Saturday afternoons, school halls, green pleated skirts, white satin blouses, hats with feathers, one lesson a week – this was Irish Dancing in a different era. Many of us began dancing locally, within walking distance of where we lived. Organisations and dancing schools grew from the Irish dance masters who passed on their knowledge and love of their art form
Melbourne was the first Irish Dancing association in the world to have its own rule book [John Cullinane 2006]. Titled “The Irish National Dancing and National Dress Promotions Association of Victoria – 1932”, it described compulsory dress for both boys and girls, and included photographs. It also contained the guidelines for the allocation of judging marks
The first Australian to qualify as a TCRG, Geraldine O’Shea, travelled to Ireland to sit for the exam in 1953. She has the distinction of being the first person outside of Ireland, England and Scotland, to qualify. All these years later, Geraldine is still involved in teaching Irish Dancing in country Victoria.
The Adjudicators Board of Irish Dancing, Victoria, had as foundation members Leonie McHardy as president and Mary Barrett as treasurer. The membership consisted of those who were adjudicators only and they could not be a teacher of competitive dancers. The aim of the Board was “to further the high standard of adjudicating Irish Dancing and to maintain and become conversant with the changes in the techniques of Irish Dancing”.
Learning both Irish and Highland Dancing during this era was not unheard of. One of the most successful was Elizabeth McDonald [Phelan] who held the Australian title in both dance styles at the same time. Elizabeth taught and adjudicated both Irish and Highland Dancing and assisted in the beginning of Irish Dancing in Tasmania.
MARGARET LAHL TCRG - Hobart
The first Irish Dancing classes in Hobart were run by Mrs Winifred Shea, who had learnt from nuns in a convent. Her classes were originally run in the kitchen of her home while the Irish Pipe Band practised in the lunge room. I joined her classes in about 1955 and continued dancing, and later teaching, until I went overseas in 1968. In 1969/70 I studied with Ted Kavanagh in London and I was also a member of the London Gaelic League Ceili team
In 1970 I sat the TMRF exam and on return to Australia I joined AIDA and started a class in Hobart. I continued studying with Elizabeth Phelan and Kathleen McAleer and sat the TCRG exam in 1973. By the time I returned from London several Highland Dancing classes in Tasmania had also started teaching Irish Dancing after having workshops from Geraldine O’Shea and Elizabeth Phelan. Aileen Poynter was a member of one of these classes.
AILEEN POYNTER - Launceston
Elizabeth Phelan, who taught Highland and Irish dancing, came to Launceston in 1968 to adjudicate a Highland competition. On the Sunday following the competition she took our class for our first Irish lesson! She came over again a couple of times to encourage Joan O’Neill to start Irish classes in Launceston.
I started the Launceston School of Irish Dancing in 1979. I remember being inspired by Monica Spelman (Poulton) when Elizabeth Phelan brought her over one year – she danced at the Campbelltown Competition, wearing a purple dress and soft shoes with pompoms!! I’d never seen anything like it before. I thought Irish was white dresses and green sashes.
MARGARET DEMPSEY TCRG - Melbourne
Cathie and Margaret Cosgriff and their four brothers – Kevin, Denis, Owen and Bernard, all danced with the Geraldine O’Shea Academy.
Cathie started dancing in Port Melbourne on 5th December 1949 in the lounge room of our Aunt with 18 of our cousins. Her first competition was on 6th November 1949 and she came second. Her marks were Dress 10; Timing 19; Deportment 19; Execution 19. This was an Irish Pipers Association competition. My first competition was on 27th September 1952 – I did three steps, stopped to pull up my sleeves then did the fourth step! This was in the Emerald Hall in South Melbourne and was run by Geraldine O’Shea. It was an interstate competition with Sydney dancers. The Irish Pipers Association concert program in 1952 shows items by schools taught by Mary Behan, Margaret Foley, Kathleen Foley, Geraldine O’Shea and Evelyn O’Neill.
Geraldine O’Shea was part of the Irish National Association [INA]. The 1959 Australian Championships in Sydney had competitors from just Victoria and New South Wales. We did some of our dances at the INA Centre in Sydney and then the final dance at the Erskineville Oval on the Sunday while the pipe bands, hurling and Gaelic football was also happening. In Melbourne we danced at St. Michael’s North Melbourne and the St. Kilda Cricket Ground. The 1959 Victorian Juvenile Championships were held on the 9th August and the Senior Championship was held on the 6th September - two separate weekends.
