The Banks of the Boro

Patrick Kennedy

CHAPTER XXII - THE DANCE-SCHOOL

Going before the worthy trio, we find most of our friends seated round Mrs. O’Brien’s table, as happy as love and friendship can make them; and Pat Neil and Shán Burke enjoying leisure without dignity at the kitchen fire. Edward has got a half holiday, and will return to his duty to-morrow, and Bryan, seeing no envious nor hostile face about him, is in bliss, and Theresa’s mind being also unruffled, she can heartily enjoy his unlucky exploits.

There is nothing like sensible conversation going on at the table. It is a babel of pressing, joking, laughing, and occasionally reproving when a youngster abuses his privileges; and at last there is something like a lull. Mrs. O’Brien cannot for love or money induce any one to demolish any more hot cake and tea; and as Neddy Martin, the blind fiddler of Ballynocrish, has accidentally paid the house a visit, and is never without his fiddle, the table is removed, and a dance commences, in which Mrs. Roche, Bryan, Edward, Theresa, little Pat and Peggy, Tom Sweetman, and Johanna bear their parts. If we were to relate all the incidents connected with dancing that took place during the twelvemonth which our story occupies, this little work would be swelled out of all proportion, and the interest of the story be interfered with, therefore we shall condense and collect all our reminiscences of the fascinating exercise into this point of the story, and be then more at leisure to carry fright and sorrow into the hearts of our gentle readers by detailing Sleeveen’s dire machinations, and the woes they brought to the hearts of those estimable friends of our youth, in whose well-being we hope our audience has begun to take some interest.

Sunday afternoon was no period of rest to the poor priest who had the spiritual good of his people at heart the fiddler wanted a couple of shillings, the sheebeen owner wanted to get off his doctored beer and whiskey, and the low murmur went through the country in the end of the week that a dance would be held unknownst to his Reverence in the barn or the paddock of the "Cat and Bagpipes" next Sunday evening; and if the priest could be kept in ignorance, the dance would be held, and the only aged people present would be a foul old reprobate or two, one of whom would be sufficient to infect the imaginations of all the youth of the country-side. We well recollect an old bald-headed rascal of the type. The very well-conducted young men and women would stay away, and few be present but boys and girls who had laboured hard during the week, and had no choice between going to sleep and a little excitement. They were there under a sense of committing sin, merely by being present; and recklessness, and the influence of loose and evil discourse and liquor had their usual effect. It was Donnybrook Fair on a small scale; and a boy taking to drink and a girl losing character continued to stamp these Sunday gatherings with a mark of infamy.

Sometimes the dance would be held at a cross-road, without the aid of beer or whiskey, generally on the border of a parish; and if the priest was seen approaching, flight would be taken into the neighbouring one, where they knew he claimed no jurisdiction. On one occasion a cunning artist having collected his victims on the Bridge of Ballymackesy, the extreme point of two parishes, and thus affording facility for flight into one or the other, as might be desirable, the priests of both parishes approached the position at the same moment.

Flight was, of course, resorted to, but the blind fiddler and his instrument were captured, and one of the clergymen, who had several times been foiled by the unscrupulous man of catgut, being very much irritated, did what he regretted a minute later—broke the fiddle. "Oh, sir," said the poor fellow, "you’ve now put me from earning a mouthful of bread, and me blind; and sure I don’t belong to your congregation at all—I’m a Protestant." "Little credit you are to your congregation, and great harm to mine. But promise me you’ll not came into my parish again to play on Sundays, and I’ll get you a better fiddle than that." The promise was made. Father F— gave him a couple of shillings for present need, and got from Perry of Kilkenny, a special good instrument, to console the victim, who kept his word, and caused no more scandal in that parish or its boundaries on Sundays.

Very determined was the character of the faces set against the sheebeen-house exercises by the Roman Catholic clergymen and heads of families. Not that they were intolerant of relaxation on the part of the boys and girls, or supposed any evil inherent in the capering of the young fellows’ legs more or less vehement, or the shuffling of the young girls’ pumps, half concealed by their long petticoats; but opportunities were hereby given for walking and talking with undesirable sweethearts, or sitting behind the assembly in unedifying proximity. It would be hard to light upon a youthful gathering without finding a few disreputable individuals, whose society would not more prudently be avoided.

A Sunday-dance would be occasionally held on a green beside the Thubber Gal, or Thubber Dherg, near the village, or in the grassy circle of the old rath; and these were comparatively harmless. But the sheebeen owner would have his barn-floor or his paddock also at the disposal of the pleasure-hunters, and thereby get rid of his adulterated beer and whiskey; and however indulgent the priests might be to a meeting between "neighbours’ children" in the big kitchen or barn of a farmer on a Sunday evening, with the heads of the family looking on, or occasionally lending their own old feet to the increase of the hilarity, they never would tolerate the proceedings of the scheming bonifaces. If they came, either by chance or design, on one of these ale-house gatherings, and a general dispersion did not ensue on their appearance, their riding-whips soon produced a dispersion.

