A gay and a Jesuit in mufti pay homage to Terpsichore

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Anxious to share some of my recent experiences in Irish dancing with my readers this week, I rang my friend Aideen and said: "Give me the names of some set-dances. You know, like the `Walls of Limerick'." Aid-een's voice took on that patient tone that mothers of adolescents often acquire. "That's not a set-dance, Ruth. It's a ceili dance."

"What's the difference?"

"The set-dance is intricate formation dancing. Ceili dancing is more informal."

"Which," I asked in genuine puzzlement, "is the one I'm no good at?"

"Both, Ruth." I thought I heard her sigh. "You're no good at either of them. In fact, you're terrible."


"Because both require some teamwork. And as a dancer, you err on the side of individuality."

My defence is that I am a victim of circumstances: from time to time I am forced into being a bad Irish dancer for the lack of any Terpsichorean alternative at which I would be less bad.

One of the many pleasures in visiting Dublin used to be going with friends to night-clubs, where one could talk and leap about till the early morning. Nowadays, sadly, the yoof have taken over most of these haunts so they are no longer suitable for people without severe hearing disabilities. And most of my energetic Irish friends have taken to set-dancing (with ceili interludes), which these days is tremendously fashionable. Naturally, after a few convivial drinks, I feel the urge to join in.

For most of my life I hated the very notion of Irish dancing. When I was a schoolgirl, one of the tortures visited upon me was compulsory classes in Irish step - as opposed to set - dancing. This essentially involved a great deal of intricate hopping, with all movement restricted to below the knee. You had to keep your body rigid, your hands by your sides and your face expressionless. Success required extreme agility, physical coordination, slavish obedience to rules and some other qualities I conspicuously lack, so of course I was disastrously bad and, to my relief, was expelled from the class.

Set-dancing requires the same qualities along with teamwork. It was, perhaps, no coincidence that when in middle-age I made an effort to learn how to do it, I was once again expelled from the class. I can see the teacher's point of view: he is a man who likes to stick rigidly to tradition. Unfortunately, he couldn't see mine, which was that set-dancing could only benefit from the introduction of some jive.

This disagreement happened a few years ago when I first attended the annual debauch known as the Merriman summer school, which was founded many years ago in honour of a Rabelaisian, 18th-century, Irish-language poet. Originally conceived to annoy church and state (Merriman was banned by the Censorship Board), the summer school consists of lectures on cultural or political themes, but its real purpose is to provide the more raffish of the chattering classes with the opportunity to spend a week together having a good time: it is the opposite of a health farm.

Knowing my propensity to stay up till 6am, even in normal circumstances, for years I refused to go to Merriman, but siren voices ultimately prevailed, and one summer I went off with the mob to Co Clare.

Una, my chief tempter, is of a lethargic, and hence non-dancing, disposition, so had not thought to warn me that every evening large numbers of Merripersons spent hours in vigorous leaping. But Aideen gave me this information and recommended that I join the morning dancing class. "I wouldn't have thought it was your kind of thing," observed Una when I told her I intended to do this. "But don't let me stop you. Go ahead and mess it up." So I located an anarchist and we had half an hour of tuition before our modernising attempts led to our joint expulsion.

I reasoned that, being barred from formal instruction, my only option was to pick up the necessary skills from other performers. So that night, around midnight, when quartets were being called into being to perform the "Walls of Limerick", I found three pliable friends and dragged them to the dance floor.

The "Walls of Limerick", like the "Siege of Ennis", commemorates somewhat obscurely an occasion when the Irish - yet again - heroically lost a battle with the English. My quartet tried hard, and we thought - what onlookers were later to challenge - that we did quite well. But then I became inspired and proposed further modernising. Such dances, I felt, were politically incorrect, and their intrinsic heterosexism might hurt the feelings of the gay member of our group. So we developed a non-heterosexist variation that involved women dancing with women and men with men. It raised many eyebrows among the watching locals. I regret to this day that I resisted the temptation to make it known to them that the man with whom the gay member was dancing was a Jesuit in mufti.

"I see," said Una, when I returned to her table. "Not content with being a revisionist historian [a term of abuse often levelled at me in republican circles], you had to become a revisionist set-dancer."

From time to time, at various functions, I join in. Unfortunately, as the years have gone on, and the popularity of set-dancing has grown, my friends and acquaintances have become more proficient, while I, although I remain enthusiastic, have made no progress whatsoever. I'm threatening to go to Merriman this summer unless they pay me to stay away.