North Kerry Style

Last week I finished the latest four-week online class of North Kerry style Irish dance.  One of the things that I love about Irish dance is that there are many regional variations; each with its own style and flow.  My teacher in North Kerry style is Jonathan Kelliher, a modern North Kerry dance master and currently the artistic director at Siamsa Tíre.  He began dancing at the age of six with Jimmy Hickey, who continues to share with Jonathan in order to preserve as much of the historic Molyneaux choreography as possible.  Hickey learned from Liam Dineen, who learned from Jeremiah Molyneaux (1882-1965), regionally known as Jerry Munnix. North Kerry style is Molyneaux’s legacy.  Molyneaux learned from Nedín Batt Walsh (c. 1835-c. 1901), who learned from Tom Moore also known as Múirín (1823-1878), who learned from O’Ceirín of Castlemaine in South Kerry, who taught in the last years of the eighteenth century.[1]  Though oral tradition likes to credit Múirín as having “learned dance from the fairies.”[2]

Born in Gunsboro, Co. Kerry as the youngest of seven children to Ellen Scanlon, a dress maker, and William Molyneaux, a blacksmith,[3] Jeremiah Molyneaux was the last of the itinerant dance masters in North Kerry.  Dance masters were popular across Europe, their roles growing out of late Renaissance dance and courtly style.  At the core, dance masters brought dance and ballroom etiquette instruction to various sectors of society, though ballroom etiquette was eliminated after the Great Famine (1845-1851).  Dance masters’ instruction was integral to the “civilizing process” throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[4]  Molyneaux was an itinerant dance master; therefore, he occupied the lowest strata in the social hierarchy of dance masters.  And yet, as an itinerant dance master, Molyneaux and others like him, “cultivated step dancing as a dance form in Ireland within the context of British colonialism.”[5]  They “taught everywhere from kitchens to crossroads, and on anything, including table tops, half doors, barrel tops, even anvils.”[6]  The dance masters taught an important skill in step dancing – control and mastery over mind and body.  This was an Irish form of civilization, one that stood in contrast to English stereotypes of the “uncivilized” Irish.[7]  In the North Kerry style, step dancing requires foot and body control, but especially a lightness of feet, which works in harmony with the music.[8]  The dancing, therefore, is simultaneously a visual and aural experience.

The North Kerry style is frequently called Munnix style because Molyneaux “was so inventive in choreography and prolific in teaching,”[9] to the extent that he preserved local dances while they were vanishing throughout Ireland.  Phil Cahill recounts having learned five different settings of the The Blackbird from Molyneaux.[10]  As a dance master, Molyneaux had a hierarchy of steps.  Some which he readily shared with all dancers, others which he gave to specific dancers, and others still which he guarded jealously for himself, partly because being known as the best was integral to his status as dance master.  His steps were his knowledge and his social capital. He took many steps with him to the grave.[11]  So desirable were Molyneaux’s best steps, that his pupils would work together to try to learn them when he performed.  They would divide up the counts of music and work to record them to later reconstruct the steps for themselves.[12]  The steps embodied the relationship of the dancers to the land on which they danced – dance was integral to identity.[13]

One of the most important aspects of the tradition – beyond the steps, rhythm, and technique – is genealogy.  North Kerry dancers know from whom their teachers learned as far back as Múirín.  They know from whom they learned their steps and often when they were created.  As part of my MA, dance genealogy fascinated me, so I put mine together.  When I began classes with Jonathan, I wanted to know more about the North Kerry jigs we had learned in the program.  I typed out the words to the steps as taught to me and Jonathan was able to tell me who choreographed them and when – knowing the source matters as much as knowing the steps.  When someone learns a North Kerry step, they are invited into a rich and proud tradition that traces its lineage over two hundred years.  I’m looking forward to the next session with Jonathan and stepping once more into the flow of North Kerry step dancing.

[1] Breandán Breathnach, Folk Music and Dances of Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press, 1977), 56.

[2] Catherine E. Foley, Step Dancing in Ireland: Culture and History (London: Routledge, 2016), 69.

[3] “The Dancemasters of North Kerry,” Between the Jigs and the Reels Siamsa Tíre at 40, September 23, 2014. (accessed February 13, 2023).

[4] Foley, 2.

[5] Foley, 2.

[6] Anna Zacharias, “Style is Back,” New Lines Magazine, September 6, 2022. (accessed February 13, 2023).

[7] Foley, 75.

[8] Foley, 75.

[9] Zacharias, 2022.

[10] Helen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance (Dingle: Brandon, 2004), 55.

[11] Foley, 104.

[12] Foley, 84.

[13] Zacharias, 2022.

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