To many a happy and careless son and daughter of the country, dancing came as easy as reading and writing to those primitive folks that lived in the reign of good king Dogberry; but teachers of deportment, steps, and figures, were not wanting to the dull and consequential portion of society. Four of these abide in our recollection as ruling in the barony of Bantry and the Duffrey from 1810 to 1820; but some of them had flourished long before, for they were lantern-jawed, bald-headed veterans at that period. Mr. Cheevers was a tall, athletic man, but Mr. Tench much excelled him in grand words and "gentility," though smaller in size, and not so springly in action. Tench had seen foreign parts, for a visit to Dublin was noted among the fasti of his career; he had, besides, a happy way of putting down derogatory observations directed at him. Having on one occasion dipped rather deeply into the punch-jug, and continuing to pour out eloquence not very intelligible or interesting to his company, one of them plucked up courage to say, "Mr. Tench, you are a great talker." "No, sir," said the offended professor; "I am not a talker—I’m a speecher."

It was once our good fortune to partake of tea and hot-cake at the same table with a professor that might have been own-brother to Mr. Tench, and if he derived any benefit from that social meal it was an extraordinary fact. To show his superiority to the rough male sex that surrounded the table, he scarcely did a thing during the whole time of breakfast but press the mistress of the house to this or that portion of the edibles. "She wasn’t eating anything—would she allow him to help her to this nice crispy bit of hot-cake? She was taking no tea at all—would she have another spoonful of sugar? Might he have the pleasure of helping her to a little more of that delicious French cream (whiskey)? Maybe her cheer was a leetle too near the fire. He hadn’t seen so nice a diaper pattern on any teeblecloth for a month of Sundays. He was sure she took only two cups—would he have the pleasure of lifting the kittle for her? She hardly ate a smite of breakfast," etc., etc., etc., and so on till the poor woman could not decide whether she should laugh or cry, so vigorously did he urge her to "make no strange" in her own house.

The teacher of dancing, when about to commence a quarter’s campaign, serenaded, in company with his violinist, a district of eight or ten square miles, and summoned the boys and girls of a townland to meet at some central farmstead, cheered their spirits with some gratuitous jigs and reels, and while their minds were gay, made out his list for the ensuing quarter of nine nights, each pupil to pay "a thirteen" to himself and a tester (sixpence halfpenny) to the fiddler. A compass of four or five townslands thus completely filled the list of his disposable week nights, allowing Saturday for rest.

At last, the evening big with the expectations of many arrived; supper was disposed of at an early hour, and the barn was tidied up. If there were any sheaves left, they composed a compact shass in the end, and the long ladder, strewn with straw, and resting on stones, or other supports, lay along the wall for the accommodation of the young women when not employed on the floor. There was a seat for the fiddler, and perhaps a couple of chairs for the farmer and his wife, or any other honoured character, at the end of the large apartment opposite the shass, and some candles in sconces fastened to the walls, at fitting intervals, shed light on the business of the evening.

The young women on arriving, if familiar with the family first made a visit to the big kitchen, paid their respects to the vanithee and her old man, had a few words with the young people, and deposited bonnet and shawl, or cloak, as it might be, on settle or dresser-seat, or perhaps the bed of the daughter of the house, and after some mutual inspection, and touches at each other’s hair, and adjusting the combs at the back of the head, entered the barn in procession. If Mr. Tench had arrived, each lady made the best curtsy in her possession to that model of deportment, and then repaired to the long seat described. The master was most careful to return each lady’s salute, feet in first position, cap pressed to waistcoat, and body bent. The cap was fashioned of skin of some kind, of a shining, greyish colour, tinged with brown, and had a peak. So I remember it. As to the rest, Mr. Tench sported a tight knee-breeches, white stocking, turn-pumps, and a swallow-tail coat. The fiddler, Shamus Bowes, was lame of one leg, weak in an arm, and the forefinger of the poor man’s left hand was mutilated by an accident from a reaping hook, and thus disfigured, it frequently embarrassed the fingering.

The young men, as they entered, saluted the master, with hats off, but, except while each was receiving the lesson, he remained covered or uncovered as he pleased. If he laid his hat aside, he might have some difficulty in lighting on it again, so many changes occurred during the evening.

