The Evolution of the Irish Parochial versus Commercial Dance Hall Culture

Published in History Studies (13:2012), pp 47-68. Also reproduced in Camross. Her People, Their Songs and Stories CD (2015).

Evolving forms of technology and shifting social trends were at times the bane of the conservative Ireland that emerged following the Civil War. As Terence Browne points out, the social and religious homogeneity of the Irish Free State and the nation’s predominantly rural complexion which attached itself to the social patterns and attitudes of the latter half of the nineteenth century were the root causes of the stifling conservatism that dominated the Free State era.[i] It is amidst this context that this essay looks at the evolution of two areas of entertainment in independent Ireland up until the 1970s and the ways in which they contributed toward a huge change in Irish society and culture; music and dance, and the state broadcasting of radio and television. With regards music and dance, the prevalence of house dances and the growth of clerical opposition to set dancing and foreign ‘jazz’ shall be examined.

This essay shall propose that a divide in the culture of music and dance occurred following the 1935 Dance Hall Act and it shall look at the evolution of the parochial hall culture versus the commercial dance hall culture up to the 1970s. This study shall also look at the development of what would eventually become Raidió Teilifis Éireann. The aims of a national broadcaster will be discussed, as will the initial failures of radio to meet these aims before greater success from the mid-1930s. The research concludes by assessing the huge cultural significance of the introduction of Teilifis Éireann.

Research into the social history of Ireland has come a long way since Terence Brown’s seminal ‘provisional and speculative sketch’ in 1981.[ii] However, despite academia shifting its focus somewhat toward social history, no definitive history of entertainment in Ireland has been written. This does not necessarily mean that there is not a significant historiographical body of work on the topic to draw upon. Both areas of entertainment which this essay concentrates upon have a number of secondary sources. However, the area does suffer somewhat from a lack of an integrated publication.

What could be regarded as the best integrated texts appear in A New History of Ireland, VII: Ireland 1921-84; Joseph Ryan’s ‘Music in Independent Ireland since 1921’ and Rex Cathcart and Michael Muldoon’s ‘The mass media in twentieth-century Ireland’. Ryan’s article gives a thorough chronology of music in independent Ireland including genres as diverse as Seán Ó Riada’s film scores to the emergence of U2 in the 1970s. Similarly, Cathcart and Muldoon’s article is the perfect starting point for research into the development of radio and television. But a starting point is all these articles can be.

Cathcart and Muldoon point to the fact that for a society that changed so dramatically since independence, a history of media and changing modes of entertainment as agencies for that change have only begun to be written.[iii] This is borne out by the fact that the first significant history of Irish television, John Bowman’s Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television, 1961-2011 has only recently appeared on bookshelves. Since there is no integrated publication this essay shall, alongside examining both music and dance and state broadcasting, look at the state of historical research into both areas of entertainment.

As was the case with most of Irish society in the years preceding independence, music and dance was rooted in an agrarian way of life. One of the most important sources of entertainment in rural Ireland at the time was house dances. Some of these events were annual such as ‘Biddy Balls’. Helen Brennan in her history of Irish dance describes ‘Biddy Balls’ as big nights of music and dance in a local farmer’s house funded from the proceeds of a collection by groups of ‘Biddies’ who went from house to house on the eve of St. Brigid’s Day.[iv] In places where dancing was prevalent, such as West Clare, groups of men out of boredom would begin to dance with each other to pass the night, even using a tongs if there was an odd number of dancers.[v] Co-operation between farmers at times of harvest usually ended with occasions of dancing and drinking. These meitheal or ‘coor’ dances were a vital way of strengthening local bonds which kept the community alive. Some members of the community hosted house dances as they were in urgent need of money. A nominal fee would be charged for entry and this money could be used for everything from a funeral to the cost of emigration.[vi] These dances also played an important role in the continuation of a community.

Often, in rural communities young men and women were totally confined to the family unit. They spent the whole day surrounded by the watchful glare of parents and siblings as they awoke together, worked together, ate together, prayed together and in effect, slept on top of one another in cramped conditions. Dances gave a sense of social freedom to young men and women where they could mingle and could begin the ‘courting’ process, thereby helping to reinforce the community into future generations. Dances became one of the most important arenas of matchmaking.

