Seznamte se! 7. 8. 2013
Dr. John Cullinane
You have been involved with Irish Dance from your childhood. Was dance part of your family heritage?
Yes. First of all I was born in Cork City in 1939.
My mother was a dancer before me and in my book on the history of Irish Dancing Costume she features on page 22 in her dancing costume. She learned her dancing in the Cork Pipers’ Club, and I went to dancing when I was about 11 years of age, so roughly around 1950, here in Cork City.
I’ve traveled the world over, but I’m very, very much a Cork person. I’m lecturing here in this university 40 years this year, and so I learned all my dancing in Cork City.
A lot of the dancing seems to be centered around the Cork area. Is it a bigger or older center for the dance than other parts of Ireland?
Yes. Historically, Cork and Kerry were the great areas for the travelling dancing masters, and to an extent, Limerick. But West Cork and Cork City were great centers going back a hundred — two hundred years ago.
The arrival of dancing in Dublin, for example, is relatively recent because it only followed the Gaelic League foundations in the 1890’s. The travelling dancing masters, who were the people who really brought the solo dancing into Ireland, came on the scene early in the eighteenth century, somewhere roughly between 1700 and 1750, and they were very, very much a Munster phenomenon, very much Cork and Kerry. So Cork has one of the greatest, longest traditions. So I was born into the right county!
Nowadays the opportunities for children to go to festivals and compete are numerous. Was it very different in the past, and did people travel (even within Ireland) as extensively for the feisanna as they do now?
The answer is, very definitely and obviously not. The feisanna (competitions), or feis, the singular, as we know it today was founded by the Gaelic League in 1893, and the first feisanna were held in Macroom in West Cork in 1898 (this has all been written up of course in my books) — Macroom, homeland, of course, of William Penn of Pennsylvania – so the whole concept of the feis was actually again a West Cork phenomenon.
Now in earlier times, travel wasn’t as easy, and I grew up the 1940’s – 50’s, and even then, while we might not have had quite ‘Angela’s Ashes’ childhoods, you just did not have the facilities to travel as you do, and we went to competitions and to feis out in West Cork. I went to Limerick once a year and that was about it.
Money was scarce and travel wasn’t anything like it is now. And certainly the idea in my young days of going to England or America for competition would have been totally out of the question.
Now, the whole concept of competition has changed. And it’s of interest to learn that the first competition in McCroom had about 6 or 8 competitors, and even the first oireachtus in Dublin had only about 6 or 8 competitors — less than 10 — whereas nowadays, we are talking about competitions of 2,000, 2,500, the dancers from Cork City, just flying all over the world.
They fly to England quite regularly. They go to North America every year for the North American Championships. They’re held at different venues around North America, and they attract somewhere in excess of about 3,000 competitors.
One feis in Chicago alone, where they have 1,800 dancers there in one day — going on at 8 or 10 different platforms!
And it’s fascinating to think of the whole concept of the feis — the competitions — starting just a hundred years ago. Nowadays, in the last two or three years, we’ve had dancers from Cork travelling to Australia for competition, and so this has brought the whole world of dancing much closer.
One of the down sides is that the regional styles have been blended together. You can no longer tell a Kerry dancer from a Cork dancer, or a dancer from Illinois or Kentucky or North Queensland in Australia. They’ve all had the same kind of styling of costumes, the same style of dancing, because everybody wants to keep up with what is happening. So certainly the travel now is mind-boggling.
You turned to the sciences for your career despite your passion for Irish Dance. At what stage did you begin teaching dance, and did you ever consider it as the ‘day job’ instead of the university, and if you began again now, would Irish Dance be taking the lead in your life, rather than science?
(Big smile and a chuckle!) I’m not really sure. I suppose in one way I possibly had the best of both worlds — the freedom of the academic life. And let’s be honest — if I were in another job — a 9-5 sort of regular job, I don’t think I would have been able to pursue the research on the history of the dancing, as I have been able to.
I started teaching dancing in 1965 after qualifying as a teacher. I only taught dancing for 10 years. I stopped teaching formally in 1975. I say ‘formally’ because I still teach in a different format. Now I go away to places like South Africa, places like the most northernmost parts of North Queensland, and so I extend the boundaries, teaching in a different way.
The Master Class Workshop?
Yes. I think one of the things I found about competition at the time was that it was ‘touch and go’. I was lecturing here in university and loved that and loved the teaching side of things — my pupils and that — but trying to do that and run a dancing school…
I had a very successful dancing school. They won World Championships, All Ireland Championships, Great Britain Championships, and were very much at the cutting edge of competition. I don’t think I could have stayed in it without being at the cutting edge of competition, and yet there was another side to me that kept saying ‘there’s more to Irish Dancing than competition, there are other aspects of it’.
And so that’s what I suppose was in me all the time — the love of dancing in the whole, broad sense. And that’s where I developed and started my research and my poking around into the background and the history of it.
So certainly at present and for many years past now the research and the Irish Dancing history is my greatest love. And I have completed 40 years of lecturing here and I suppose to some extent have hit the wall. Academic life is changing very much as well. I don’t find the same job satisfaction in it. We are now teaching on 6-week modules here, and okay, I can accept that maybe I’m too old for it, but trying to teach somebody something in 6 weeks and saying goodbye to them after 6 weeks and never seeing them again seems to me is not good education and I get no job satisfaction from that. – I think I could write a song about that — ‘I don’t get no satisfaction!’
Well, if you were starting out now — the generation where all the dancers these days are — would you go in the same direction or would you let Irish Dance be your life?
I think my problem was Michael Flatley was born too late for my generation! If I were a young teenager now, without a doubt, the wonderful opportunities that are out there now to make a career and to go out and get paid for doing what you absolutely love doing, travelling the world doing something that you absolutely love doing — that would be an opportunity I think I would absolutely jump at!
It just wasn’t there at all in my time, and that is a whole aspect to Irish Dancing that Michael Flatley, to an enormous extent, and people like Jean Butler and Colin Dunne also, but Michael, without a doubt, spearheading the whole thing – they have opened up a tremendous opportunity.
It is fantastic, it is incredible, and I’m only sorry that either I was born too early or that he was born too late! The opportunities just were not there. I would love to have been a professional dancer. I certainly loved the stage when I was young so the whole idea of being part of those shows, feeling the adrenaline flowing, oh! I wouldn’t have been an academic!