At first there was great staidness of behaviour, even on the part of those who were known as bucks, or regular frequenters of ale-houses and tents of fairs. The young girls were particularly silent and attentive to all Mr. Tench’s motions and little speeches, as they sat with their silk or cotton handkerchiefs modestly covering neck and bosom, and their braided hair turned up at the back of the head, and kept in its place by the genuine or mock tortoiseshell comb. Some of the better-looking of the rustic beauties, favoured by this classic style of wearing the hair, had something of the air of Calypso, or Penelope, or Andromache, or other Heathen lady or goddess, as we find them in picture and statue. It may be a prejudice of early impressions that we still prefer the bodkin or the comb to the chenille net. Irish women ought to sympathise with us in this respect. The lady who traversed Munster unmolested in the days of King Brian, was habited as Andromeda before her exposure on the rock.

Before the commencement of the lessons the professor would occasionally make a little speech—he was partial to the sound of his own voice on such occasions—and it generally took some such form as the following:— " Now, leedies and gentlemen, I expect the greatest attention to these lessons, which, I must tell you, you are fortunate in getting. I suppose you all admired, more than once, how gracefully the gentlemen of Castleboro’ and Mr. Blacker walk and bow, and how they do be at their case, while the likes of you would not know which leg to stand on, or how to keep your hands easy when they are speaking to yous. Well, what’s the reason? They were learned to mind their positions, and hold themselves in genteel attitudes, and dance when they were young. And see the way the world goes. A gandher of a city-professor will get his guinea, where I, that might learn them conceited scoggins both steps and deportment, is hard set to make a thirteen. Mr. Breen, if you can’t keep your hands out of your breeches-pocket, saving the ladies’ presence, we must get a pair of bags made for them" (General titter and laughter.) "So, as I was animadverting, pay attention to these nine lessons, and you will be inculcated to stand before Mr. Carew or Mr. Blacker, or any mister, or lord or juke of the land, with aise, air, and modesty, and needn’t be scratching your head, nor shuffling your feet, nor keep fiddling with your fingers. And when we have the May boys or the Rinka Fadha, or the harvest home at the castle, and when the young Masther pays Miss Mary Curran there, or Miss Peggy Neil, or any other of the leedies present, the honour of being her partner in the ‘Tatther Jack Walsh’ or the ‘Humours of Ballycarney’ or any of the honourable leedies, his sisters, does Mr. Brian Roche or Mr. Mick Fitcharris (c for z) the felicity of touching his rough paw with her silky fingers, you won’t feel as if you wished to drop asunder, or sink a mile or two down through the flags. No; pay the most pucksitious attention to my instruction, and you will feel as easy and contemplatious when you’re running country dances, or going through petticoatees and coatylongs with the Quality, as if it was the next neighbour’s child you had for your partner. Now, Miss Oonah Quigly, will you please to stand up there fornenst me till we begin to get through our evening’s work. You have only one night or so in the week, and it’s only a relaxation and holiday’s amusement to you, while I’m five nights working away, and talking, and putting stupid logs through their facings, and all for thirteen pence a quarter. The other day, I was passing Tottenham Green—yous all heard of ‘Tottenham in his boots’—and the squire was at the gate, ruralising with Mr. Lee, of Rosegarland, and he stopped myself to have a noration with me for a long half hour; and when I was walking away, after saluting the Gentlemen in my highest style— ‘There, Lee’ says he;—wasn’t it odd that he only called him short by his name, while he addressed me in full length by the appellation of Mister Tench? ‘Lee,’ says he, ‘it’s seldom we perceive merit appreciated. There ought to be a statute, of brazen;’ brazen, I think, is what he said. I know it wasn’t brass—‘a brazen statute,’ says he, ‘raised to that genteel man in the Maudlin of Ross, or the Bull-Ring of Wexford, or the Market House of Enniscorthy.’ Any how, self-praise is no commendation. Miss Oonah, please stand diagonally in that corner, with expanded breast. You may let your purty left arm lie this way across your handkerchief, and your right palm cover the back of your left hand. Now look at me, and never mind whether the fongs of your pumps be loose or not. First position. Stand with your feet at an angle of eighty or ninety degrees." Oonah’s eyes opened wide at this. "Never mind; fluxions isn’t learned in country schools for a good reason the masters have. This is what I want"—action suited to the word. Oonah essayed the pose, but persisted in keeping her head bent, in order to judge of her success. "Heads up, and as you were, Miss Oonah. That will do. Be as much at your aise as if you were looking at the hens and turkey-cocks meandering on the dunghill at home. Position No. 2. Throw out right foot, point toe, right heel to middle of left foot—so. Ah, your right foot is next the door." "Master, I put the same foot as yourself." "Miss Oonah, the next time you look at your comely face in the glass, the right eye in the mirror will be opposite the left one in your head. Thigin Thu (do you understand?)" Every one laughed except Oona’s sweetheart and brother.