Specific ‘hurling’ dances in the West were used to make couples and oftentimes a wedding would result from them.[vii] Dances even played an important role during Ireland’s bloody transition to independence. Dances, being the most informal way of rural neighbours getting together, were an ideal place to hold IRA battalion meetings under the cover of music and revelry during the War of Independence.

Edward Brennan, of the sixth battalion, Laois Brigade IRA, notes in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History that a dance was specifically organised in Borris in Ossory to cover a meeting of the local IRA.[viii] Dances also played their part in keeping up the morale of the Volunteers. Liam Hoolan says that the North Tipperary Flying Column, even after a day and nights march ‘would [still] make the kitchens ring with dance and song’.[ix] At house dances people mainly danced forms of quadrille sets which had originated as ballroom dances but had gained a faster tempo and had merged with more traditional Irish jig and reel steps.[x]

Another form of dancing, which would be recognised today as ‘Irish dancing’, had its roots in the céilí movement of the Gaelic League. Céilís had their genesis in the Gaelic League branch in London. Leading organisers felt that there was a need to add a much needed social dimension to their otherwise very successful activities in the city. They took their example from Scottish céilithe they had attended and organised the first ever Irish céilí on 30 October 1897.[xi] Unlike the Scottish céilithe, the Gaelic Leaguers who attended knew very few indigenous Irish dances. This concerned the likes of Fionnan Mac Coluim, a leading London Gaelic League organiser. He met with Patrick D. Reidy, a former dancing master from Kerry, and asked him to teach classes and share his knowledge of the traditional Irish dances.[xii] Following a céilí performance by London dancers at the Gaelic League’s annual Oireachtas in the Mansion House in 1901 the League began to organise céilí dances around Ireland. In the urban centres and small towns of Ireland, dances and balls were more organised but none the less prevalent.

For example, a glance at the Easter week editions of provincial newspapers of 1922 shows the popularity of dances in small towns. The Anglo-Celt advertises a total of seventeen dances in Cavan.[xiii] The Meath Chronicle advertises nine dances.[xiv] Five dances each were advertised in the Nenagh Guardian and the Westmeath Examiner.[xv] The cost of admission for these events varied immensely and can be seen as a reflection of the class of people the evening’s entertainment was aimed at. An Easter Sunday Dance in Ardamagh Hall, Meath, advertised admission at 2s 6d. for men and 1s 6d. for women.[xvi] In contrast an evening in aid of the nearby Navan Gaels football club charged the much higher sum of 7s 6d. for men and 4s. for women.[xvii]

Around the time of independence, and in its immediate aftermath clerical opposition to dancing, especially set-dancing was mounting.[xviii] Clerical opposition to dancing and general merriment was far from a twentieth century phenomenon ; the 1660 Synod of Tuam decreed that ‘Dancing, flute-playing, bands of music, riotous revels and other abuses in visiting wells and other holy places are forbidden’.[xix] The Church’s virulent opposition to dances was linked to their repressive campaign against all forms of ‘company-keeping’. Bryan MacMahon noted how he believed that ‘the whole artillery of our Irish Church had been brought to bear on that mysterious subversive force- the “company-keepers”’.[xx] And as these ‘immoral’ dances were the prime arena for ‘company-keepers’ the Church refocused their efforts in their campaign of condemnation against them. As MacMahon describes, priests would actively seek out occasions of set dancing so as to break them up;

How clearly I recall a band of laughing boys and girls on a fine Sunday afternoon dancing “sets” on the floor of a ball alley by the sea. Suddenly the cry of “The Priest!” is heard. The dancers scatter in terror … Even at the time, to my young mind the incident didn’t make sense. I thought it would be more fitting if the priest sat on a chair at the edge of the platform and smiled at the dancers, the while he paired them off in his shrewd mind.[xxi]

Alongside the immorality of set-dancing, another ‘evil’ which the Church felt at pains to condemn had begun to creep into the dancing culture of Ireland; the influence of jazz. Jazz was a generic, catch all term for new music and dancing influenced by the roaring twenties culture of the United States. New dances such as fox trots, two-steps, shimmy shakes and the cake walk were an anathema to the Church. The Gaelic League also believed these foreign dances had the potential to harm their campaign of cultural nationalism and hinder the development of céilí dancing.