Tell me about the World Championships and your involvement with them. They were established first in 1970 – which must have been a tremendous milestone in the Irish Dance world, even if no one could have imagined where it might all lead by the year 2000!
Yes.. If I might first fill you in just a little bit – the World Championships and that are run by the Irish Dancing Commission, which was founded in 1930 – give or take a year or two as it didn’t come into being at an exact date, so we put 1930 as the milestone, under the auspices of the Gaelic League.
The IDC is the body that runs the World Championship, and I am Vice Chairman of that organization, and that body legislates for Irish dancing worldwide. Even in North America, we have well over 1,000 Irish Dancing teachers who are qualified through the Irish Dancing Commission (IDC).
Now the IDC had what we call All Ireland Championships in existence from about 1933, but towards the end of the 1960’s we in the IDC were very conscious that there was dancing in other parts of the world to reach out to. So contact was made with America and Australia in the late 1960’s — a reaching out to these other parts of the world – I suppose I get Brownie points when I use the term ‘Irish Diaspora’ – that term that we’d never know what it was if Mary Robinson hadn’t become President!
But around that time an enormous change came about in Irish Dancing, and it’s fascinating to think at that time there would have been about 10 or 12 of us meeting in Dublin, at an average meeting, and I don’t think we were conscious of the far-reaching ramifications of all of this. I don’t think we had an idea of this, but exams were conducted and America now starts to come into the network, and Australia, all in the latter years, the final stages of the 1960’s, and the idea was also proposed by a man who actually died there on the last day of July, just weeks ago, a man by the name of Matiu O’Mallaidaigh, who was the person – as far as I know – came up with the concept that we should all meet with the best dancers coming from the different countries, to compete. I think the original idea was the each country would send – like the Olympics – its best dancers.
Instead, the concept arose of having an open competition and everybody could send whom he or she wanted to. The first World Championships were held in Collaiste Mhuire in Parnell Square in Dublin in 1970, and this brought the dancers from North America, and of course from England where the dancing had always been enormously successful, but mostly from America and from Australia to a lesser extent – because of the costs of travelling from there.
And so the whole seeds of the World Championships were sown. Very quickly we realized that Collaiste Mhuire — beautiful, magnificent theatre — just couldn’t hold the numbers, and neither could we control the numbers. I think the first Worlds were a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a two, two-and-a-half day event.
Nowadays they are a seven or eight-day event, and what is even more important is we have to control the entries by qualification. You have to qualify in your region – if you’re living in the New York area you qualify at your regional Oireachtas there. If you’re living in Western Australia, or Perth, you qualify at your regional there.
We must limit the numbers because we have somewhere in the region of two, two-and-one-half thousand competitors, so. They say big oaks from little acorns grow, and certainly we’ve built up what must surely be the largest Irish cultural event. It goes on for eight days – starting at 8 o’clock in the morning and sometimes running right through until 10, 11 or 12 o’clock at night – of competitions. It’s a fantastic thing.
But ease of travel means that now North American dancers are coming over and competing in the All Ireland Championships as well as the Worlds, so one of the downsides is that the All Ireland has almost lost its original Irish identity and is now almost like a miniature World. It’s almost a pre-run for the Olympics, you know, warming up, how is Sonja Sullivan running and so on!
You come over and you compete at the All Irelands to be seen there and to know how you’re doing, see what is Ireland producing, what is England producing, to suss up the opposition just before the World Championship. So we’ve built up enormously huge competitive events, and by the way almost all the workers — people working at those events — we’re all voluntary. We do have an office staff in Dublin which employs two or three full time people, but all the work, I mean I’m there for eight days at the World Championship and we give of our time, volunteer that to organize that event – with, by the way, no financial recognition from our Irish Government.
Where do you see the Worlds going in the coming century? Are the rules of competition evolving with time as the costumes clearly are and is there opportunity for an expansion in the number of different categories? The Olympic Games are constantly taking on board new sports as varieties of many sports formerly not taken seriously become recognized – is there that prospect in Irish Dance, given that the commercial, ‘Michael Flatley revolution’ (to quote your own words) has opened up a whole new world to Irish dance?
First of all could I say that since the 1960’s, say 1970, when we started the World Championships, that did alter the whole style of dancing worldwide. Americans, for example, who up to that had been doing the old Cork-Kerry style, from the 1890 period, made contact with Ireland and now said, ‘my God, totally modern stuff over here!’ They saw, and then they came back and they blooming well conquered!
And so, it took them a few years to realize what had been happening, because things had been gradually changing in Ireland but in America and in Australia it had remained like in a time warp, and so they had in many ways the same style of dancing that would go back well over a hundred years in Ireland.
They then changed very rapidly and they took the Irish styles on board, and in turn they became the leaders themselves and no one country dominates now. The South African visitors who were over this year were fascinated that the world of Irish dancing does not revolve around Ireland to that extent any more. The Americans dominate it and the English dancers, and they dictate the style and so on.
Now in the meantime the World events and the All Ireland events are very much held ‘behind closed doors’, if I might use that expression. I think you would agree with me that the general public really, prior to Riverdance, didn’t even know of the existence of these events. The Irish media here in the form of the television and radio did little or nothing. They totally and absolutely ignored Irish Dancing.
I have my own theory on that – that quite a lot of it was a social snobbery, that Irish Dancing was considered a working class, middle lower classes form of Irish culture, and our media certainly paid no attention. Telefis Eireann, our national television station, totally ignored it as far as I’m concerned. They had an event here which brought competitors from all over the world, and yet they never even utilized that to make even a half an hour program, a documentary.
Have they changed at all?
Really Telfis Eireann hasn’t changed. I have yet to see them do a documentary.
They cater an awful lot more for the music than they do for the dancing. So the dancing, World Championships and all that were being run behind closed doors. Now they were changing and they were evolving. The general public didn’t see this.
For example, at the World competitions we had the solo dancing, with hands held at he sides – that chestnut, we can come back to if you want to – but we also had a lot of other, different competitions that the general public had no concept of.
For example, we had Ceili competitions. They would still be a bit conservative in that you must do your Ceili competition as laid down — that is part of our strong, traditional heritage — but we have other competitions. Two categories, one for figure dance and the other we call ‘dance drama’.