The standing positions being got through well or ill, Mr. Tench next proceeded to instruct his pupil in the moving ones. Oonah holding herself in the second position, he pronounced in a loud, abrupt fashion, "Puzze," (Poussez?) and thereupon, commencing with the right foot, she marched two steps in that direction. On his pronouncing "Puzzet" (Poussette), she brought her feet into the position for a curtchy, and made it accordingly. "Lepuzzet" (Re-poussette?) was the next order, on which she made one step backwards in the direction of her original position, and repeated the courtesy, and so the mere standing and walking operations were over.

All this was very plain sailing indeed, compared with the acquisition of the steps, of which there were about six or seven varieties, including cover the buckle, heel and toe, the side step, the pushing step, upset and curl (spring and flourish). In one, the mastery consisted in standing on the toes, and bringing alternately the sole of one foot over the instep of the other in the quickest possible time. In another the fronts of the insteps were rapidly brought into contact with the backs of the legs. In the ordinary forward movement the front soles at a greater or less angle with each other, vigorously passed over the ground, the right coming immediately after and under the left one for some distance, and then taking the lead, and the peculiar twist of the body undergoing a change at the same time.

The favourite "step" in hornpipes consisted of a vigorous high shove of the foot in the air, a heavy slap on the floor, followed by three insignificant double beats, and then the passing over the duty to the other foot. Then the side steps similar to the chasées in quadrilles must not be forgotten, in which, while the feet shuffled to the right, the body swayed to the left. The forward step and the sets to partners in modern quadrilles were not known in their present slow style, nor would they have been practicable in the rapid movements of our rustic performers.

Girls and boys learned the same steps, the only difference in practice consisting of the shorter and less lofty character of the steps when practised by the womankind. The sole of the girl’s slipper was never removed beyond three inches from the floor, while her partner, by way of variety, would give an occasional kick as high as his shoulder.

Shamus’s repertory embraced in perfection only two tunes of rather vulgar titles. It could not be expected that in any genteel assembly a lady could hear her cavalier call for Cabbage and Pork, or Laugh and be Fat, and outlive the indignity. These were, indeed, all that he could play with satisfaction to the feet of his patrons. But he was helpless, and well known, and there could be no assembly without the presence of three or four young fellows, who, though unable to extract any information from a written or printed stave of music, were capable of playing with effect all the dance-tunes known in the country. The general rule was, that poor Shamus’s music, becoming intolerable after the first half hour or so, Darby Browne, or Mogue Ryan, or Watt Doyle of the Wood, or Michael Dunne, or one of the thirteen Blanches, would voluntarily relieve poor Bowes, and he himself be relieved in turn by another amateur.

Now we proceed to the application of the steps to simple figures. The fiddler playing his best known air, and the pupil standing as far as the clear space allowed from the master, danced forward till they nearly met, the scholar making use of the steps lately learned. He then returned to his place with backward steps, still facing the teacher, and repeated the operation a couple of times. Then Mr. Tench cried out, "Variate," and he proceeded to exhibit steps different from those he had just danced. He then chasséed to right and left, "Capé" being the direction given by the teacher, to whom his science had come in the mode fashionable among the Druids.

The time devoted to getting through this programme depended on the number of pupils to be taught in the course of the evening. If the number was comparatively large there were but few repetitions, and the pupils were directed to practise hard before the next gathering. And now the reward awaiting on docile and active youths and maids was at hand. Mr. Tench, selecting the damsel he delighted to honour, led her out on the floor, and presented a favoured youth as her companion in a jig.

So Martin, getting right heel into the hollow of left foot, and failing two or three times, at last succeeded in doing the right thing, in so far as holding his hat not very ungracefully in his right hand, and applying his left palm to the middle button of his waistcoat, and making a nondescript bow. Nancy did not find it altogether so difficult to lay the palm of her right hand on the back of her left, which rested upon her plaid silk kerchief, and, drawing back her right foot, make a respectable curtsey. The next operation required some ingenuity and exercise, to please the not-easily-pleased Mr. Tench. The lady’s arm forming a certain oblique angle from shoulder to knuckles (the vertex being the elbow joint), and the fingers again projecting in the line of grace from the same knuckles, were extended gracefully, and somewhat inclining to the left, the palm looking towards the floor, and Martin with head and body bent, and right leg extended, applied his palm to hers; and now no earthly obstacle intervened between the happy pair, and the most exhilarating of all harmless exercises, the execution of an Irish jig.