Jazz was condemned both off the pulpit and through the press.[xxii] In their Lenten pastorals of 1924, bishops warned of the upsurge in suicides amongst young women in America and how they were caused by a ‘jazz spirit’ which ‘caused physical collapse and nervous breakdown’.[xxiii] Privately owned dance halls began to accommodate the growing popularity of jazz music and dancing; specific jazz nights were integrated into the social calendar. These dance halls were condemned vehemently by the Gaelic League and the Church and they lobbied the government to intervene. The conservative, repressive mentality of the Free State was eventually brought to bear upon dancing.

The ‘bourgeois cadre’ of merchants and shopkeepers, well-off farmers, clerics, and middle class professionals, who assumed positions of power in the Irish Free State, ‘sired a repressive zeitgeist of social and cultural conservatism that was to become an abiding hallmark of independent Ireland until well into the 1960s.’[xxiv] One of their most repressive acts was the introduction of the ‘Public Dance Halls Act’ in February, 1935. Under this act, ‘No place, whether licensed or not licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquor, shall be used for public dancing unless a public dancing licence granted under this Act is in force in respect of such place.’[xxv] Anyone in breach of the act was liable to a hefty fine of ten pounds for every day the premises were used illegally.[xxvi]

The Act was of huge cultural significance. First of all, it was the death knell for the house dance. Dances were raided across the country by members of An Garda Síochána. People began to be prosecuted for hosting dances. The case of William Kelly, which was brought before Longford District Court, was typical of the scores of similar cases being brought before courts all over the Free State. On 10 November 1935 a sergeant entered Kelly’s home to find thirty people dancing in the kitchen and a further fifteen playing cards in another room. Kelly admitted charging admission of one shilling and having a card game for a turkey. Kelly, who was described as being a very poor man, said he did not know he needed a license. He was prosecuted under the first offender’s act.[xxvii]

This case shows the economic reliance many members of the rural community had upon hosting small dances and the draconian 1935 Act deprived them of an important source of income. The exacerbation mutely held by many in rural Ireland was given voice by W. T. Wolfe, a solicitor in Bantry. He said, whilst defending a man brought before the court for holding an unlicensed dance, ‘the traditional hospitality and the time honoured social intercourses of people living in remote country districts were being shattered by pseudo-virtuous Acts of Parliament. Even the homely country dance was made to assume a criminal tinge.’[xxviii]

The cultural significance of the Dance Hall Act could also be seen in the accentuation of two different music and dance cultures in Ireland. This divide stems from the passing of the control of dances from the people to two main groups; the Catholic Church and entrepreneurial dance hall owners. During the 1930s there was a huge rise in the construction of parochial halls all over the country. It was in this setting that the parochial hall music and dance culture emerged. These parochial halls tended to host traditional céilí evenings. The Parish Priest could directly organise and oversee dances. His looming omnipresence was felt in the halls as young men and women were morally obliged to keep a safe distance from each other.

The observation of one’s own community usually drove the young people to halls outside their locality where they could, in a very limited capacity, ‘let their hair down’.[xxix] The larger venues necessitated a change in the way traditional Irish music was played. Greater volume was needed, so the solo fiddler or bodhrán player was superseded by large céilí bands. Many traditional tunes, handed down from generation to generation, did not transfer well to the new venues and instruments and old tunes were soon lost forever. As Joseph Ryan points out, the 1935 Act, which was designed to exclude foreign influences, contributed to the undermining of an Irish folk music tradition.[xxx]

The continuing popularity of jazz music and dancing and the Dance Hall Act were seen as opportunities to make a considerable amount of money by building and running ballrooms by entrepreneurs. These were more modern facilities which could ensure a more comfortable experience for dancers as opposed to the dark, cold and damp parochial halls. Also, the absence of an overseeing Parish Priest appealed to many young dancers who did not wish to be chastised publically. The divide between the parochial hall ethos and the dance hall ethos widened in the 1940s and 1950s. This was due to the proliferation of new musical genres from America which were embraced in the ballrooms but resisted in the parochial hall. The sounds of artists such as Bing Crosby, George Formby, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland made their way into Irish homes on the increasingly popular medium of radio and on gramophones. Rock N’ Roll music began to emerge in the early 1950’s and all these influences combined to create a near unique Irish phenomenon; the showband scene.

The first true showband was the Clipper Carlton of Strabane, who abandoned the traditional music sets and began to move around the stage with their instruments emulating the likes of Elvis Presley.[xxxi] Brendan Bowyer and his Royal Showband took the Clipper Carlton’s lead and became the pin up boys of the showband craze. Just as entrepreneurs had seized upon the jazz craze of the 1930s, ballrooms that could hold up to four thousand people were constructed to host showbands.