Now in those we innovate. We compose a new dance, and we utilize different tunes, change of tempo, and we also utilize the hands and the body’s movement, and the head movement and so on. So in that sense the dancing has changed and is progressing, and actually every year when we go to the World Championships the big, burning question is what are you going to do – it’s a top secret what you are choreographing with your team.
But that has been going on, all the time. The general public didn’t know about it.
Likewise, in the solo dancing, while the hands had been kept by the side, that concept is still being retained, but the footwork and movements have been changing all the time. They now do a lot of even toe-stands, and major high-kicking up in front of the face. When I was young my dance teacher used to play the piccolo, and playing for us while we were learning dancing, and if I lifted my leg above my knee at any stage he used to take out the piccolo and give me a whack across the knee, with the piccolo! That was just unacceptable, you did not lift above your knee. Nor did you move more than possibly, at the very most in a step you might have gone forward about five or six feet, or maybe four or five feet right or left, so the style of dancing has changed enormously.
(By the way, I always like to pay tribute to my Irish dancing teacher and say I was none the worse for getting those slaps of the piccolo! Looking back, they were good times. I mean, you wouldn’t dare touch a child now, not even reprimand them with your voice not to mind to give them a belt of a piccolo!)
But the style has changed enormously. Nowadays, they’re doing toe stands right up on the tip of the toes. They are borrowing movements from other dance forms and integrating them into Irish Dancing. Now this was always going on, at a gradual pace all the time.
What happened in the Eurovision Song Contest was that suddenly the general public was exposed to something that they were totally unaware of. It’s an amazing concept that the people of Ireland really didn’t know what was happening in their own culture. That sounds strange, you know, but that’s what happened. The night of the Eurovision Song Contest you had a few thousand people in that theatre that were left stunned. They just said, what was that? Where did it come from?
Now, okay, I take on board, absolutely and wholeheartedly, completely that the night of the Eurovision Song Contest performance had pushed out the boat much further than we had done in competition, but that evolution was going on in the competition all the time.
My team won the World Championships the first 3 years they were held, and my team won the figure dance that I choreographed. Well, what I choreographed in those days was as different as chalk and cheese as what they are winning with now.
You know, mine would have been like the ‘Idiot’s Guide To How To Choreograph A Simple Dance!’
And now, they don’t stand still for one bar of music but it’s flowing, it’s twisting, it’s turning every second, much more fast-flowing and totally pushing out the boat as regards hand movements, body movements and all that. So you know, people still have the idea that what’s happening in the shows is one thing and what is happening in Irish dancing competitions is totally conservative.
I come across that attitude from the media, again, quite a lot. And I get very frustrated at that, because they are the people who are responsible for not exposing the people of Ireland.
The other thing is then, they say to you, ‘oh but you’re from the Dancing Commission, the competitive thing, you hold your hands by your side, you must feel dreadful when you see all these shows.’
They completely forget that all the dancers in those shows, including Michael Flatley, Jean Butler and all of those, they got their training in the competitive world of Irish Dance, at the World Championships, at the North American Championships. They trained as dancers going to feis every Sunday of their lives.
So that’s what they came from, and all the dancers in their shows, but the media seems to think, there is a mental block there, they think that in the IDC and the competitions, they haven’t modernized.
The serious pursuit of competition in Irish Dance, as in any field, must involve enormous dedication of time and energy on behalf of young dancers’ families. Also, with the ever-increasing pressures of the economic climate and the expansion of the competitions across the world, the financial cost of pursuing the competition circuit must be increasing all the time as well. Is there currently any way for young dancers to be aided in this regard, or is it something that has yet to be considered by the authoritative bodies in the dance world? It seems especially important in regard to an art form that originally belonged to the ordinary people of Ireland. Do you see any solutions?
At the moment, and I can’t see it changing in any way, the dancers are very much self-funded. All the costs of competition are borne by the individual dancer.
The only way to which that is minimized at all is that many dancing schools do fund-raising, and they have a school fund. So if they do exhibitions or if they do concert work or whatever, and they get paid for this, the teachers put it into a fund. They’re in a better position to fund-raise in America, believe it or not, than they are in Ireland, because if you ask somebody in Ireland ‘will you help to fund me to go and do Irish Dancing in America?’ they say ‘What? I can’t even afford to go there myself!’
But in America, the Irish-American community there is so proud of it that if you run an event and if you hold dinner or a ceili, all the Irish community will support you. And the idea — they see the lovely little Irish kids there dressed up in their Irish costumes and they’re going to Ireland to compete in the World Championships — and the Americans will cough up the dollars!
So it’s a different scenario there — far easier to fun-raise. But the onus is on either the individual dancer or the teacher or the class to do their own fund-raising towards the cost of competition. And the costs of competition itself become enormous.
I suppose things were never cheap, you know. It’s like we say the cost of housing is enormous now, but was there ever a time when we said housing is dirt-cheap, let’s buy a dozen of them?!
Things are relative to the times, but nowadays a lot of the costs are parent-driven. And the whole costumes is a big huge chestnut — one that I have very strong feelings on — that is the excessively ornate, highly adorned costumes.
This is the parents living the parents’ fantasy, not the child. In many cases the child is too young to know, and it has gone way out of proportion, even to the extent of spraying gold glitter on their faces now when they’re five and six and seven and eight years of age!
It’s the little Las Vegas beauty princess, my little princess, my little doll kind of thing; it’s that syndrome, and that is the parent – ninety percent of it is the mothers. But we do say there’s only one thing worse in Irish Dance than a dancing mother, and that’s a dancing father!
But the same thing is happening in other walks of life. For example, we have it here in Ireland, being such a Catholic country we have Confirmation, we have First Communion, and the children are now going on suntan beds to get them tanned for their First Communion, and some of the dresses that they wear, they’re like little miniature brides, parasols and everything. So this is the parents really going overboard, and very often I think you will find that it is those who can least afford it who are doing it, because very often the upper classes, or professional classes will say to the child ‘I’m sorry, love. You’re only beginning Irish Dancing, or you’re only beginning to play the piano, and when you are able to play it and I know that you’re committed to it, then we will make the investment.’