Shamus’s locum-tenens struck up a jig air, and Martin and Nancy, hand-in-hand, his right grasping her left, footed the four sides of the square area—say in the directions north, west, south, east—till they were again on the spot from which they had started; then, without pause, they made a circuit in a contrary direction. On again arriving at the point of departure, they proceeded down the centre to near the farther side, and there balancéed to each other; then Martin, taking Nancy’s left hand in his right, they made a revolution, and with a change of hands, another revolution in an opposite sense; then taking both hands, mutually clasped, they made a final whirl. Martin now, to adopt the recondite meaning of the ballet, finding his admiration of his partner diminish, or his suspicion of her truth increase, retired backward, his face expressive of regret, as who should say, "And is she then false to her vows?" Having got as far from her as the assembly or the wall permitted, and seeing her preparing to pursue him, and so reclaim his lost affection, he gallantly and considerately advanced to meet her half-way. Neither being satisfied with the expression of the other’s face on coming close, they mutually retreated. Another attack of tender remorse brought them once more together, to meet with renewed disappointment. Grown wiser this time, as soon as they had reached their respective positions, they variated, and then chasséed (capéd in the master’s phraseology) right and left, to give themselves time each to carefully contemplate the state of the inward feelings portrayed on the countenance of the dear being opposite. The result being satisfactory, they advanced once more; but experience having introduced some caution, they balancéed for a few moments—how appropriate the expression!—before committing themselves, and even then there was some cautious experimenting. With right hands—those farthest from the heart—they made a cautious twirl. Confidence having increased, the hands nearest the seat of affection grasped each other, and in the revolution then and there made in an opposite direction, the initiated might see the coming betrothal foreshadowed. Making the final round in Hymen’s name, with the the four hands firmly clasped, while Mr. Tench, representing the Flamen of that purple-hued god, pronounced the mystic word "Rigadoon," by way of blessing, they faced him, side by side, and greeted him lowly. As in the theatre, the lovers just made happy, and fronting the audience, hand-in-hand, go their separate ways with the utmost coolness as soon as the curtain descends; so Martin and Nancy saw no more of each other, i.e., exchanged not a word after he had conducted her to her seat of straw-covered ladder-rungs. During the rapid exercise Nancy occasionally clapped one hand on her well-developed hip, a circumstance which Tench was obliged to tolerate, his instructions being that the arms should hang gracefully by the side. He entirely discouraged the flinging of these limbs about, or flourishing them on a level with the head. He had occasion to check Martin more than once for such transgressions.

Another pair were called out, and the same process was repeated. For the sake of readers ignorant of the social aspect of country life half a century since, we supply the names of some of these breathtaking jigs, which required a fine ear and great exertion in the very rapid movements of the limbs to correspond with the short, quick time to which the tunes were played. We regret that they were not favoured with names somewhat more euphonious.

"Off she goes," "Follow me up to Carlow," "Rock Road," "Miners of Wicklow," "Tipsy House," "Humours of Glynn," "Jig Polthogue," "Cumulum," "Bury my Wife, and dance on the top of her," "Moll in the Wad," and Shamus’s two standard tunes already named.

Dancing four-hand reels was the next exercise in the order of the evening. The successful performances in the mad jig dances were more admired, and received more applause, not by clapping of hands or stamping of feet—modes of approbation unknown in Tomanearly, or Tinnock, or Forrestalstown, but by pleased murmurs, or shouts of "Hurroo for Nancy!" or "Hurroo for Martin!" But the reel admitting of two additional performers had more of a comfortable domestic spirit about it.

Two young men and their partners stood in a circle, holding hands, and at the conclusion of Shamus’s prelude footed it round till they were again in their original places. At the first bar of the second part away they went again in an opposite direction. Then the men, joining their right hands in the centre, and the women imitating them, another revolution was made, followed by one contrariwise, the left hands being connected. The next, move was a change of places between the men and a return to the old ground, accompanied by a corresponding movement on the part of the women. This cross-fire had a very good effect when neatly executed. They then passed round, giving right hand to first person met, left hand to second, &c., till after describing two circles, they arrived at home again. Each man now facing his partner, went through the regular advances, retreats, variates, side-steps, sets to, &c., till the "hooking" impulse set them at work in that direction. They varied this exercise by the men taking right hands in the middle, and changing places, and then giving left hands, and recovering their own ground. They then looked on while the women executed a similar manoeuvre. The finale was the taking of hands, and bowing or curtsying to opposite partners, and then the forming of a line, and saluting the dancing-master.

Every individual in the group, sensible of being under the eyes of his three fellow-labourers, as well as those of the surrounding crowd, exerted him or herself to the utmost to execute the steps, and go through the figures in good style. Animal magnetism also did its office in exciting spirit, and emulation, and gaiety, and all were momentarily sorry when the reel was over. Let not the frequenters of more refined reunions wonder if we suspect that the enjoyment of a reel by its four performers, face to face and sympathizing with each other, exceeds very considerably that of my Lord Dundreary and his partner listlessly walking a quadrille.

A reel-of-three was gone through, something in the style of a jig, but to slower time, one performer standing, inactive in the rear, and displacing the one immediately before him at the proper time. At points in the dance the three were engaged in performing evolutious which they were pleased to call the figure of 8.

