Dancing in Ireland since the 1920s: Your recollections needed. Maria Luddy

Many readers and their parents will have great recollections of the dancing scene in Ireland. You can help write the history. Share your thoughts and send on the stories needed to build a picture of the dancing scene in Ireland. Many will recall Je t’aime played in the 1960s in St Mary’s Hall, or the Harriers, Tullamore. But what about the County Ballroom and the parish halls in Clara, Birr, Rahan, Killeigh and so many more. Did dancing bring about the ‘ruin of virtue’?

Dancing has always been a source of expression, fun and entertainment in Ireland.  People danced at the crossroads, in each other’s houses, at social events, festivals, and in licensed dancehalls all around the country.  From the early twentieth century the Catholic hierarchy became particularly concerned with the opportunities that might arise for sexual immorality in dancehalls.  In October 1925 the bishops and archbishops of Ireland issued a statement which was to be read at ‘the principal masses, in all churches on the first Sunday of each quarter of the ecclesiastical year.’ The statement referred to the ‘evils of dancing’ and it was ‘a grave and solemn warning to the people with regard to the spiritual dangers associated with dancing’.  The statement noted: ‘We know too well the fruit of these [dance] halls all over the country. It is nothing new, alas, to find Irish girls now and then brought to shame, and retiring to the refuge of institutions or the dens of great cities. But dancing halls, more especially, in the general uncontrol of recent years, have deplorably aggravated the ruin of virtue due to ordinary human weakness. They have brought many a good innocent girl into sin, shame and scandal, and set her unwary feet on the road that leads to perdition’.  The behaviour of the men did not elicit much comment. From the mid-1920s and throughout the early 1930s there were constant references in the newspapers to the problems of dancehalls and motor cars.  In 1931 Cardinal McRory combined the two and saw a growing evil in ‘the parking of cars close to dancehalls in badly lighted village streets or on dark country roads.  Cars so placed are used … by young people for sitting out in the intervals between dances’.  ‘Joy-riding’ had a very different connotation in the period than it does now.  Reporting on a sermon by the bishop of Galway, the Irish Independent noted that ‘joy-riding’ was conducted by ‘Evil men – demons in human form come from outside the parish and outside the city – to indulge in this practice.  They lure girls from the town to go for motor drives into the country, and you know what happens… it is not for the benefit of the motor drive.  It is for something infinitely worse’.

Dancing at the county ballroom, Tullamore about 1952

Dancehalls were seen clearly as sites of corruption, dancing could be sexually charged, and the presence of alcohol made the possibilities more frightening.  Dangers lurked in cars, in dancehalls, in country lanes, in city streets, even in newspaper reports themselves.  The legal regulation of recreation and recreational spaces was deemed, together with supervisory vigilance, to be the means by which appropriate behaviour at such venues could be ensured.  For the Church, the State and many welfare workers, the way forward was to introduce legislation that would, amongst other things, regulate the dancehalls in a stricter way.

The gardai had noted that unregulated dances were turned into ‘orgies of dissipation’ which under current legislation they were not able to police.  After considerable lobbying, by the clergy, judges, the gardai, and others, the Public Dance Halls Act was introduced in 1935. The legislation appeared draconian, but was possibly more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Dancehalls now had to be licensed and members of the clergy and the guards could object to licensing, which they now did on numerous occasions.  Dancehalls were also inspected to ensure that they were safe spaces under public health legislation.   Not all judges, however, denied a license and they were aware of the popularity of the dancehall, particularly in rural Ireland where forms of entertainment could be limited.  In 1937 the authorities had registered 1,176 licensed dance halls around the country. Donegal had 139 such establishments, the most in the country. The lowest number of halls was attributed to Longford which had only 8 licensed dance halls. Albert Reynolds didn’t begin his dancehall business until the 1960s.  Offaly had 18 halls.

The local papers always had news from these dance halls, whether it was in advertising the dances or in reporting the fisticuffs that often took place where too much alcohol had been consumed.  Clerics tried to control the actual behaviour of individuals and couples both inside the dancehall and in the lanes and byways after the dance.  The etiquette expected of dance hall activity can be seen in a 1955 Catholic pamphlet ‘The Devil at Dances’ where the reader was told: ‘Do not dance with the same partner the whole evening.  The advice continued: ‘Now a question. Why should a girl to-day fear to object to a partner who presumes? Afraid she won’t get a dance, or perhaps a husband? Doesn’t she realize that a man who uses dancing as a means of unlawfully indulging sex attraction is usually not the marrying kind and that even if he were he wouldn’t be worth having? She’s missing nothing but sin. The same applies to the suggestive talk that is only too common even in mixed company.’

Many of these dance halls would have notices informing their patrons how to behave while on the premises.  I have been trying to locate these kinds of notices and so far, in communication with many museums and archives around Ireland, have only come across one notice which asked patrons not to spit on the floor!  These kinds of notices are part of our social history and if any readers have copies of such notices, or know where such notices can be found, I would love to hear from them. 

                                                              Maria  Luddy


Keeley’s band, Tullamore in the 1950s or early 1960s.