But very often the more deprived classes are the people who seem to say ‘ I want to make sure my child will want for nothing’ and they go perhaps overboard. But certainly there is no law laid down that says these costumes must be worn in that sense.
I felt so strongly about this that as Vice Chairman of the Dancing Commission, I introduced a document, around the time of the Eurovision Song Contest,in which I laid down guidelines on how to control the costumes. For example, a young child starting off who’s a beginner and is in a beginner category, that they should be made to wear a skirt and blouse, and look nice and get the placing of the feet proper. You don’t buy a baby grand piano in the first six weeks that your child is learning to thump up Baa-baa-black-sheep on the piano, so why in the dancing do you do this? So up until they reach a certain age and a certain standard you could tell them ‘no, you cannot wear this or that’.
One section of that document that I put forward did bear fruit. The section on the girls’ costumes was shot down. There was a lot of pressure from America in particular that the children should be allowed to wear as elaborate a costume as they wanted to, and I’m sorry if I offend anyone – I’m not really sorry if I offend anyone – I stated that this is Irish culture and we should have the right to control it.
The section of my document that was accepted was that the kilts and jackets and all that for the boys, the male dancers, was not obligatory, that they could wear trousers and shirt, and that adjudicators could not penalize them in any way. That was accepted. However, accepted was one thing – you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink!
Telling the adjudicators that you’ve got to accept it is one thing but getting them to accept it was another thing.
And by the way my reason for being against the kilts was, eh, two reasons, one that the kilts were never Irish! That is a load of baloney that they were, there is no proof whatsoever that they were ever Irish. They were all taken on following the Gaelic League revival, to try to develop a national identity. So there was no proof, no historical basis for wearing this costume.
Secondly, the other thing was it definitely gave an effeminate image to it, particularly little boys going through that vulnerable young age when they were being accused of being sissy and they wouldn’t want anybody at school to know they were wearing this thing or been seen in it.
Suddenly, along comes Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance — macho image, open shirt, displaying the hairs on his chest, and every boy in the country wants to be an Irish dancer! The whole image of Irish Dancing, the whole acceptability of dancing has changed, due to getting rid of the kilts – and by the way in competition, I was looking at the All Ireland Championships this year and I numerically combined two competitions and it roughly gave me a hundred male dancers, and there was something like four dancers, or five maybe, wearing kilts.
Now the bottom line is that was a statement from the boys telling us ‘we do not want to wear the kilts and we are delighted to dance in the trousers and jackets and that, and Michael Flatley and Lord of the Dance and the resulting consequent shows’, they put their stamp of approval on it and so it’s totally accepted.
So now we have a situation where you’re sending your little boy to dancing, and ten, eleven, fourteen, sixteen years of age he’s at World Championship level, and what does he have to wear? He can wear a nice shirt, nice trousers, normal everyday expenditure, and be a World Champion.
The girls meanwhile, because of this mother-driven thing, are required to pay somewhere in the region of ?600 to ?1,600 for costume, make-up and so on. That is utterly ridiculous.
If I might put it to you this way – you take, say Jean Butler, in Riverdance or a dancer in Lord of the Dance in a simplistic costume – You don’t look at them to say ‘isn’t that a beautiful costume!’ You look at the feet and footwork and the body form, and the girls in all of those fantastic lines when they do those dance steps synchronized down to a fraction of a second — the timing of it must surely be the greatest perfection of a dance form ever seen on this planet, you know! It’s not the costume, it’s the dancing that is the important thing!
You don’t say ‘oh, wouldn’t she be lovely if she had a multicolored costume costing a couple of thousand pounds with a blue panel, a cerise thing covered with rhinestones dotted with embroidery and applique, five tiaras on her head.’
It’s all so unnecessary. What it will take is sometime, a top World Champion dancer to go up there and dance in a simplistic, minimalistic type of costume, and win. Mind you, the girls’ costumes did go into a state of fluctuation, and some of them did try those, what I would call a Riverdance type of costume, but complete simplistic type of costume such as you see in Riverdance doesn’t really come off in competition.
In Riverdance they are using the body and using the hands, therefore you can have flimsy, sort of skimpy sort of costume, bordering on a type of ballet costume. You can use that when you are using your whole body to express something.
Now, in traditional Irish Dancing when you come out and you have your hands by your side, fairly strict kind of thing, that simplistic kind of costume doesn’t come off very well. Plus you come out and you stand there for eight bars – it may sound very simple but it takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence to come out and stand on the stage in any of those flimsy (and I don’t use the word in any derogatory manner) costumes, particularly for a girl if she is any way big in the thighs, or on top.
They are designed for a model figure. They’re also designed for a person who has that confidence that can come out and stand on that stage, stand there with an audience looking at them. It does take a tremendous amount of self-confidence and assurance to wear that. Some girls tried them in competition and they didn’t come off completely because it is a different dance genre.
The answer that I would see is that there is a halfway stage and I think eventually they will get there, hopefully, because all these crowns and tiaras and the face covered with gold paint and all that has really gone too far.
Your involvement with Irish Dance has taken you all over the world at this point. Tell me about some of the more unexpected and unusual places and events it has taken you to.
Well, I suppose that without doubt the most unusual place that I have been is to South Africa the past two years. The background there was that there was a lady there, in Johannesburg, by the name of Shanna Robinson, and she came in contact with some videos of Irish Dancing.
She became quite intrigued by this and she started teaching some of the basics to her dancers. She was a Highland dancing teacher, by the in the way, in Johannesburg – and the other Highland teachers, on seeing her dancers perform this asked her about it and she said to them ‘oh, this is the new kind of Irish Dancing that they’re doing,’ and they became quite intrigued by it and asked her to teach them, which she did, what little she knew herself, and then they made contact with the IDC here in Ireland.
I took up contact on behalf of the IDC, and so that all started less than 3 years ago. In 1999 I traveled out for the first time, and they had roughly 400 dancers there and they did their grade exams. I went back out there again this year, and the dancing, the improvement has been just mind-boggling!
Would this be black children as well as white children?
Very few blacks still, yes – apartheid may be gone in South Africa in name, but the whole economic structure and social class distinction is there, you know.
You would imagine the dance would in fact be a wonderful way to bring the children together since the black community seem to have a tremendous sense of innate rhythm, don’t they?
