Descended from Dublin


As part of my MA in Irish Dance Studies, I did a lot of research into my own dance lineage.  I wanted to identify how and by whom Irish dance has been transmitted and passed down to the next generation.  This helped me to understand myself as a dancer and teacher, but it also shed light on the history of Irish dance more broadly.  For this post, I want to focus on two significant women in the history of Irish dance: Essie Connolly (c. 1900-1994) and Lily Comerford (c. 1904-1965). 

Formal Irish dance classes were established in the early twentieth century.  Prior to that, dance education was informal, being learned at home, at community events, or by travelling dancing masters.  The shift to formal Irish dance classes can be attributed to the formation of the Gaelic League (1893) whose mission, initially, was to preserve Irish language and literature, but which soon expanded to include Irish dance.[1]  Dancing quickly became a focal point for the celebration of Irish culture and soon the demand for dancing lessons grew.  Essie Connolly and Lily Comerford were pioneers as female dance teachers in Dublin.  They stood in sharp contrast to the male-dominated dancing culture in Cork.[2]

Essie Connolly began teaching in 1918 and was one of the first to make Irish dance instruction her profession.  She had learned Irish dance from her first teacher, Lennagh Pembroke, who had learned from Tadgh O’Leary, originally from Cork.  Before Tadgh O’Leary arrived in Dublin circa 1900, dancing had not been very popular in Dublin, though that was not the case for long.

Lily Comerford began teaching circa 1922, she was also one of the first to assume Irish dance teaching as a profession and was one of the first to introduce distinctive class costumes for competitions.  She first learned Irish dance from Maxwell Brewer, who ran a type of dance academy in the city centre.  Brewer and his wife predominantly taught ballroom, but were unique in that they also taught Irish solo jigs.  Anecdotal accounts say that the Brewers learned Irish dancing in Cork prior to moving to Dublin in 1880.[3]

In early twentieth-century Dublin, there was no dance tradition on which to draw, and being “tired of the routine of reels, jigs, and hornpipes”[4] they sought to learn as much traditional material as they could in Cork.  Both Essie Connolly and Lily Comerford claim to the be the first to travel to Cork to learn set dances from Cormac O’Keefe.  Connolly credited O’Keefe with teaching her The Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, and the Garden of Daisies[5] and even a setting of Miss Brown’s Fancy.[6]  The choreography of the traditional set dances came from the travelling dance masters, who were a part of rural, not urban culture.  Cormac O’Keefe was a central figure in the dissemination of traditional set choreography across Ireland.  By the 1940s, however, Dublin teachers began to choreograph their own dances to the new dancing tunes, and the importance of Cork and the influence of the travelling dance masters dwindled. 

Lily Comerford set up performances for her dancers in Germany and Wales in the 1930s and founded the Irish Folk Dance Society in 1933.  In 1958, she represented Ireland at the Federation of International Folk Groups.[7]

Essie Connolly was a founding member of the Irish Dance Teachers Association – a Dublin-based organisation committed to dealing solely with Irish dance, open only to those deemed competent to teach Irish dancing.[8]  When the Irish Dancing Commission formed in YEAR, she registered both as a teacher and an adjudicator.[9]   Over the years, Essie Connolly taught Irish dance to thousands of Dubliners.[10]

The influence of these two pioneers of Irish dance has permeated Irish dance.  Most significantly for me as a Canadian Irish dancer, both Lily and Essie taught Mae Butler (neé McDonnell), who is credited as bringing Irish dance to Canada when she emigrated in 1953[11] and whose presence is large in my own dancing lineage.  Stay tuned to read more about Mae Butler and her Irish dance legacy.

[1] John Cullinane, Aspects of the History of Irish Céilí Dancing, 1897-1997 (Cork City: Self-Published, 1998), 22.

[2] John Cullinane, Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in Dublin, 1890-2017 (Cork City: Self-Published, 2017), 15.

[3] Cullinane, Dublin, 16.

[4] Cullinane, Further Aspects in the History of Irish Dancing (Cork City, Self-Published, 2001), 83.

[5] Cullinane, Dublin, 32.

[6] Cullinane, Further Aspects, 84.

[7] Cullinane, Dublin, 36.

[8] Cullinane, Dublin, 39.

[9] Cullinane, Further Aspects, 81.

[10] Cullinane, Further Aspects, 81.

[11] Cullinane, Dublin, 15-16.

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