.
Apparently no-one else has researched Irish step dancing in Australia in the nineteenth century. As far as step dancing competitions are concerned, we learn that they could be private events with only the participants and the adjudicators present, or there could be a large audience. The role of the adjudicator was often contentious, as the book contains hilarious examples of furious letters to the newspapers by parents whose offspring did not win, according to the parents because the adjudicator did not conduct the competition correctly. It is interesting to read in this book that the first published book of step dance competition rules was not produced in Ireland but in Melbourne, and so the statutory framework for step dance competitions globally owes much to Melbourne.
Letters published in the newspapers have been a useful area for source material for the book. One step dancing champion, around in 1900, Michael Purtill, was a prolific letter writer, but others lurked under pseudonyms such as ‘Prospective Learner’, ‘Observer’, ‘Irish Australian’, ‘Goose Quill’, ‘Mere Irishman’, ‘Fair Play’ and many others. Purtill had a long and entertaining letter writing war with someone calling themselves ‘Irish Celt’, who challenged Purtill’s assertion of supremacy in step dancing.
The book tells us about many prominent teachers of step dancing. For example, a Duncan Conroy arrived in Australia in the 1850s. His son, also Duncan, who was born in 1901, at the age of ten years decided he would like to learn step dancing. He hit the newspapers in 1912 performing with Thomas Farrell and Ignatius O’Sullivan. In 1936 he began teaching step dancing on behalf of the St Patrick’s Society in their historic hall in Bourke St in central Melbourne, which had been for a while the meeting place of the Victorian Legislative Council until Parliament House was built. His advertisement assured parents that their children would ‘receive every attention and be taught only the correct steps’. Eventually his class entered inter-school competitions, and one of the young dancers who received a first prize in the competition held at the end of 1939 was Geraldine O’Shea, who later became the first Australian to be formally qualified as an Irish dance teacher by the Irish Dancing Commission in Dublin. Geraldine of course is still alive today, and has been teaching step dancing well into her nineties. As you know she was featured in the ABC ‘Back Roads’ episode about Koroit. I have known Geraldine O’Shea, now Geraldine Ryan, for nearly 50 years and had the pleasure of interviewing her on radio some years ago. We were all very proud when she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal a few years ago.
The book discusses some of the prominent figures in step dancing in Australia in the period – the Farrels, Molly McCabe, Dan Downey from regional Victoria and many others. But I do wonder what happened to some of the young men learning step dancing in the early years of the twentieth century. We hear of Harry Walk, born in 1898, who was a pupil of Michael Purtill and accumulated 13 medals in 1910. At the same time Patrick William Doherty of Adelaide had, I quote: ‘A class of approximately 18 young men who, in the nine months since January 1913, had mastered the intricacies of Irish jigs and reels and are now well on their way to performing the fascinating Irish hornpipe’. I wonder what happened to these young men. Did they join the army in the First World War and meet other Irish there and maybe discuss their dances? Did they die in the trenches, return shell shocked, or end up on a soldier’s settlement plot somewhere? Or did they refuse to volunteer for a ‘British’ War?
Costumes are also considered, and it is interesting that although the Scots danced, and still dance, in what they consider their national Highland dress, the Irish had no national dress and usually danced in their street clothes during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The book discusses some of the tunes popular for step dancing at the time: ‘The Blackbird’, ‘St Patrick’s Day’, and ‘Brian the Brave’. I have read in another publication that, again I quote: ‘We are fortunate possessors of a remarkable heritage of national dance music, consisting of double jigs, single jigs, slip or hop jigs, hornpipes, reels, set dances: tunes so full of rhythmic vitality that listeners can seldom resist the inclination to tap the feet.’
In conclusion, I would like to say How much I enjoyed reading Dancing at the Southern Crossroads. There was one chapter that brought a tear to my eye. I am not going to say which one it was. I will leave it up to Jeanette to guess, and if she gets it right I have a small prize for her. Finally, as so much of this book was gleaned from the newspapers, I have one here myself, a copy of the Moyne Gazette dated 30 April 1997. It covers the inaugural Koroit festival, and I get a mention on page four as a performer. I, therefore, thank Jeanette Mollenhauer for inviting me back to a Koroit Irish festival after a 24-year absence.
Eugene O’Rourke, OAM
Eugene presents the Irish programme at ZZZ.
The book is available at Anchor Books.