Yes. They actually do. I met Irish musicians out there who had been up to Suweto, the township outside Johannesburg, and they found the black children up there had this wonderful sense of rhythm, and they said to me ‘if you think the Irish are good at traditional music, you should see these kids!’
So this year I did have a few black children learning the dancing and I thought this was fantastic. And just one little anecdote comes to mind – I had one lad — oh, he would be this big tall, stocky guy, and he was doing his grade one and two dances, with me, and he came up to me and told me he got a great kick out of it because recently he was back in West Cork at a wedding of a friend of his.
Now this man has no Irish connections at all, and he’s South African-born and bred, speaks Afrikaans and everything, and at this wedding back in West Cork he heard the music and discovered he could do his dances to it, and at the wedding, to the amazement of everybody this guy from Africa stood up and put on his exhibition of Irish Dancing!
So they’re the lovely things. Then there’s a photograph of me actually taken in Nairobi in Kenya on Patrick’s night in 1999, and we actually have a teacher out there. She doesn’t actually teach in Nairobi but she lives there. Maria Cunningham is her name, and she is a qualified Irish Dancing teacher. She works for the United Nations and has been living in Kenya now for I think about 15 or 18 years, and during St. Patrick’s night I was up in Nairobi with them and we — Maria, her sister, her sister’s daughter and myself put on an exhibition of dancing on Patrick’s night.
So these are the aspects of Irish Dancing that I really enjoy now. The other places that I’ve gone to are the northernmost parts of Queensland in Australia, up the Barrier Reef area to Cairns, to Townsville, a mining town about six or eight hundred miles inland in North Queensland by the name of Mount Isa. I’ve been all over that place. I fly around in these small, little tiny planes, and I’ve been going there now for about ten or twelve years, so it’s like a second home to me, going back and visiting the kids again and it’s absolutely wonderful.
This year I went on to North Queensland from South Africa and I got stuck in a hurricane up there. We had Hurricane Tizzy that hit the coastline of Townsville while I was there this year which disrupted the grade exams quite a bit!
And some of the dancers learning Irish Dancing there actually live on the islands off the coast. One girl lives on Magnetic Island, for example, which is out on the Barrier Reef, and due to the hurricane she was unable to get off the island to do her grade exams.
And I had another little child in North Queensland, one of the most unusual stories I had, was unable to do her little dancing exams because – you won’t believe this – horror of horrors, a few weeks before she was actually attacked by a crocodile! But glad to say she survived and will dance again.
I believe when you went to South Africa you had the opportunity of meeting with one of the touring commercial dance troupes, and I’ m sure you found the members, as I always have whenever I have had the pleasure of meeting some of them, wonderful young ambassadors for our country as well as great performers. Do you think the touring shows have in fact turned out to be not just chances to have dreams come true but also highly valuable education platforms for the young Irish generation?
Oh, they’re fantastic. Certainly, recapping on that, when I was in Johannesburg this year, I was going out there and I met one of the troupes from Lord of the Dance. I know them all from dancing.
Daire Nolan and his family — his parents are my best friends. I’ve known all Daire’s family since since before he was born! So they’ve grown up as little kids and I’ve always been very much involved as organizer of the All Irelands and World Championships and all of these events. So I’m putting these little kiddies up on the stage, and sometimes when they would break down or forget their step I would bring them over and give them a hug and put them back up again.
I mean nowadays of course you can’t give a child a hug or even embrace them, and children need hugs and children need love.
So all these dancers — Bernadette Flynn, Gillian Norris, Daire Nolan — I’ve known all of them since they were little kids — and so it was arranged that I would attend their last performance in Johannesburg and a number of the South African teachers and pupils came with me, and it was I think the happiest day and night of my life.
I couldn’t believe that I was in a theatre in Africa looking up at these now internationally famous, acclaimed people. I cried, and I’m not embarrassed about it.
I cried with emotion to see how far Irish Dancing had come, and to see these people, the standing that they had and the awe in which they were held. The South African dancers — many of them trained up to university level in all dance forms and so on — just absolutely adoring and worshipping the ground they walked upon.
And there was a double edge to this sword, because through my intervention Daire Nolan had arranged for some of the dancers to come back to the studio where I was staying in Johannesburg. Now this was all kept a little hush-hush. Sue Theron, the teacher there, did the arranging, and told all in the studio that they were to have so many dancers and so many parents back to her house that night, and didn’t quite tell them what – I think some of them may have known. And so the big excitement was they were going to get to meet the stars of Lord of the Dance.
And after the show in Johannesburg we went backstage and met Bernadette Flynn and Gillian Norris, Daire and it was so happy.
Damien O’Kane, playing the lead, said to me that night jokingly ‘I hope you didn’t pay for that seat!’
Well, I said, I didn’t get a free ticket from you, if that’s what you mean.
‘No, but I hope you didn’t pay for the seat,’ says he, ‘ you didn’t spend any time sitting down in it!’ I spent most of the show on my feet applauding!
Of course, all the cast knew where I was in the audience. I was actually only about 8 rows back and at the very center of the theatre, so the word got round very quickly and they spotted me.
We met them after the show, and then to my absolute amazement Daire told me all the dancers, plus the musicians and the singers, were all coming back for the party, and they came back to the studio where this teacher had arranged all the South Africans. We arranged a fleet of cars to collect them at their hotel. So they went back to the hotel first to change and freshen up, and by the time they came to the teacher’s studio where the studio was attached to her house with a beautiful magnificent garden front and back , the frenzy that was there, waiting for their arrival, was just unbelievable!
The only time I ever saw anything like was for the Beatles! So I had to take the South African dancers and warn them, ‘you’re not to take photographs and you’re not to ask for autographs until we find out how they feel,’ because I wanted above all for them to have their evening and their party.
But it was one of the greatest nights of my life because here I am greeting all of these and getting kisses and hugs and some of the little dancers coming up and saying ‘Oh, Mr. Cullinane!’ kind of such a thing, from the dancing and that. Then some of the others I was meeting — the Johannesburg dancers for the first time that year — and they were giving me hugs and saying ‘it’s great to see you again!’ As the cast was coming back I was just amazed how these little girls I’ve known have become these fantastic and beautiful young women…
The topic of how these dancers have turned out to become is actually a conversation I had with some visiting Professors in Limerick University who were there designing a program. One of the points I made was that none of them have gone to acting school, none of them had any formal training on how to behave for interviews, how to react to audience, how to handle reporters and all that, be ambassadors for Ireland, and they were superb, and they really are.
