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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Irish sean nós : Rich and deep

Sean nós  (say shan-nose) means old style in Irish, and I have often wondered just how old old really is. The very first time I remember seeing Irish sean nós dancing was in  early 1989 at my very first Irish set dancing weekend in Donegal Town, Co.Donegal. The snow was all aflutter outside the big windows of the hotel ballroom and three auld fellas shuffled along, “doing a bit of shtep” during the céilí -that’s how I recall it. It was relaxed, simple, very rhythmic and obviously, memorable.

Picking up the thread from my last post  Irish dance history: A contrary tale: Part 2 , I have been exploring more about the potential roots of Irish sean nós heritage, which it seems, may possibly originate from North Africa.  Bob Quinn, in his 1981 documentary series The Atlanteans, illustrateEurope map with travel route of Berberss his theory that  dwellers on the West Coast of Ireland, particularly in Connemara,  are not Celts but what he terms “Atlanteans”. They are ancient descendants of sea-faring people from Algeria and Morocco- the Berbers – who travelled all along the Atlantic coastline – West along Spain, Portugal, Basque country, Brittany in France and then North -West to Ireland – settled in parts and continued using the sea as a big super highway, that was much safer than travelling across land.

I found the evidence presented in the documentary compelling and curious,  with potential multiple connections between ancient Irish and Berber civilisations starting with traditional singing, dancing & music, musical instruments including the Irish drum bodhrán which has a double in the Berber bandir, sailing boats – Galway Hookers with púcán sails & Felucca with lateen sails,  stone circles, standing stones and carvings in similar contexts in both countries, art and fine jewellery pieces thought to be Celtic have an eery resonance in the Berber style, and on it goes. Have a look here for picture examples.

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Irish Dance History: A Contrary Tale: Part 2

Irish dance history is difficult to pin down for many reasons, most likely because the culture was primarily oral – passed down through stories, songs and dances- with very little being written down.

Indeed, there are no less than four versions of the greatly loved Caledonian Set from Clare, and despite differences between districts, it appears that most dancers had difficulty recalling all aspects of that dance clearly.* (I will write more about why the Caledonian Set is the most perfect of all sets  sneak preview below with some absolutely fabulous dancing:)

Indeed, Fintan Vallely in his book The Companion to Irish Traditional Music proposes that tunes, songs and dances that lasted the test of time were mostly those that were written down, and it appears that much of that was done, ironically, by the English.

In 1775, the Dr. Rev.Campbell wrote:

“I was at a dance in Cashel (Co. Tipperary) and the Irish boys and girls are passionately fond of dancing and they dance beautifully.

We frog-blooded English dance as if the practice was not congenial to us, but here in Ireland, they dance as if dancing was the one and only business in life. **

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Irish Dance History: A Contrary Tale: Part 1

When I first started Irish step dancing classes as an adult in 1996, I felt happy and excited to be part of such of a complex and traditional style of dance. Mostly, I wanted to have fun and make a great sound with my feet.

I had no idea then that the complexity and tradition is truly a direct reflection of Irish history, and the connection with the Irish people, landscape and life in rural Ireland. There are twists and turns in the roads, boreens, hedges and ditches, private little snugs and back entrances, soft gentle pasture and roaring Atlantic westerlies.

What I have also come to appreciate is how convoluted and seemingly contrary the whole business of Irish culture and history really is, and that there is a story behind everything.
 There is truly nothing straighforward about the Irish.

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