Cork twinkletoes, aged 82, who has dance history at his fingertips features in TV documentary

82-year old Cork dance legend John Cullinane features in a TV documentary this Thursday, writes Kathriona Devereux
Cork twinkletoes, aged 82, who has dance history at his fingertips features in TV documentary

LONG DANCE TRADITION: John Cullinane shows off his moves at UCC in 1998, when he was a lecturer in Botany. He is now retired

IF you passed John Cullinane doing his daily lap of The Lough, you would never know he was an 82-year-old dancing legend who has travelled the world and played a part in bringing Irish dancing to the global stage.

Search his name on Youtube and you’ll find a black and white film from 1963 of him dancing a Liverpool Hornpipe on an open-air stage in Cashel.

It was RTE’s first outside broadcast and the cameras captured his beautiful and simple example of rhythmical footwork and lilting fiddle that warrants the half a million views it has amassed over the years.

This Thursday night, John will appear on RTE1 in the documentary Steps Of Freedom: The Story Of Irish Dance, a sweeping, cinematic two-part documentary series that tells the story of how Irish dance evolved from a humble peasant dance to become a global phenomenon.

It is an intricate story that weaves through time and features Oliver Cromwell, Gene Kelly, bronze age musical instruments, tap dancing, Kilmainham Jail, Missy Elliott, the London Irish diaspora, and so much more.

As a producer of the documentary, I had the pleasure of getting to know John, tapping into his encyclopaedic knowledge and developing an appreciation of a part of Irish culture that many have dismissed as a show of fake, tanned, bouncy, wigged athleticism.

I challenge you to watch the documentaries and not want to crack out a few forgotten steps in your kitchen or seek out adult Irish dancing classes in your neighbourhood.

Long retired as a botany lecturer in UCC, John is keeping busy cataloging and transferring his extensive archive of photos, articles, programmes and DVDs from his office in UCC’s Music Department in Sunday’s Well to the Irish Traditional Music Archive, where it will be digitised and made available to all.

He has old desiccated photos of Irish dancers bedecked in medals wearing dresses that have been described as “bespattered with the Book of Kells”, the first registers of teachers of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha who set the standards of teaching and competitions, and as a founding member he has the original documents relating to the establishment of the World Irish Dancing Championships. 2020 was supposed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Worlds, but that will hopefully happen in Belfast next year.

John Cullinane's mother Annie Philpott.
John Cullinane's mother Annie Philpott.

One of John’s most prized possessions is a delicate costume and sash worn by his mother Annie Philpot around 1918. She was an Irish dancer at a time of huge political unrest. Cork was being burned, our Lord Mayors were being murdered, and dancing was a defiant expression of politics, protest and Irish identity.

The Cork Volunteers Pipe Band would assemble outside the North Mon in full costume with tricolours waving, and parade the dancers through the city, down Patrick Street, to dancing competitions and festivals. It must have been some spectacle!

How people dance all over the world is influenced by the social, economic and political environment of the time.

The problem with dance is that you can’t visit the National Gallery or the National History Museum and see an example of a dance from 1921 or 1821 or 1721, in the way that you could look at a painting or piece of pottery or ancient jewellery and get an understanding of what life was like back then.

Dance is described as a form of intangible cultural heritage. And that was the challenge of this documentary, how could we chart the evolution of Irish dancing and the various influences throughout the centuries that transformed it into an art form that is loved by millions who have no connection to Ireland?

John has written 12 books on the history of Irish dancing. He likes to think about three phases of the genre, the first being the early 1900s, with the aim for the de-anglicisation of Ireland and a desire to get freedom culturally and politically.

He sees the second phase around the 1940s and ’50s and the rise of the Irish diaspora in the US and UK, with Irish dancing being the glue that brought those communities together.

The third phase is now - the global phase - with the after-effects of mega shows like Riverdance and Lord Of The Dance seeing weekly Irish dance classes in more than 60 countries around the world, from Mexico to Japan.

John Cullinane with fellow dancer Brenda Springer
John Cullinane with fellow dancer Brenda Springer

According to John, it was a Cork woman who paved the way for female dancers to wear hard shoes. Peggy McTeggart was originally from Dundalk but after 70 years of teaching multiple generations of Cork children, we can claim her as a Cork woman.

She was the 1939 All-Ireland champion and was asked to give a demonstration in Newry following her win. 

Despite being asked to change her footwear, she did a heavy jig in heavy shoes and when she was finished apparently the musicians put down their instruments, stood up and clapped her.

A moment in Irish dancing history was born, as John said: “From that little incident, you got boys and girls beating out the beat in the front row at Riverdance together.”

John Cullinane with Michael Flatley.
John Cullinane with Michael Flatley.

Would we have a Jean Butler without a Peggy McTeggart? Who knows. What we do know is that Irish dancing no longer belongs to the Irish. Its percussive and intricate footwork appeals to people from all cultural backgrounds.

It has become a global dance, like ballet or tap, and Bandon Road resident John Cullinane has had a front row seat watching the evolution of Irish dancing throughout his lifetime.

Steps of Freedom: The Story of Irish Dance is on RTE1 on Thursday, December 16 and Thursday, December 23rd at 10.15pm.

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