I worship the ground they walk on — each and every one of them — and some of them I met out there in South Africa again, I mean, seventeen-year-olds.
What was lovely was by the end of that night the barriers had totally broken down. They were all talking about Irish Dancing, the steps they learned and what they did with the South Africans. The beautiful thing was here you had seventeen-year-olds, eighteen-year-olds mixing — boys and girls — and this common thing, Irish Dancing.
But their behavior and the pressures that they undergo are enormous, because here they are — they’re on Broadway, the Royal Variety Performance in London when Riverdance got a standing ovation — the longest, biggest standing ovation in history, from a nation that if anything should have been almost hostile to Irish culture.
If you could take an Irish culture show into the heart of Britain, and this is even before the Peace process that we have now, and the reception that show got there, and these dancers were out there taking a 10, 12 minute standing ovation…
I think Shirley Bassey or one of those, was the only other one to have ever got a standing ovation at the Royal Variety Performance, and that is enormous pressure for these people. And then they change out of that and they have to go to a reception after the show, and there they are, young girls and boys and they have to be in evening dress, and handbags and full gloves. And there’s a big reception on for them and the top brass of America is turning up for this reception.
Now here was a kid – I call her a kid because I’ve known her since she was 5 or 6, and there they were — one day she’s in school, doing her Leaving Certification, and the next day here she is, emerging from a stretch limo, with a red carpet and television cameras on them as they entered the Plaza Hotel on Central Park for a reception with the press from all over the world, the eyes of the press on them, and they all attired in the evening dresses, and gowns etc. and there was so much talent there, and like it or lump it, you have to say ‘Hats off!’ to Flatley.
It was like a volcano, but he was the one who took the lid off and let it explode, showed it that it had to explode. The talent was there!
And coming back to the point — all this training, that education that they got, because one has to remember most of them, very few of them had completed third level education, most of them if they got as far as their Leaving certification, because the recruitment now is, any dancer that comes off the stage in a competition at 16, 17, grab them, you know. So, their training comes from Irish Dancing and from the discipline that competing at an All Ireland and World Championship imposes upon them, and the friendships as well, because they survive, the rigors are pretty hectic as well, and being away, you know, 17-year-olds in South Africa for 6 weeks, when I met them out there.
The one wonderful bond is that since they all came up in competition they all knew each other and they all know the dancing community. So for example if they’re performing in such-and-such a place, the Munster Championships are on, they all want to know did anyone hear who won such-a-thing? And as soon as one gets a phone call with a bit of news they all find out who won what and that’s a tremendous communal bond among all of them. It’s not as though, like in other stage work they may be a troupe that came from totally different backgrounds and never knew each other before the show; these have grown up with their parents knowing each other, with their teachers knowing each other, you know, there’s generations cementing that bond.
It must be unique in today’s world?
Yes, and what is also very unique is some of the love affairs that have come out of it. I won’t mention names but I heard two of them saying ‘well, before this show, now if I’d thought my daughter was going to end up going out with your son!’
But here they are now touring around the world and you have so many tremendous friendships and love affairs and everything going on.
In 1999 you received the first MA in Irish Dancing to be awarded in the Republic of Ireland, a first class honors for your thesis on the history of Irish Dance in Cork from 1890 to 1940. – May I add my congratulations on that great achievement – Do you think this too is another opening for young people in the new century, which will encourage respect as well as enthusiasm for Irish Dance?
Yes, without a doubt. I have a whole archive collection, which I refer to as the Cullinane Archive Collection of Irish Dance material and it’s hard to know. I can’t say when I started it.
I didn’t start it on the 1st January such-and-such a year. It was an interest — a fascination. I went to old dance masters and listened to them. Then some of them would give me a letter, news cutting or something, and then gradually at some stage I realized that I had this lot of stuff around my house and I better put it into some order, and gradually it’s expanded so now I have about 4,000 items in that.
Do you foresee that becoming a museum of Irish Dance at some stage?
Hopefully, absolutely. Unfortunately my deep regret is that the Irish Dancing Commission does not seem to be going down that road at all whatsoever. And I have had offers from American universities and American institutions to actually purchase my collections, and whereas I’m flattered – as anyone would be – I am also very upset because the situation is that any material like that is that America has got the money and can buy it and our libraries and archives in Ireland cannot compete with that.
And hence of course (I don’t wish in any way to compare myself with such people) but all the material on Joyce and on all our famous writers are all in American archives. I was lecturing in Boston College recently and looking at a lot of material belonging to the Yeats family, and it’s sad.
It’s great in one way because the Irish community in America had the foresight to see the value of this and that’s good, but it’s sad that so much of that material has to leave Ireland. If you want to study Joyce or Yeats or any Irish writer, author or artist, you’re better off almost to go to America.
This is the first and – I’m pretty positive on this – the only collection of Irish Dancing memorabilia, archive material in the whole world, and it should be somewhere in Ireland and hopefully be the nucleus. But my greatest desire is that it should go into the university here in Cork and expand. Fortunately, what started almost like a sort of a stamp collection hobby when I was young is now being appreciated.
When I started it there was no understanding or appreciation. Some of my colleagues in the IDC said that after the Late Late Show we had for Michael Flatley, ‘you know, John, at meetings there for 20, 30 years you were nagging at us about your archives and your collection and I used to say ‘oh God, this man will he ever give up? What’s this archive thing he’s talking about, will we ever just give it to him, whatever he wants about it. We really didn’t even know what you were after, but now there’s a global appreciation – I think not only in the Irish Dancing – there’s an appreciation in every walk of life now that what is rubbish today is archive collection down the road.
We are learning. There is a greater awareness in every facet of life, but certainly in the dancing largely because of the shows there is a huge awareness of our heritage in dancing, and in the Irish Dancing community itself, the IDC and the teachers.
When I started writing my books first they were saying ‘what’s this about’ and ‘God, look, there’s a photograph of me in there and I look appalling!’ Now the attitude is, ‘Excuse me, John, I’ve looked at your book and there’s not a photograph of any of our dancing groups – do you realize there’s no photograph of my teacher in any of your books?’ And some people can really give me stick, and use language – which is a compliment in its own way, you know.
