Iarlaith Mac Gabhann: dlr Musician in Residence Update 3

Iarlaith Mac Gabhann: dlr Musician in Residence Update 3
Iarlaith Mac Gabhann, dlr Musician in Residence, shares his third update.

Traditional step-dancing in Ireland can be traced back to the early part of the 19th century, but presuming that both the music and dance evolved together, one could assume that traditional step-dancing took its current shape somewhere in the mid 18th century.

Most people would be familiar with Modern Irish Step-Dancing, which is a more recent development, featuring in productions such as Riverdance or The Lord of The Dance. There are 3 key changes that have occurred since the 1920’s/1930’s which separate Modern Irish Step-Dancing from Traditional Irish Step-Dancing. Firstly the use of “high kicking” as opposed to “dancing close to the floor”; secondly using the maximum available floor space as opposed to “dancing on a plate”; and thirdly the practice of innovation within the dances.

Traditional Irish Step-Dancing is not competition orientated; therefore those practicing it do not require a stiff posture. The arms hang loosely at the side while the body is held in a natural upright position. The legs should always be bent slightly at the knees.

In the accompanying video Michael dances a five-step hornpipe as learned from Dan Furey. I play a hornpipe known as “The Harvest Home”, which was a favourite of Dan Furey’s to dance to, and indeed is a favourite of many dancers.

Michael Tubridy’s association with Traditional Irish Step-Dancing began with a meeting between Michael, his wife Celine, and Dan Furey from Labasheeda. Dan Furey was born in England in 1909, but moved to Co. Clare as a child. Dan’s parents were dancers and dances would often take place in the family home. Dan learned to play the fiddle, and he also played the melodeon and concertina. Dan learned his first steps from family members such as his brother George and his parents. While visiting his brother in England Dan attended classes run by Maurice O’Connor who was a dancing master originally from Cork.

Furey was anxious for others to learn his dances and steps. It was then that Celine and Michael began to visit Dan in Labasheeda. Originally Celine, who had danced in her youth in Donegal, was learning the steps directly from Dan while Michael would provide music. Michael recalls that Celine had forgotten some of the steps from her youth, but with the help of Furey began to recall her old steps as well as acquiring new ones. Dan soon began to urge Michael that it was as well for him to begin learning the steps also, and with that Michael began to learn what he could directly from Dan, or later from Celine.

It was at the Willie Clancy Summer School in 1990 where a group of locals, including Michael as well as Celine, founded step-dancing workshops and urged Dan Furey to teach his traditional dances to a wider audience. Since then Michael has taught workshops all across the globe, contributing massively to the increasing interest in Traditional Irish Step-Dancing. Michael told me that as recently as last week he was teaching a class on Zoom attended by 25 people from Japan!

Michael has since published a book “A Selection of Irish Traditional Step-Dances” which includes contributions from Dan Furey, Celine Tubridy, James Keane, Margaret Wray and Paidí ‘Bán’ Ó Broin. The publication includes Michael’s own system of notating each step within the dances.

The Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Musicians-in-Residence Scheme is jointly funded by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and the Arts Council and managed by Music Network. The scheme provides opportunities for performers and composers to develop and showcase new work and cultivate new artistic collaborations. The Residencies also serve to enrich the cultural environment of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and beyond.

The dlr Musicians-in-Residence Scheme was established in 2015. Previous Musicians-in-Residence have included composer and guitarist Dave Flynn, the Tommy Halferty Trio, chamber group Ikigai, percussionist and composer Éamonn Cagney, improvising pianist and composer Izumi Kimura, composer, sound designer and multi-instrumentalist Lara Gallagher, vocalist and songwriter Susan McKeown, pianist and composer Conor Linehan, sound artist and composer Craig Cox, musician and composer Sebastian Adams, The Eidola Trio, soprano Elizabeth Hilliard with composer Gráinne Mulvey, jazz drummer Matthew Jacobson and Metier, a jazz quintet led by Ronan Guilfoyle.