Two brothers from Roscommon, Jim and a youthful Albert Reynolds, built Ireland’s first chain of ballrooms and across the country business men adopted the Reynolds’ idea and constructed their own regional chains.[xxxii] At the height of the showband craze there were over 450 ballrooms with 10,000 people employed in the industry.[xxxiii] During the showband years, which lasted until the early 1970s, the whole courting process was forever changed.

At a time when Ireland’s marriage rate was by far the lowest in the world, the increased ease of meeting new people from outside one’s own community helped, albeit in a small way, Ireland’s slow population growth from the mid-1960s on.[xxxiv] At the other end of Ireland’s cultural spectrum the more traditional elements of Irish music and dancing reacted to social changes in Ireland and changed accordingly.

In January 1951 a meeting of members of The Piper’s Club of Dublin and local musicians in Mullingar resulted in the formation of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the first Fleadh Cheoil was held in Mullingar later that year attracting a crowd of over 1,500 people.[xxxv] To paraphrase the festivals founders, the Fleadh aimed to ‘arrest the decadent trend evident in Irish life’.[xxxvi] The Fleadh proved to be a huge success as attendances mushroomed; 60,000 people attended the 1963 event in Mullingar.[xxxvii] As emigration rose in the 1950s, a new Irish diaspora began to relate to their native culture through folk ballads and an urban folk revival emerged in Ireland in the early 1960s.

Some of the roguish ballads of the likes of The Fureys and The Dubliners flew in the face of some of the more conservative elements of the parochial hall ethos but was reflective of a growing social radicalism in Ireland during the 1960s. The music of these groups was enjoyed by audiences across Europe and served to merge the concept of music being traditional and yet being popular. Alongside the popularisation of ballads, Seán Ó Riada’s ‘folk orchestra’ innovations paved the way for folk ‘supergroups’ such as Planxty and The Chieftains.[xxxviii]

In terms of the historiography of the Irish music and dance culture, there are many books and articles on music and dance in Ireland. However, there are several problems with the majority of these publications with regards a study of the cultural significance of changing modes of entertainment. Firstly, many of these books are of little use to social historians as they do not consider the impacts that the evolution of the music and dance culture had upon Irish society after independence. Another failure is the absence of definitive research into the relationship between music and dance in Free State Ireland. Finally, there is an imbalance between research into ‘high’ music forms such as classical music and more traditional Irish music. Take for example the most prominent periodical dedicated to musical scholarship undertaken in Ireland; Irish Musical Studies. Of its ten publications since 1990, only one was dedicated to Irish music in the twentieth-century and of its eleven articles, only one was about traditional Irish music.[xxxix] This example highlights the extent to which the history of Irish traditional music and its relationship to Irish culture remains to be written. Substantial histories of organisations such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann or Gael Linn may yield much needed research into the area.

A notable exception to the lack of academic research into the Irish music and dance culture is Helen Brennan’s The Story of Irish Dance. Brennan, a recognised expert in the area, bases much of her research upon interviews of the Irish Folklore Commission housed in University College Dublin. Of particular relevance to any future research into the Irish music and dance culture is the Irish folk music section of the Irish Folklore Commission. Much of the 10,000 hours of sound recordings in the collection were collected and indexed by Breandán Breathnach and through his pioneering work a thorough study of the relationship between music and society is possible. An ideal companion archive to the Irish folklore commission opened in November 2011. The National Dance Archive in the University of Limerick houses over 5,000 items including clothing, manuscripts and video recordings. Articles dealing with the impact on Irish society of the evolution of music and dance come from a wide variety of books and journals, many of which are multi-disciplinary. Notable amongst these is Gearóid O’hAllmhurain’s article in which he uses excerpts from the Clare Champion newspaper and personal interviews to show the impact of the 1935 Dance Hall Act in rural Clare. Proving that scholarship into this area is not only undertaken in Ireland, this essay also cites articles from international publications such as the Chicago published journal Ethnomusicology.