These are the names of some of the tunes to which reels were crossed and rounded:— "The Breeze that shakes the Barley," "Humours of Ballycarney," "Miss Johnson’s Reel" "Miss McLeod" "What the Devil ails you," "Bang it up," "Over the bridge to Peggy," "Humours of Inistioge," "Devil’s Dream," "The Ship full rigged," "The Soldier’s Joy."

In many cases the owner of the barn, objecting to his daughters being taught steps and deportment before so many witnesses, would have Mr. Tench and his minstrel during the day to instruct them, and perhaps the children of some intimate neighbour. In the evening they might be allowed to act the part of spectators for some limited time and perhaps join in a reel when the lessons came to an end.

Some stripling, from fourteen to seventeen, would be sure to enter the hall of dancing on sufferance. His parents would not throw away 1sd Irish on having him learned that useless and nonsensical exercise. It would be fitter for him to mind his "Euclid," or his "Jackson’s Book-keeping." "And be this stick in my hand" (mater loquitur), "if you ax your father or me again for dance-money, I’ll go every step o’ the road to Clochbawn school, and ax your master if he has nothing to do for you. Dance, indeed! Will Mr. Sparrow, of Inniscorfy ax you, when your father takes you into town to be a clerk under him, if you wor larned to cover the buckle or cut heel and toe? Dance, indeed! Divel dance the first Geochach that over found it out !"

Our friend Charley when a boy did not succeed in persuading his parents to get him taught, so he was obliged to content himself with the lot of a spectator under difficulties. Such a gorsoon could not get a position next the area left for the performance; so occasionally he got glimpses from the unsteady "shass-top" or between the sides or the legs of the favoured young men; and it is a fact that some of the best dancers in the baronies of Bantry, Scarawalsh, and Shelmalier had picked up the art in this uncomfortable manner.

It happened one day, that he was minding his mother’s cows in a field partially sown with corn, and the daughter of Bill Doyle, a near neighbour, was at a similar employment in the next field, and nothing but a furze—covered ditch between them.

"Ah, then, Charley, would you just come over the ditch, and tache us a few of them steps you saw at Paddy Devereux’s last night?"

"Faith, an’ I won’t. If my mother or father found me out of the field, maybe I wouldn’t get a throuncing. You may cross the fence if you like."

"An’ sure I’m as much in dhread of my father as yourself."

"Well, but you want to learn, and I don’t."

"That’s true; but I’d be terribly afeard."

We do not want to puff our friend, but he certainly did not press the matter, and yet Nolly came over.

There they were; he teaching and she learning, with eyes and feet, all the intricacies of steps and figures, when the terrible sight of her father’s face over the fence, and the terrible sound of his angry voice, shook her whole frame with terror. Coming into the field, he had found the cattle in the middle of the green corn; and having driven them back to their pasture, he neared the fence, and found his own child and his neighbour’s child chasséing and poussetting as eagerly as if Shamus was playing, Tench instructing, and a sympathising crowd thundering their plaudits. With a good twig in hand, and good will in heart, Bill began to lay thousands on his truant daughter, heedless of her cries and her dancing-master’s entreaties. However, the "god in the machine" came on the ground in the shape of Charley’s father.

"Bill, you terrible tinker," said he, "have you a need to kill the little girl?"

"No, neighbour, I have not," was the reply. "I’m only sthriving to do for her what you ought to do for Ned—that is to bring her to a pitch of modesty"

Poor Nelly got off for the moment with the stripes already inflicted; but, as Charley assured us, she sought no more contraband lessons in dancing.

Tench having bestowed on the primary instruction of his pupils all the cares considered necessary for one night, miscellaneous reel dances were commenced by the company—pupils or not. It was preceded by the interesting ceremony of making a collection for the fiddler. The collector was Mr. Tench, who, in the dress already described, plus enormous ribbons in his turn-pumps, and minus the eel or goat-skin cap now in use as a money-bag, made a very searching tour through the assembly. The most distinct image of that glorious time of youth that has remained with us is the bending body of the professor, with the cap held by the peak in both hands, the set mouth, the peaked chin, the sharp eyebrows and cheek-bones, the hard look of the eye, in its dark cavity, and the eager, intent expression of the whole face, raised to one of the tall young fellows of the company. This, seen by the large shadow-throwing light of one of the candles, somewhat higher than the man himself, remained in our memory as if engraved on iron.

The professor knew, to a great extent, the science of cajolery; and many and varied engines were brought to bear on the enemy’s pockets to extract the penny, no more being generally expected from any one. "Come, now, show your sperit before the ladies. You won’t miss a penny from the lob you’ve got for your corn the last market-day. It is not a small penny your fine Inch by the Boro brings you in every year. Don’t have the fiddler’s curse on you for a penny. No young girl admires a close-fisted bachelor. Come, girls, your egg and fowl-money will get rusty in your pockets. Don’t let ribbons and plaids swally it all."

