Cork Nostalgia: I stepped out and I stepped in again

Cork Nostalgia: I stepped out and I stepped in again
First Year Céilí in Colaiste Chríost Rí exactly 40 years ago this year. (1977)

GIRLS can do it naturally: boys take a little coaxing - but once the boys crack it, there’s no stopping them.

My early introduction to ceilí dancing left me convinced that I was mentally slow and physically inept.

My problem was I never let my left foot know what my right foot was doing: I simply concentrated on getting my feet out of the way faster than my partner could stand on them.

As for talking and dancing at the same time…..forget it! Then I met Móna.

Móra was one of the ‘Ábhar Muinteoirí’ – trainee teachers – down in Dingle from the teacher training college in Limerick on her compulsory month in the Gaeltach.

I was on a GAA scholarship with a few of the lads from UCC and the nightly céilí was a ‘must’ if you wanted to meet up with the girls. However, our total lack of expertise on the dance floor was sucking the confidence out of us with a subsequent lack of success with the ladies.

Móna took pity on me and installed herself as my personal dance instructor for the remainder of the holidays.

I didn’t mind one little bit as I already had had my eye on her and, anyway, I always felt one-to-one coaching was best in the long run: don’t you?

First Year Céilí in Colaiste Chríost Rí exactly 40 years ago this year. (1977)
First Year Céilí in Colaiste Chríost Rí exactly 40 years ago this year. (1977)

I learnt a lot from Móna that summer and anything I learned in the dance field I passed on to the lads in the digs. Everything else I kept to myself!

A hAon, Dó, Trí - the basic céilí steps – is the first thing you learn and the last thing you master but Mona was an excellent teacher and master it I did.

I even got the other lads to conquer it, too, and the dance floor became the field of dreams for the remainder of the holiday.

The ugly ducklings had turned into, well, if not graceful swans then certainly dexterous geese and our awkwardness on the dance floor was a thing of the past.

Céilí dancing is like riding a bike: once learned you have it for ever more.

Some few years later, as a young teacher in CCRí, the question of running a céilí in the school was mooted but was shot down as it was felt the boys’ inability to dance properly would only lead to chaos – a very sensible observation.

However, the seed had been planted and a few of us undertook to teach the First Year kids the rudimentary céilí steps. Of course, I thought I was the Nijinsky of the céilí world (I know, I know, he was also a horse!) but, mo léar, for every dance I knew Seamus Lankford knew 10 and he was quickly installed as our Lord of the Dance and lessons began.

As I said earlier, the basic three steps are the first ones to learn but the last to master but when the boys finally crack them – wow! – they just take off like young eaglets beginning to soar.

The gauche, embarrassed plodder who has been testing your patience for, a week or more, suddenly transforms into a poised, confident performer and you can see the relief flooding his whole being as he appears almost afraid to stop lest the magic disappears. But it never does and he is a dancer now for as long as he wishes to dance.

The First Years took to céilí like ducks to water and, like all boys, their desire to conquer the various dances became almost competitive.

As Christmas approached there was nothing for it but to bring on the girls and we sent word to the girls schools in the locality, “Send us your, tired, your poor, your huddled masses” well, with apologies to the Statue of Liberty, you know what I mean!

Our first Christmas Céilí was a roaring success. The girls couldn’t believe it: boys that could actually dance. In fact, in many instances the boys were showing the girls how to dance! The céilís became a weekly event and we had to issue membership cards to the girls in an effort to limit numbers – they were even coming down to us from Dillon’s Cross, Mayfield and Sunday’s Well, exotic creatures from across the river. But, boy, could they dance.

Seamus Lankford was our Bertram Mills and no Circus Master was as adept at running his show. He ruled with an iron fist, albeit in a very velvet glove, and the kids were mad about him. He taught them all the dances he knew: The Walls of Limerick, The Siege of Ennis; The Haymaker’s Jig, Why, we even had them doing sixteen-hand reels, and to see six or seven groups of sixteen teenagers dancing in unison is a sight to behold. While I have plenty photographs of those nights, for some reason I never thought to video them. My loss surely.

Of course, the following year we introduced the new First Years to céilí dancing and, by this time, the word was out and they couldn’t wait to begin. And so it went on for four or five years until, eventually, every lad in the school was a competent dancer with his own designated night for a céilí in the school hall.

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays were céilí nights for the various age groups (Where did we get the energy?) and the highlight of each group’s year was the Christmas Dress Céilí where they came in all their finery.

Well, the style on those nights! The lacquered hair-dos, the sparkling faces, the trendy gear and the matched accessories, down to the colourful patent leather shoes. And, in fairness, the girls made a big effort too!

Seamus would build the night up to a crescendo of excitement and then, just when it was at its pitch, Bang! The night was over: he’d leave them gasping for more. “See you all next week again.” Our one concern on those nights was always the impact of releasing a large group of kids onto the Capwell Road at nightime. The last thing you wanted was to upset the neighbours: but we never did. Lankford’s maxim was always to “Send ’em home sweating” and it worked like a charm.

Even to this day I still get middle-aged women come up to me, it could be anywhere, “Hi Mister Cummins. Remember me? I’m (whover) from Regina Mundi/Christ King/Pres. Ballyphehane. I’m one of the céilí girls.” Sometimes I’d recognise them but most often I wouldn’t but for a few moments together we’d be back in the 1970s before either of us had ever heard of tracker mortgages or negative equity or fair deal schemes and the only concern was “Will Mr. Lankford ever call Rogha na mBan? (ladies’ choice) Alas, this scribe wasn’t Mona’s choice, ach sin scéal eile!

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