So there’s quite a change, and even in our Irish Dancing community and I would say a great appreciation of where it’s coming from. Coming back to the MA, the record there goes something like this – I did apply (I have a BA, by the way, in History from London University, way back about 1965 or so) and I applied to our Irish universities many years ago here for to do a degree, to present a thesis on Irish Dancing.
‘Irish Dancing? For a degree? In a university? A thesis? Are you for real? – Why was this? We have departments dealing with Irish music; we have loads of departments dealing with Irish literature; we have departments dealing with Irish language.’
Now I defy anybody to tell me, which is the most vibrant aspect of our culture. Worldwide, at the moment? Interestingly, and ironically, not what the Gaelic League promoted – the Gaelic League was set up to promote the language and the literature – and they’re the two aspects that are now almost the most neglected and gone by the board, and the two that they only brought on as a sort of secondary factor was the music and the dancing, and isn’t it ironic that the dancing is the thing that has taken off now so much worldwide, and the music.
And our universities will cater for the language and the literature. And I’m in favor of the Irish language, but let’s get things in proportion. They would have Chairs and Professors of Old Irish, Middle Irish, Modern Irish, but they couldn’t even conceive that Irish Dancing, such an art form could ever be presented for a thesis. And it’s the greatest time I think in our history, to be so proud of being Irish. You go anywhere in the world, in these decades, and be so proud, because our culture – as you know, Germany, they can’t get enough of Irish culture – any place we go, not just even the totally traditional but our artists, The Corrs, Daniel O’Donnell, it seems as though at the moment we can’t do anything wrong!
But the appreciation of Irish Dancing was just not there. I applied to universities, was rejected – now, okay, there two other people who did theses before me, and I want to emphasize this, a point that was missed in the Irish Times article, Helen Brennan (she’s in Co. Louth) and she did a thesis on Sean N?s dancing as it’s called – somebody might not understand the Irish, it means the old style, handed down type of Irish Dancing, not formal, informal dancing – but she had to do her thesis through the North of Ireland, Colraine or Ulster. She had to go outside the Republic of Ireland to present her thesis.
Catherine Foley in Limerick did her doctorate thesis on the Kerry Dance Masters; it was presented in London. Our Irish universities had turned down several people and wouldn’t accept them. Now another point is that one of the best theses that I know of, documenting the history of Irish Dancing in any city in the world, is almost certainly one dealing with the history of Irish Dancing in Chicago, by Kate Flannigan. She learned her dancing in Chicago, she’s Irish American there, and she lectures at a college, not quite in Chicago, but she has a two-volume Ph.D. thesis on Irish Dancing.
What date was that?
Oh, round about 1995, 1996, because I wrote a few articles on Irish Dancing in our dancing magazine called Ceim, and then later, it was after that that she took up that topic and researched it and produced two volumes, and researched all the newspapers in Chicago. And of course Chicago, New York, Boston, were very great strongholds for our Irish communities, as anybody with the music would know, Chief O’Neil, the famous collector of all our traditional Irish music that we have – it was nearly all collected there in Chicago. So it’s a tremendous stronghold, and she has a wonderful, wonderful thesis.
There’s no such equivalent for, say, for Dublin, there’s no such equivalent written for Limerick. My thesis, my MA thesis, for Cork and Catherine’s one on Kerry, would be the nearest, but again a lot of Catherine’s was dealing with notation and that, so Kathleen Flannigan’s thesis was tremendous.
Still our universities are more open now to accepting Irish Dancing but still don’t know where it fits in. What happened with me was there was an MA advertised in History in Cork University – I thought it was actually to do with a local history of Cork, but I misinterpreted what it meant. It meant that you took a local topic for an MA. So I went along to find out about it only to be told it’s not as in the history of Cork in the locality. It’s local as in you take a topic on a local level, and so I was asked ‘are you interested?’ and I said well, yes, if I could do a thesis on the history of Irish Dancing in Cork, and they said ‘Oh, and can you do an outline of that? Because we really wouldn’t have too much experience of supervising,’ and so I made up my outline.
I had, by the way, interestingly enough applied to do an MA through Bath University, before that, because they have an Irish Studies department there. The Director of Irish Studies there. An extremely nice man, he said ‘No problem having you on board!’ and before that as well Professor Blackler in Queens’ University, Belfast wrote back to me and told me he would have no problem having me as a Ph.D. in the Department of Anthropology there. No problem in Belfast, to take me on for a Ph.D., or Helen Brennan for an MA, but not in our Irish Universities.
And would it be the same if you went to them today?
They’re breaking down, but they still don’t know quite where the dancing comes in. But the Bath one was interesting because he said to me ‘One of my greatest problems would be I would actually need someone who would be willing to act as examiner on that thesis.’
So he put out feelers all over England and he contacted Patrick O’Sullivan who was the Editor of a six-volume series on Irish migrants produced by Leicester University, and he came back to me and said ‘ well, I didn’t have a problem finding somebody nominating to examine the thesis, I got six replies and they were all in agreement – John Cullinane in Ireland was the only one who would be qualified ! So it was back to me myself.
So I went ahead through the History Department here, the head of the Folklore section in the History Department and I presented my thesis, and that would be the first time a Masters degree was awarded in a university in the Republic dealing with the History of Irish Dancing, taking that on board.
Around that time as well Limerick set up its program on dance, and the Irish Dance of course is a strong element in that program. And again, of course, I must say ‘Hats off!’ to M?chael O’Suille?bhain and I’ve co-operated with them there and helped them get things going and lectured there.
But the social snobbery that was mitigated against Irish Dancing was incredible, but secondly, our Irish universities, particularly the one we’re sitting in here [Cork], because they’ve been in existence for 150 years they were locked into structures, you know, such watertight compartments. And it’s only in recent times that they’re just beginning to realize that education was a bit broader than just Latin, Botany, Medicine and so on. So things are changing, but slowly.
You are also an acclaimed author on Irish Dance, with many articles and five books to your credit so far. Tell me about that facet of your life and how it began.
