Larne should be “really proud of its Irish dancing heritage”, says Angeline King, author of a new book on the subject.
Angeline has written ‘Irish Dancing - the Festival Story’ which comes with 34 pictures and will be launched at Larne Library, on October 25, at 6.30pm.
Angeline, who organised the 90th anniversary Irish dancing exhibition at Larne Museum, earlier this year, revealed that her new book took two years to research and write, after interviewing more than 80 people.
She said that the Irish dancing festival tradition was established in Larne in 1928 and is still going strong today.
She explained that originally, Irish dancing took place in the town as part of the annual music festival.
She noted that it has always had a “cross-community element” in Larne.
“In Larne, Irish dancing does not have any political context. I discovered that Irish dancing started in Larne as a result of a revival in Irish folk dancing.
“Irish dancing was added to the folk festival in 1920.
“A man called Peadar O’Rafferty, from Belfast, who was involved in the Gaelic League taught dancers to keep their arms by their side at the first festival. The adjudicator liked a nice refined style.”
In her book, she notes that the costumes at the festival “soon came under some scrutiny”.
A report in the “Northern Whig” newspaper stated: “The girls were well turned out in the ‘dress of the Irish colleen;’ in this instance, a white dress with shoulder cape.”
Angeline went on to say that the popularity of the Larne Festival was at its peak in the Seventies when as many as 2,400 dancers travelled to the McNeill Hall from across Northern Ireland.
During the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike, the festival committee voted to go ahead with the annual festival as planned, despite fears of power cuts.
“That year, 2,200 people managed to get through blockades,” said Angeline.
“Larne Festival still attracts people from all over the province.
“People in Larne should be really proud of their Irish dancing heritage. It has brought people together.”
In particular, she credited Irish dancing teachers Marjorie Gardiner and Margaret McAllister, from Andrews School of dancing, Moira Metson, Metson’s School of Dancing and Nancy Hooper, of Hooper’s School of Dancing for the pivotal role they played in maintaining and strengthening the tradition in the town.
At the 1934, Larne Musical Festival, the then 12-year old Marjorie Andrews was awarded the Cashel Bowl for the most promising all-round junior dancer.
Encouraged by her teacher, Miss Mulholland, Marjorie opened her own school of dancing in 1936 at the age of 15 years, in the front room of her home at St. John’s Place.
She went on to open a studio at Point Street. Undeterred by a prerequisite of the feis circuit that competitors must have a knowledge of the Irish language, she simply invited an Irish language teacher into her home a to provide lessons to a few of her pupils.
Angeline went on to say she believed that Betty Lewis, from Larne, was possibly one of Ireland’s greatest dancers.
At the Larne Festival in March 1932, one adjudicator recommended that the dancers “infuse more ‘go’ into their work”.
He said that some dancers were like Greek statues rather than hearty, jovial dancers, and he told them to take a leaf out of Betty Lewis’ book noting that she smiled all the way through her winning dance in the under-12 section and danced as if it were a pleasure”.
Angeline pointed out that when Betty was a serving member of the British Army, she won the senior title of the All-Ireland championship in Dublin, despite not having danced for two-and-a-half years.
Angeline reported that by 1950, the number of Irish dancing entries at the Larne Musical Festival had shot up to 1,200.
In 1953, the Irish Folk Dancing Festival attracted almost 1,000 entrants over 3,000 competitions, and in 1955, Moira Metson “experienced great pride” when her pupil, Joan Beggs, picked up the coveted Cashel Bowl.
Although the number of dancers may have grown significantly in Larne, Angeline pointed out that financial support had dwindled. The festival collapsed in 1956.
In 1963, the committee members of the Irish folk dancing section of the musical festival re-emerged as an independent body determined to restore the festival.
The festival gradually grew to be the largest of the festival tradition in Northern Ireland.
In 1979, the number of entries at the Larne Irish folk dancing competition was 2,400. Eleanor Greenlees, festival chairperson, stated that it was the largest of the Irish folk dancing festivals in the province adding that it had “gone off without a hitch”.
Lady Antrim, president of the Larne Irish Folk Dancing Association, once commented: “Irish folk dancing is one of the arts which brings all sections of the community together to work and compete in harmony.”