The Clare Lancers Set: Tradition and Evolution

FOR MOST OF US set dancers, the idea that the original Lancers set from County Clare was not always danced to reels could seem very strange indeed. The evolution of our beloved dances have an interesting past, as told by Larry Lynch in his extensive and beautiful book, Set Dances of Ireland: Tradition and Evolution (1989).

This trove is based on oral history told by dancers from each area, and is a written  and illustrated record of music, musicians, dances and dance style from counties Cork, Kerry, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick and Clare. Larry Lynch has very kindly agreed to allow me to re-produce the following chapter (Italics text) on The Lancers.

The Set in Local Tradition: Crusheen, Co.Clare: The Lancers
Joe McNamara first saw the Lancers in about 1931. Joe learned the Lancers from John Kinley, who brought the set to the area from South Galway. John Kinley was about twenty years older than Joe.

“Joe Kinley picked it up at a wedding in South Galway. At the time, there were kitchen house dances maybe only three times a year. It was hard to see all the figures. John Kinley was anxious for everyone to dance the Lancers, but no-one knew how to dance it. No-one knew the full set, only himself. There might be only two in the house who knew it, and they weren’t too clear about it either.”

 Joe McNamara recalls, House dances stopped during the war (World War II) because they were illegal. The gardaí would come and close them down. The government wanted the revenue and tax. Priests stopped the house dances but they built parochial halls and got licenses and had their own dances.”

 “Céilithe were started during the late forties and early fifties by Irish language teachers. No sets were allowed because sets were not considered Irish. Sets were danced at an odd get-together in the home – a return from England, or a wedding. Comhaltas (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann) organised the first Fleadh Cheoil in Athlone in 1953 and started reviving set dancing. The Caledonian Set was danced in the competitions. Because of emigration, there were no crowds to dance, so the generation of the fifties missed out. Modern music and show bands became popular, so today, people between the ages of thirty and fifty can’t dance.”

 “I often saw John Kinley in pubs and he was anxious for the two of us to get the Lancers going. And we would often go through it in the pubs, having an old chat about the sets. He always hinted on me that we should get it going.”

Joe McNamara revived the Lancers in 1980. “ I had to go back in my memory and remember the set as I saw Kinley dancing it, and work out one figure from another until I go the shape of a set. I might see that dancing in my young days, and I might no see that set danced twice in a year. There was that drawback that I had to remember the set after not dancing it for forty years. I usen’t to sleep, and I often went through a figure (while unable to sleep). I was teaching set dancing at Crusheen at the time. I did it one figure at a time. I had to take figure one, do that and see how it worked out. Then onto the next figure. It took a lot of memorizing.”

Joe says about the Lancers “ When Joe Kinley danced it, it was danced to polkas. I revived it to reels because dancers today prefer reels.” According to Joe McNamara, the dancing speed of the music at two beats per measure used to be: polkas 102 beats per minute. Today, the dancing speed of the music at two beats per measure is: reels 123 beats per minute.

Pauline McNamara, Joe’s niece, told me recently that her father, Paddy McNamara, always insisted that the dance be done at a “slow and easy pace”. And polkas at 51 bars per minute, is certainly much slower than now- often around 60-70 bars per minute for polkas.

She also told me that the (Clare) Lancers, as it became, was an instant hit at competitions and social dances because it was a set with five reels – no jig. They won everything, every competition they entered – Paddy McNamara and Biddy McNamara (photo below), Eoin and Mary Donnell, Muriel and Danny Liddy; Catherine Brigdale, Pete Connors and Kevin O’Brien, with Joe McNamara as the manager of the group.

Now, about twenty-five people dance the Lancers in the Crusheen area. Joe and Biddie McNamara have also taught the Lancers every summer since 1983 at the Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, in Miltown Malbay, Co.Clare.

Photo of Biddie and Joe McNamara

Biddie and Joe McNamara © Larry Lynch

We all know that there are now thousands of dancers happily dancing the Clare Lancers all over the world. In addition, Larry Lynch said to me in an email recently:

“Joe and Biddie McNamara were wonderful people and very gracious to me.  Joe and Biddie knew their subject well; they deserve to be recognized and honored for passing on the tradition.  Biddie was one of the most beautiful and graceful female set dancers I encountered in twenty-seven years of research and teaching set dancing in Ireland.”

Music, people and place are absolutely key to any Irish set dance, and Larry Lynch has also recorded some of that information for the Lancers.

Musicians: The Lancers Set
Some of the popular musicians who played the fiddle were: Katie Costello (later played with Michael Coleman in America), Rathclooney; Delia (also played the concertina), Mary and Winnie Littleton, Drumbaniff, Crusheen.

Others who played the concertina were: Mrs. Cunneen, James and John Costello, Rathclooney; James McInerney, Drumbaniff, Crusheen; James McNamara, Drumbaniff, Crusheen.

Those who played the accordion were: Joe McNamara (played with the Tulla Céilí Band 1953 until 1963), Drumbaniff, Crusheen. Patsie Kinley (John Kinley’s father), O’Brien’s Castle, Crusheen, played the flute. Petie Littleton, Drumbaniff, Crusheen, played the tin whistle and the concert flute. (There is also an extensive list of tunes, for anyone interested).

Homes: The Lancers Set
When Joe McNamara was young, set dancing was done at house dances. Some of the homes where sets were danced were: Joe Kinley’s, O’Brien’s Castle, Crusheen; James McNamara’s (Joe’s father), Drumbaniff, Crusheen; Mickie Littleton’s, Drumbaniff, Crusheen; Paddy O’Connor’s, Cappafean, Crusheen.

My great thanks to Larry Lynch for taking the time to record all this amazing information, and agreeing to let me share it here.  If you would like to purchase a copy of the book Set Dances of Ireland: Tradition and Evolution (1989), please contact Larry Lynch directly.

Enjoy your dancing.
Nora Stewart
Easy Irish Dance/ Irish Bliss

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3 thoughts on “The Clare Lancers Set: Tradition and Evolution

  1. A Nora, a chara,
    Thank you very much for bringing this information to a wider audience. More people should have this kind of knowledge about the dances they do or teach, especially the teachers. I have felt that many teachers teach a form of some set found in modern revival books and imply or even directly that what they teach is what the dance has always been, One example of this in the Lancers from Croisín, Clare, occurs in the first figure. Most teachers teach students to go around the opposite by the left, but Larry points out that Biddy and Joe went around by the right. I had the privilege of meeting Biddy and Joe back in the ’80s both on Larry’s dancing tours and at the Willie Clancy Summer School. In the mid ’80s, after Terry Moylan had come out with his first book (2nd edition in 85) the dancers of Croisín were still reviving the Lancers and debating among themselves whether it was by the right or left they danced around the opposite in the first figure. In the middle of the Week Biddy spotted me in Casey’s shop in the middle of Miltown. She came in, grabbed me by the right arm and said, ” We remember now. It was by the right.” So they informed Larry and he put their information in his book. Anyway I wish more teachers would be more knowledgeable about the history of any set they might teach whether it was created yesterday or has evolved for a hundred years or more, and would straightforwardly give this valuable (IMHO) info to students.
    Slán anois,
    Michael Collier

    • Hello Michael – Thanks for you lovely story. I agree it’s great to know the history of things but I suspect that it how people dance that matters – respect for others, enjoying it and not labouring too hard over the details, lest we might miss the fun. Thanks again and happy dancing. Nora

  2. I remember my Aunt Julia coming from NY to visit family in Boston. Someone would give her accordion and she would sit on the arm of the couch, the carpet was rolled up and the dancing began

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