By their very nature as inherent forms of expression, forms of music and dance were difficult to control by the state. However as radio emerged as a technology which could effectively propagate a culture which the Free State desired, state control become a matter of priority. The far-sighted 1926 Wireless Telegraphy Act provided for the establishment of a state-run broadcasting station.[xl]

2RN was launched on New Year’s Day 1926. The station’s main aims were to foster Irish language and culture and protect the country from the perceived harmful influences of foreign broadcasts. The opening transmission, which included a bilingual address by Douglas Hyde, could only be received clearly at a radius of twenty miles due to 2RN’s weak 1 kW transmitter in the Phoenix Park.[xli] However in the uncongested radio spectrum of the mid 1920s reasonable reception was picked up as far away as Monaghan and Galway.[xlii] Following a brief residency in Little Denmark Street, 2RN’s studios moved to a floor in the GPO, the site of the first ever radio broadcast in 1916.[xliii]

But as Leon Ó Broin points out in his autobiography, the floor was badly needed for the Post Office’s own expanding requirements.[xliv]The cramped quarters with which the station found itself in reflected a stinted schedule. Initially 2RN had limited success in fostering Irish culture and language. Ironically, it was 2BE, the Belfast BBC station, which did more to promote Irish culture than 2RN in the early years. 2BE regularly featured Irish traditional music and full length Abbey Theatre productions.

It was not until the mid to late 1930s that radio began to realise its potential as a mass medium. Pivotal to radio’s accessibility to the masses was the erection of a new transmitter in Athlone in which enabled the station to broadcast nationally. With the appointment of TJ Kiernan as director of the station in 1935, radio truly began to penetrate into the homes of Ireland and have an effect upon Irish culture. Raidió Éireann (RÉ), as the station came to be known as from 1938 on, propagated the cultural nationalism of Fianna Fáil who set about creating a hegemonic Gaelic, Catholic state. RÉ began to diversify its programming to that end. In terms of music, RÉ unsurprisingly stood on the Parochial Hall side of the music divide.

Seamus Clandillon, the station’s first director, was a gaeilgeoir and a noted collector and performer of Irish songs.[xlv] TJ Kiernan actively encouraged the development of céilí bands and made increased programming for them. Fans of popular music were largely ignored by RÉ. However, stations such as the American Forces Network, and in particular, Radio Luxembourg specialised in this kind of musical programming. Despite RÉ having a large lead in listener figures, these stations were popular, especially amongst girls aged between fourteen and twenty-four.[xlvi] RÉ was also committed to developing classical music and brought together a twenty-four piece orchestra in 1936.[xlvii]

As resources steadily grew, news reporting was given more coverage. For the first time members of the general public could access and experience important historical events live in the comfort of their homes. The inauguration of Douglas Hyde as president, the death of Pope Pius XI and Coronation of Pius XII and the 1938 General Election results all received hours of coverage. Irish language lessons, which were viewed as boring and austere by the public, were dropped in favour of more lively plays, sketches and lectures.[xlviii] The most popular programme of all was ‘Question Time’; a general knowledge quiz with question-master MJ McManus, succeeded by FJ McCormack and Joe Linnane.[xlix]

The fact that a programme of this nature was most popular shows how much the public enjoyed interacting with their programming and were not merely passive listeners.Despite initial disagreements between RÉ and the GAA, coverage of hurling and football came into its own with the commentary of teenager, Micháel Ó’Hehir in 1938. He had an unequalled skill in calmly conveying the frenetic events on the pitch to the thousands of listeners in their homes. In many homes in rural Ireland, the voice of Ó’Hehir was more than the voice of a radio commentator; it was the voice of a friend. His commentary could give members of the Irish diaspora, as far away as Italy, a sense of connection to home.[l] John McGahern describes the excitement of O’Hehir’s commentary as he listened with a large group of neighbours to the 1944 All-Ireland Football Final;

My father had the only radio in the village, and every Sunday Roscommon played, the barracks was crammed with men, the air thick with cigarette smoke. Small bets were made, and once Michael Ó hEither’s voice crackled from the Cossor, the tension was unbearable: Bail O Dhia oraibh go leir a chairde Gael ó Phairc an Chrocaigh. … Once the men dispersed, there was that sense of absence that can be found in public gardens and by the sea at the end of bank holidays.[li]

The Emergency brought difficulties to RÉ. The biggest hindrance to radio was the lack of batteries and as a result there was a large fall in licenses issued. The Free State’s neutrality manifested itself in ridiculous ways on the airwaves. Reports on the weather were prohibited to the extent that even GAA commentators were not allowed mention the elements.[lii] News broadcasts were scrutinised, sometimes by De Valera, to ensure that it was balanced which led to a wearying series of claims and counter-claims and local news being totally forgotten about.[liii]