The reels now performed were done in better style than those described, as they fell to practised hands and feet; and this was the accompanying etiquette. Two young men, presenting themselves before the young women of their predilection, made their best bows, and handed them out on the floor. There was no such thing fashionable among our vigorous-natured boys and girls as engagements for third or thirteenth set, and seldom a refusal given to an application. This reel having concluded, the young men sat down, or stood by, and the young women, dropping curtsies to two other cavaliers, reel No. 2, was executed. And thus the dances succeeded each other, the elect of every dance being the electors in the succeeding one, and the fiddler receiving the salutation addressed to the master in the beginning of the evening.

This portion of the entertainment was always a period of great enjoyment, but was succeeded by an exercise of greater excitement still, originally invented by a fiddler fond of pennies, and acquainted with the results of rival feelings, either in game-cooks or in young country fellows, when they feel the eyes of their sweethearts resting on them.

The two male performers in possession of the floors when selecting partners for the first reel under the new system, threw two halfpence into the fiddler’s hat, carried round by Tench, or a substitute; and one of them shouting out, "Hurroo for Coolbawn!" if that was his own residence or his sweetheart’s, away went the lively reel. It was not allowed to go on very long when another aspirant, pitching his halfpenny into the treasury, cried "Stop the music." The strains became dull as by magic, and continued so till they were awakened by the dropping of another halfpenny into the hat, and a cry raised by one of the two new men, perhaps for the girls of Knookmore, or Dranagh, or Gurrawn.

It was the privilege of the men to call for their favourite tune at the commencement of the reel, and their choice was consequent on a whispered consultation with their partners. They danced with the more vigour and enjoyment as they did not know the moment when a boy from Cnoc-na-Gour would take it into his head to exalt the belle or belles of that locality, and, by dropping a halfpenny into the hat, stop the music and the enjoyment of the present party at once.

Jobbing, that unpleasant ingredient in all human transactions, was not absent from our mirthful gatherings. When the fiddler found the cries for arresting the music waxing weak, a young fellow, furnished with money for the purpose, would make the necessary motion, and, with a "Stop music" and hurroo for Clonroche, or Coolroe, and the sky over it, induce a slight rush in the shower of copper.

During this part of the evening’s business there was considerable commotion and bustle, similar—in a milder and healthier state—to what is felt at a horse-race, or a boxing-match. The rival youths may be supposed anxious not to lose ground in the estimation of their loves; townlands felt right jealous of their neighbours’ eminence; and the girls hurrooed for in connection with this or that village or townland, deeply sympathised with the young men who championed these localities. The assistants at the absorbing sport were scarcely less excited than the performers. They were in the same category as the betters on a favourite horse at Ballyheoge race-ground.

This did, perhaps once in seven years, lead to a fight, but we can recall no instance. Our inquiries on the subject have met with such answers as these:—

"I believe Pat Behan and Jem Kehoe had some words at the fair of Moneyhore, about what happened at the dance at Moneytucker."

"Yes, indeed. I heard that John Henrick and Bill Clere boxed it out in the rath of Tinnock, about purty Kate Murphy, that refused John, and then danced with Bill, in Pedher Mor’s barn," etc., etc.

At last the strife of the townlands, and the girls whose homes lay there, was over, and hornpipes—single, double and triple—began to rule. Sometimes a door was taken off its hinges and laid down on the middle of the floor, and there the performer exhibited his strength and agility. First, however, he "circumnavigated" the floor twice, in opposite directions, and then with arms crossed, or poised, or whirled as he pleased, he went through his stock performances, of which we give some of the names—the triple hornpipes being slower in movement than the double, and those again slower than the single.

Single.—"The Leg of Mutton," "Kate and Davy," "Garran Bui."

Double.— "Planxty Carrol" "Shan Bui," "Little House under the Hill," "Tatter Jack Walsh," "Haste to the Wedding," "Trip to the Cottage," "Unfortunate Rake," "Paddy O’Carroll"

Triple.— "Flowers of Edinboro’," "Cuckoo’s Nest," "Spenser’s Hornpipe," and "First of May." "Moll Roe," "Miners of Wicklow," "Larry Grogan," "Shan Bui," and "Donnybrook Fair," were of a miscellaneous character.

The young men who executed these hornpipes were generally selected by Mr. Tench from among his best ex-pupils. They served the purpose of desirable models to those under training, and raised ambition in the breasts of those whose courage had not reached the point of sacrificing nineteen pence halfpenny, Irish, on the altar of renown. Popular dancers, even though untrained by the master, would at times be called forward and obliged to perform, willingly enough for the most part. Tench, however politely he might act on such occasions, did not like this arrangement but he knew that opposition would be useless and tend to make him unpopular.