I suppose I drew on different aspects. Being trained as a scientist here I’ve been writing theses, supervising theses, writing papers for about forty years. But during the 1980’s I realized that I was now not only interviewing people, looking up books and everything I could get on dancing, and realizing there was such a lack of knowledge, of printed material on this – for forty or fifty years before that there hadn’t been a book or a thing produced on Irish Dancing at all.
The other thing I was becoming critically aware of was that our Irish Dancing teachers really knew nothing, literally nothing at all of the background of the art form that they were teaching. It’s extraordinary. In the last 48 hours I had a call from one of the really prominent figures in Irish Dancing, and this man was asking me did I know anything about this dance The High-Cauled Cap, what was the significance of it, where did it come from and so on? That is just an example of our teachers were teaching an art form that, first of all I don’t think they appreciated how wonderful, fantastic teachers that they themselves are, what wonderful choreographers they are, if anything they knock themselves because they didn’t really appreciate themselves.
It’s taken these shows to make them appreciate themselves. Also, the other aspect is that they really never read or learnt anything very much at all about the background. I mean, why do you wear a Tara brooch on your costume? What is the piece down the back, the shawl, where did it come from? What’s the set dances? What’s the significance of the names of any of them? How old are these dances?
We were very much dug into competition, what we asked ourselves was ‘who won the championship last Sunday?’ ‘’Who is judging the one coming up next week?’ and ‘when is the closing date for the entries?’ — completely competition orientated.
By the way, dancing teachers in previous times judged their success by the champions they produced, and now that’s in the melting pot, they’re going through an extraordinary adjustment period. Nowadays, it’s not so much by the champions that you produce, or World champions, it’s ‘I have 16 dancers dancing in the shows!’
Interesting, but many of them found that quite a difficult adjustment. The shows were depleting them and I’m sort of saying ‘well, maybe you have to assess your merit, your worth in terms of how you’ve done training dancers for the shows.’ It’s a new aspect, and now I hear these phrases coming out in conversation ‘excuse me, I’ve got 5 dancers at the moment performing on Broadway, 5 of my pupils’ That has replaced somewhat the old criteria.
But they still didn’t know about the background of their dancing.
1987, I was going to an old Dance Master in Cork, Cormac O’Keefe. He was actually born in 1896 and I have a cassette recording of him, and the first thing he says on it is ‘John, I was born in 1896.’ And I feel happy whenever I hear that tape, that I had the foresight to record that man and his memories. He can remember going to his first dancing lesson in 1902, 100 years ago.
And I’ve given copies of that tape to his great Granddaughter who is dancing in England at the moment. But he was really getting quite old in his late 80’s and I used to always say to him ‘some day I’m going to write all of this down, Mr. O’Keefe’ and his last thing that he ever said to me in the hospital before he died was,‘Your book, you’re writing the last chapter now. You must write it so that others will know.’ That’s the last thing he said to me and I said ‘That’s my cue!’ I thanked him and I walked out, I knew I would never see him again. I didn’t want to go back, that was my cue.
So I wrote up my first book, and when you look at it you could cringe. It was so amateurish. It wasn’t a printed process, and it was a kind of photocopied thing. But it was like everything you do in life you look back at it 20 years later and say ‘oh my God!’ did we actually do that?
But I have my M.Sc theses up there, and when I was typing that about 1960 we typed them where we had to bang out on a typewriter, with 4 carbon pages behind it. If we wanted to get 4 copies of a graph, we couldn’t photocopy it. We didn’t even have a photocopier, so you must always look at something in the context.
It was very interesting the way my 1987 book was received by teachers, saying ‘what’s this about? And what’s it got to do with? Is this an invented thing?’ Because there wasn’t a competition or a feis coming up they weren’t sure at all about it. It didn’t fit into the pigeonhole. And then the other aspect was I remember very good friends of mine from Scotland coming up to me, giving out hell to me because I had nothing about the history of Irish Dancing in Scotland.
So it took a bit of time for people to read it and then some people looked and said ‘oh, that’s very interesting’, you know. And believe you me I didn’t have a clue about publishing or printing. It was printed by a man down in Middletown in Cork here, and he asking me how many copies did I want – I ‘m sort of saying ‘I don’t know, would we do 200’ and he persuaded me that 200 was ridiculous, and yet when he told me the price of thousand copies I said ‘oh my God!’ you know ‘wait a while, I’m not made of money!’
But I’ve learned a lot over a period of time. So that was the first one in 1987, and then second one followed in 1990. They contained a lot of what I would call biographical sections, which, a lot of this been taken over by such things as Irish Dancing Magazine, coming out in England on a monthly basis, and they are more taking over doing biographical interviews with people, so my style of book gradually changed as well.
I look back and I cringe as I say when I see that I didn’t even try to edit the writing, the phraseology, the punctuation – everything is absolutely appalling! Sometimes I feel so bad about that, and the only way I get over it is to say ‘John, there was nobody else doing it, you did it and it’s there. Somebody else can edit it, punctuate it and do all of that, but the data is there,’ and I suppose in one way part of the charm is the crudeness of it.
One friend of mine jokes with me and says, ‘If I read about Alice Whittey any more, she’s in every page in the book! Did you ever think of editing and putting a chapter on Alice Whittey?’. And I laughed because she was right, there was no editing, I took a whole load of the pieces. But I’ve learned, and my recent books were then – the North American book was brought out as an attempt to stimulate the people in North America and sort of say ‘this is the bird’s eye view of Irish Dancing in North America, but there’s a huge amount needed on North America.
And I did not try to cover North America in that book as one can appreciate, but if you could stimulate people to take on their own geographical areas.
The whole history of Irish Dancing is now a field, a topic, and in many ways I hope posterity might look back on me as a pioneer, one of the pioneers in that field, and it will be a big field in times to come. Still, we don’t have enough local pictures in different areas to make a global picture, and you cannot make a broad, general global statement unless you’ve got the local pictures to build up, and sort of say ‘I can’t tell you that because O’Sullivan, we’ll say, up there in Donegal, she did a thesis and she didn’t find any such thing.’
Will the MA thesis become the basis of a sixth book?
Very definitely. I brought out the book on the history of Ceili dancing that was brought out precisely because 1898 was the first Ceili event ever held in London, and I felt there was little or nothing done to commemorate that. So in that book, I brought that one out, I think it was a year later, 1999. By the time I got it printed and all that, because I thought we should have something to commemorate that fantastic event. And that