A rare venture by RÉ over the border caused controversy when Joe Linnane’s ‘Question Time’ was presented in Belfast. The question ‘Who is the world’s best known teller of fairy tales?’ was answered as ‘Winston Churchill!’ This led to laughter and applause but also to angry questions from MPs in Westminster. As Maurice Gorham points out, ‘it was a long time before a Radio Éireann team crossed the border again’.[liv]

Once The Emergency was over batteries became more commonplace and following a crackdown on unlicensed radios, 261,321 licenses were issued in 1948. However, an inexorable momentum toward television was building and it was only a matter of time before a national television station was developed. Television signals were being received on the east coast as early as 1951 and upon the establishment of a Northern Irish BBC service in 1953 signals could be picked up by about half the Republic’s population.[lv] Both the Church and government discussed the implications of an Irish television service.

It was suggested in The Furrow that television ‘may yet prove the most powerful influence in a new age of missionary endeavour in the (mission countries) which lie so close to our shores’.[lvi] Similar to the sentiment that Cumman na nGaedheal had when 2RN was established, Erskine Childers said that when a television service was set up it would have to be first class and involve itself in the development and preservation of Irish culture.

A Broadcasting Authority Bill was passed in 1959 and on 31 December 1961 Teilifis Éireann (TÉ) began broadcasting. TÉ came into being at a time of great economic and social change in Ireland. Seán Lemass’ pioneering five year ‘Programme for economic expansion’ was modernising the Irish economy. The traditional social mores of Catholic Ireland were under attack from the free movement of ideas and international influences. By virtue of its intrusiveness, television had the power to change society in a way that no previous entertainment medium could.

The Irish people themselves were represented in a way more faithful than they ever had been in cinema or radio. The openness and spontaneity of Gay Byrne’s ‘The Late Late Show’ revealed an Irish people at pains to break from the social repression that had typified Irish culture for decades. ‘The Riordans’ accurately reflected rural Irish life and the rapid social changes that were happening there. Summing up the effect television had upon rural Ireland, John Doyle says,

When people saw The Donna Reed Show, I Love Lucy or Jack Benny, they saw people comfortable in their skins, untrammelled by Church expectations and traditional pressures. … Eyes had been opened, not only by a light but by a lightness of feeling that came from far away, and it was therein the corner, every evening, after darkness fell on the complacent town of Nenagh, and a thousand others like it.[lvii]

Investigative journalism was championed by the ‘7 Days’ programme team and they infuriated the elites whilst testing the public’s desire for the raw truth. Through their investigations they had shown that they were not afraid to upset the three most dominant forces in the country; the business men, the Church and Fianna Fáil. Irish journalism would never be the same again. The initial imbalance between urban and rural television consumption began to change in the mid-1960s. Terence Browne identifies television, alongside the motor-car and secondary level schooling as thoroughly altering the patterns of daily life in rural Ireland.[lviii]

Television was the prime catalyst for the penetration of urban consumerism into the countryside. Advertisements, based on British ideas of marketing, were beamed into the new bungalows of Ireland promoting everything from ‘Extra Mild Calvita Cheese’ to the Irish hospital sweepstakes.[lix]

The historiography of state broadcasting in Ireland is thoroughly undeveloped. As has been previously stated, the first thorough history of Irish television has only been published. Books such as Desmond Fisher’s Broadcasting in Ireland are poor additions to an already limited historiography and many could be described as being nothing more than commemorative books. But as is the case with most areas of history there are exceptions. The most notable of all is Maurice Gorham’s foundational and definitive history of radio in Ireland; Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting. Gorham, a director of RÉ for a time, offers excellent insights into the foundation and running of Ireland’s radio service. Sit Down and be Counted: The cultural evolution of a television station is a valuable account of the early development of TÉ’s programming. In the absence of a significant integrated history of the impact that both RÉ and TÉ had upon Irish culture, the social historian must turn their attention to general social histories of Ireland such as Terence Brown’s work or Brian Fallon’s An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-1960. However, books such as these only give a cursory account of radio and television. In many ways literary works, in particular auto-biographies and works of non-fiction, can yield a good understanding into the impact of radio and television.