Very great and eager was the excitement produced among the spectators by these exhibitions of individual skill and strength. Besides the natural sympathy roused in the nervous system of every spectator, not thoroughly callous or indifferent, on witnessing rapid and harmonious motions, every one had his own little world of fautorers—townsfolk, relatives, or perhaps a lover, whose muscles thrilled to every bound, and spring, and rapid beat, and flourish he executed. All this was fully evident to the dancer, either in the low murmur or loud "Hurroo for Pat Martin!" or the social electricity with which the atmosphere of the room was charged, and added suppleness and vigour to his much-tasked powers. A feeling of absolute fatigue, and the sense of what was due to the other high scholars in art were his warning to desist. The acme of perfection in this exercise was the bearing of a pot of beer in the right hand, unspilled, during the performance.

Those who wish to look on the mere ludicrous features of rustic dance academies may be safely referred to Carleton’s inimitable sketch of Mr. Buckram Back, and his instructions in politeness, and the contention of his pupils with those of a rival establishment; and how one party, being greatly assisted by a certain post in correctly executing their figures, the other party, taking a shabby advantage of them, got it removed; and how the absence of this trusty finger-post threw confusion and unsteadiness among their ranks, even to the loss of the great trial match. Unhappily, nothing of the kind took place in our neighbourhood. The Carrolls of the Duffrey would not cross the Dranaah stream in a S.W., nor Tench in a N.E. direction, nor ever meet at fair or pattern; but it was not so with their pupils. When the gathering was within a reasonable distance at each side of the boundary—say Knockmore, or Clochayden, or Kaim, or Mangan—some dancers in repute from the other side of the stream would be present, and at the hornpipe hour would be politely invited to mount table or unhinged door. No discouragement whatever would be experienced by the foreigners. If an artist used one leg only in certain steps, and did not variate by the indifferent use of both, he might hear some ungracious murmurs—that was all. When once the performances were over, and the parties returning home, probably by the light of fangles, the most unreserved criticism felt itself at full liberty to exercise its rights.

At last it began to be felt that quite enough of the floor and of the evening had been given up to the young men, and by general acclamation, petticoatees and coatylongs (cotillons) were introduced, and walked and postured through to the air of the "Jackson Family," &c., &c., &c. Probably the farmer’s wife, and a near neighbour or two, and their husbands, were the earliest performers in these old-fashioned measures. They were the ghosts of the courtly minuets, and did impose a trifle of awe on the young girls and boys by the slow movements, the bows and curtsies, the holding out of the petticoats or gowns, so as to make them present the hooped articles of last century, the formal touching of hands, and the haughty turning away. All this would have answered the men’s tired state, but the girls soon wearied of the constrained motions and the general slowness of the business, and gave their entire assent to the formation of the two rows of boys and girls indispensable to the country-dance.

The spirited couples had little room, were obliged to mind their steps and figures, were sure of being railed at if they committed blunders, and, besides, tedium has little power in a crowd not too crowded, when music is giving forth its harmony, and this harmony is given back by sprightly clattering of feet. Besides, if the row was rather long the pair left at the head would start off when their leaders were one-third or one-half down the line; and thus the music would inspire the legs, and arms, and heads of a couple of loving quaternions at once. Country-dances were suitable as a closing to the labour and relaxation of the night, as they afforded an opportunity for several couples being on the floor at the same time.

Of course, the evergreen Roger de Coverley was played for some one or other of the country-dances. All could be danced to any of the reel or hornpipe tunes already mentioned, including the "Basket of Oysters," "Donnybrook Fair," and though perhaps there was not a second Protestant boy or girl in the room, "Protestant Boys" and the "Boyne Water."

There was a variety in the figure when the last fine air was played. At the turn of the music the lively slip-jig of "Cumulum" was struck up, and the man danced down to the last woman in the row, set to her, "hooked" her, and dashed back again. Then his partner flew to the last man, paid him her respects in the same way, and flew back. The grave air being then resumed, they began to engage the next pair, and at the first bar of the jig, were off to dance with the lowest pair but one.

But, like all other earthly things, the dance at Tomanearly came to an end. The young women who did not live in the village were escorted home by relatives, among whom it is not to be wondered at that sweethearts occasionally mixed. If the night was dark the fangle was lighted, and after many "good nights" and allusions to the next merry meeting, the barn was deserted, and the candles carefully extinguished. The family, on returning to the big kitchen, sat for a while at the fire, to talk over the various little incidents of the night. Mr. Tench was complimented on the progress of his pupils, and treated to a tumbler of punch, a delicacy loved by him and by Mrs. Tench, who accompanied him in his wanderings, and helped him to melt his money in the whisky crucible.

But it is time to return to our friends at Mr. O’Brien’s.

Contact

E-Mail: info@setdance.com
Phone: +353 (0)1 8730093
Address: 15 Henrietta Street
Dublin 1,
Ireland