Dún na Sí Heritage Centre, Moate, Co Westmeath celebrates fifteen years of Set Dancing

By Matt Conlon

Set dancing is nothing new to the older members ont he committee. Back in the late 30’s and into the 40’s when they were growing up, set dancing played a big part in their way of life and entertainment. At that time weekly sessions would be held in the homes. Usually a particular house in the area would be the focal point. This house was sometimes known as ‘The Céilí House’ or ‘The Half-way House’. There, the musicians, singers, dancers, and storytellers would get together for a night’s entertainment.

The musicians sat around a big turf fire and played music to their heart’s content. Later on the kitchen table would be pushed back against the wall and space would be made for the Set dancing and waltzing. Young and old alike took aprt in these dances. The expression ‘around the hosue and mind the dresser’ originated from these kitchen scenes. Sparks would sometimes be seen flying fromt he flag stones as the tips on the men’s boots would connect in a lively swing.

Everyone got the message when it was time to go hom as Granny sitting in the corner on the hob would let down her long grey hair and start to plait it in preparation for bed. The woman of the house or the ‘Bean an Tí’ as she was known would be seen standing ove the dying embers of the fire stirring something in a big three-legged pot. In the pot wa ‘stir-about or gruel’ as it was known in some parts of the country. Before the people left for home a large mugh of tea and brown bread was passed around to everyone present, as well as a good sprinkling of Holy Water to guide them on their way.

They were the good old days, long since gone, never to return.

But do not despair as the old tradition of the big turf fire, with its hobs on eith side together with the súgán chairs, and big timber beams on the ceiling, not forgetting the friendly cup of tea, are all very much alive at Dún na Sí to-day.

The best of all the Set-Céilí continues to happen there twice monthly. See some of you at the next Set-Céilí.

In September 1985 the committee of Moate Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann officially opened the Dún na Sí Heritage Centre. This was the brainchild of the late Frank Bracken and the committee of the Moate Branch of CCE. This was a great achievement. We had a lovely hall, but a lot had to be done to keep the door open andmake it pay. Up to this, céilithe were held in the Grand Hotel, Moate. At this time, céilí dancers were falling away in the area, so we had to look for something new.

Set Dancing on a public floor in Westmeath and adjoining counties was unknown. The committee at this stage agreed to hold a set-dancing workshop. Two of our committee had been to a workshop with the late Connie Ryan in 1986. This gave the committee the incentive to go ahead with one themselves. On Saturday 28th February 1987 we had Joe Troy, Tipperary to teach us two Polka Sets, the Cashel and the North Kerry. On Sunday 29th February Pad Liddy, Clare taught us the Caladonian set, with the reel strps. This weekend was a great success and was the start of Set Dancing in dance halls in the Midlands, although three members had danced half-sets at ‘house dances’ in the Moate area in the mid forties. Music was supplied by local musicians, and also on the old gramphone with the Moate Céilí Band.

It wasn’t until 16th December 1988 that we felt confident to run an all-night Set Céilí. We believe it was the first Set Céilí to be held in Leinster. The Sets on the night were: Cashel, North Kerry, Mazurka, Caladonian, Ballyvourney Jig Set, Plain Set.

During the next five years until 1993 we continued our Set Céilí, helped by two further workshops with Joe and Siobhán Donovan. Set classes at this time had commenced on Monday nights with the turor, the late Frank Bracken. These were very difficult years for our committee as our income wasn’t sufficient to keep set dancing going. Some dancers liked and others didn’t, as simple as that! A small number of dancers kept coming and we thank them. We also thank the bands most sincerely for staying with us.

From 1993 it slowly started to take off. Now ten years on, it has passed all our expectations. We know 20,000+ people have passed through the door, over fifteen yars. On behalf of the Committee and myself we thank the dancers from all over the country and all the bands who made our venture such a success.