Works such as John McGahern’s Memoir and Breandán Ó hEithir’s Over the Bar show how people truly lived in a way that over-arching social histories cannot. What seem like passing observations, such as listening to ‘Question Time’ or tuning into the All-Ireland, offer valuable sources of information for the social historian.

The impact of television is perhaps best portrayed in John Doyle’s A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age. Doyle, a prominent television critic in Toronto, frames the description of his childhood in Nenagh around his memories of the programmes he viewed on the television his father bought in May 1963.[lx] Through Doyle’s descriptions of the impact television had upon the people of Nenagh, a social historian can truly grasp television’s role in the zeitgeist of the 1960s. When the Irish Free State came into being, bishops spoke about how those frivolous youngsters who were engaged in set-dancing were inviting ‘the wicked one who will come and do the rest’.[lxi] By the middle of the 1970s priests were beginning their sermons with “As I was watching TV last night”.[lxii]

In the space of a generation the most conservative element of Irish society, the Catholic Church, had come from denouncing dancing at the crossroads to reluctantly embracing television. This typifies the vast sea change that occurred in Irish society and culture. Economic issues often supersede other influences upon society and certainly the prolonged economic stagnation of the Free State left its mark on Irish society. But it was not economic recovery that changed Irish culture alone. Changing modes of entertainment in Ireland were a pivotal part of this change. The aims of this essay were to track the evolution of music and dance, and state broadcasting and show how their development, and at times their decline, contributed to a changing Irish society. No doubt, the historiography of entertainment in Ireland is weaker than other areas of Irish history. But as this essay has also shown, there are vast quantities of primary and secondary material in the public realm with which to expand this area of research.


Books and Journals.

Brennan, Helen. The Story of Irish Dance (Dingle, 1999).

Browne, Terence. Ireland: A social and Cultural History, 1922-2002 (London, 2004).

Cathcart, Rex and Michael Muldoon. ‘The mass media in twentieth-century Ireland’ in J.R Hill (ed.), A New History of Ireland; VII Ireland, 1921-1984 (Oxford, 2003), pp 671-710.

Conway, Ethna. ‘Ireland and Television’ in The Furrow 9, no. 1 (Jan., 1958), pp 33-38.

Clarke, Paddy. “Dublin Calling”: 2RN and the Birth of Irish Radio (Dublin, 1986).

Curran, Catherine. ‘Irish Music as World Music: Changing Audiences for Traditional Irish Music in the Twentieth Century’ in Michael H. Prosser and K.S Sitaram (eds), Civic Discourse: Intercultural, International and Global Media (Stamford, 1999), pp 229-240.

Doyle, John. A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age (London, 2005).

Fallon, Brian, An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-1960 (Dublin, 1998).

Ferriter, Diarmaid. The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000 (London, 2004).

Fisher, Desmond. Broadcasting in Ireland (London, 1978).

Forecast, KG. ‘Raidió Éireann listener research inquiries, 1953-1955’ in Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, XIX, 1955/6, pp 1-28.

Gorham, Maurice. Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Dublin, 1967).

Henry, Edward O. ‘Institutions for the Promotion of Indigenous Music: The Case for Ireland's Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’ in Ethnomusicology 33, no.1 (Winter, 1989), pp 67-95.

Kenny, Mary. Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 2000).

MacMahon, Bryan. ‘Getting on the High Road Again’, in John O’Brien (Ed.), The Vanishing Irish (London, 1954), pp 202-219.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London, 1964).

McNabb ,Patrick. ‘Social Structure’ in Rev. Jeremiah Newman (ed.), Limerick Rural Survey: 1958-1964 (Tipperary, 1964), pp 193-242.

O’Brien, John A. ‘The Vanishing Irish’ in John O’Brien (ed.), The Vanishing Irish (London, 1954), pp 15-45.

Ó Broin, Leon. Just like yesterday (Dublin, 1986).

Ó Danachair, Caoimhín. ‘The Death of a Tradition’ in Studies: An Irish QuaRTÉrly Review 63, no. 251 (Autumn, 1974), pp 219-230.

O’hAllmhurain, Gearóid. ‘Dancing on the Hobs of Hell: Rural Communities in Clare and the Dance Hall Acts of 1935’ in New Hibernia Review 9, no. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp 9-18.

Ó hEithir, Breandán. Over the Bar: A Personal Relationship with the GAA (Cork, 1984).

McGahern, John. Memoir (London, 2005).