BERNADETTE TOUHY ADCRG - Melbourne
My early memories of Irish Dancing would be the same as hundreds of other girls in and around Melbourne in the fifties. Saturday meant going to dancing in the Parish hall. Dozens of girls [boys were a rarity] of all ages filled the hall. My first teacher was Pat Martin and she was a member of the Irish Dancing Teachers’ Association. The IDTA was the biggest organisation at the time and it was run by Duncan Conroy. There were classes all over Melbourne and the fortnightly competitions held at St. George’s Hall in Carlton drew hundreds. Entries were taken on the day and the prizes were 1st, 2nd and 3rd no matter how many were in the section. We danced to music played on 78rpm records. The other two groups were the Irish Pipers’ Association and the Geraldine O’Shea Academy. The dancing wing of the IPA was run by Mrs Foley who ran competitions at St John’s Hall in Clifton Hill. She would arrive with a suitcase full of medals
In the late sixties Eileen Noonan left the IDTA and started the Noonan School. She introduced much needed innovation into the dancing. In those days the final day of the Australian Championships was held in conjunction with the Gaelic Games and I recall dancing at South Melbourne Football Ground and Erskineville Oval in Sydney. The dancing would be happening on a stage on one side of the oval while the pipe bands would be competing on the other side. Gaelic football and hurling would be happening in the centre. I remember being lined up to go on to dance one year and a stretcher coming past me carrying a hurler with blood streaming from his face
The two greatest highlights of the year [from a child’s point of view] were the St Patrick’s Day Parade and the St Patrick’s Night Concert. The Parade was held on the Saturday closest to St Patrick’s Day and it was a huge production. All the Catholic schools marched in the Parade and most of the dancing schools put in a float. Trucks were hired or borrowed and parents spent hours decking them out with green, white and gold bunting and we sat of the back of the truck waving to the huge crowds that were lining the streets. We all paraded past Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the Archbishop of Melbourne, and the equivalent of royalty to the Irish community in Melbourne. The St Patrick’s Night Concert was held in the Melbourne Town Hall with all things Irish being performed by singers, musicians, dancers and there were dramatic performances as well. Once again, Archbishop Mannix was in attendance and the concert didn’t start until he arrived and was piped into the Hall with the audience standing and applauding him to his seat.
MONICA POULTON ADCRG - Melbourne
From the age of 2, my Saturday afternoons were spent at Irish Dancing classes in our local school hall. I was only there at this age because my big sister learnt. Our school, the Foley School, was run by Mrs Foley who had four dancing daughters – Margaret, Marie, Kathleen and Francie. Like many schools in this era, classes were held in various halls and often taken by senior dancers. The cost of the lesson was paid on the day you attended
The first dance we learnt was the jig followed by the reel, both danced in heavy shoes. At competitions, all dancers performed on stage one at a time. My first medal is engraved with my name and details of the occasion – “Under 8 Jig, 3rd Place Age 3 Years”. Under 8 was the youngest age group, so that’s the group you danced against regardless of how young you were
Each Association held its own championship. The top 6 placegetters from each section then danced in the Victorian Championship. The top 6 from each State then went on to dance in the Australian Championship. The age groups were Under 10, Under 12, Under 15 and 15 and Over. We all wore green pleated skirts, white blouses and hats adorned with feathers. Kilts, both green and saffron, eventually replaced the skirts. White kilts with velvet jackets appeared in the early 60’s
Most competitions, even championships, were judged by one adjudicator. When more than one judged, there were no equal placings. In the event of a tie the dancers would be required to perform their “dance off” dance. This would be an extra prepared dance in addition to the championship dances. At one Australian Championship we did 4 dances – Reel, Slip Jig and 2 Set Dances. My overall result was a tie. The two of us then had to perform a hornpipe which was judged by both adjudicators and the result for 2nd place was decided on that dance.
In the late sixties the first adjudicators/examiners arrived from Ireland. They were Marie Walsh ADCRG and Tom Farrelly ADCRG, the President of the Irish Dancing Commission. The first Australian Championships under the auspices of the Irish Dancing Commission were held and here we are today