Pine, Richard. Music and Broadcasting in Ireland (Dublin, 2005).

Power, Vincent. Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’:The Showband Story (Cork, 1999).

Ryan, Joseph. ‘Music in Independent Ireland since 1921’ in in J.R Hill (ed.), A New History of Ireland; VII Ireland, 1921-1984 (Oxford, 2003), pp 621-649.

White, Harry. ‘The Divided imagination: Music in Ireland after O’Riada’ in Gareth Cox and Axel Klein (eds), Irish Musical Studies- 7: Irish Music in the Twentieth Century, (Dublin, 2003), pp 11-29.


Anglo-Celt (Cavan Edition).

Irish Independent.

Leitrim Observer.

Meath Chronicle.

Nenagh Guardian.

Witness Statements from the Bureau of Military History.

Edward Brennan (National Archives of Ireland, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1514).

Liam Hoolan (National Archives of Ireland, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement 1427).

Other Sources.

The 1935 Dance Halls Act. Accessed online at on 17 October 2011.

The 1926 Wireless Telegraphy Act. Accessed online at on 23 October 2011.

Reeling in the years: 1964 & Reeling in the years: 1966, produced by John O’Regan. Originally aired on RTÉ One in October 2004.

Diary of Maureen Dooley, Neilstown, Camross, County Laois. (In custody of Paddy Dooley, of same address)

[i] Terence Browne, Ireland: A social and Cultural History, 1922-2002 (London, 2004), p. 8.

[ii] Brown, Ireland, p. XII.

[iii] Rex Cathcart and Michael Muldoon, ‘The mass media in twentieth-century Ireland’ in J.R Hill (ed.), A New History of Ireland; VII Ireland, 1921-1984 (Oxford, 2003), pp 671-710.

[iv] Helen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance (Dingle, 1999), 104.

[v] Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance, 104.

[vi] Some families were so desperate for money that the imminent bereavement of a family member could only serve to postpone a dance temporarily. This can be seen in the diary entry of Maureen Dooley, Neilstown, Camross, County Laois, on October 25, 1929. She said ‘There will be no dance in Ballaghmore on Nov. (sic) night as old Mrs. Whelan is dying … it will be in Knock at Christmas … It is sure to come off as they want the money.’

[vii] Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance, 119.

[viii] Edward Brennan (National Archives of Ireland, Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement [WS] 1514, p. 1).

[ix] Liam Hoolan (WS1427, p. 16).

[x] Helen Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance (Dingle, 1999), 26.

[xi] Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance, 30.

[xii] Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance, 30.

[xiii] Anglo-Celt (Cavan Edition), 15 Apr. 1922.

[xiv] Meath Chronicle, 15 Apr. 1922.

[xv] Nenagh Guardian, 15 Apr. 1922 and Westmeath Examiner, 15 Apr. 1922.

[xvi] The Meath Chronicle, 15 Apr. 1922.

[xvii] The Meath Chronicle, 15 Apr. 1922.

[xviii] The Church’s particular opposition to set-dancing can be seen in a statement from a Cork bishop published in The Munster Express on 28 Feb. 1936 in which he states ‘One source of danger is the nature itself of a [set-dance] which may be of such a character, sensual, and lascivious as to constitute a direct incitement to sin.’

[xix] Caoimhín Ó Danachair, ‘The Death of a Tradition’ in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 63, no. 251 (Autumn, 1974), pp 219-230.

[xx] Bryan MacMahon, ‘Getting on the High Road Again’, in John O’Brien (Ed.), The Vanishing Irish (London, 1954), pp 202-219.

[xxi] MacMahon, ‘Getting on the Road Again’, 212.

[xxii] Canice Chilsholm, writing for the Irish Independent on 26 June 1926 suggested that the Free State, instead of fighting for the arbitrament of war, should fight for the arbitrament of jazz at The League of Nations in Geneva.

[xxiii] Irish Independent, 22 Apr. 1924.

[xxiv] Gearóid O’hAllmhurain, ‘Dancing on the Hobs of Hell: Rural Communities in Clare and the Dance Hall Acts of 1935’ in New Hibernia Review 9, no. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp 9-18.

[xxv] Article 10.1 of Dance Halls Act, 1935.

[xxvi] Article 10.2 of Dance Halls Act, 1935.

[xxvii] Leitrim Observer, 4 Jan. 1936.

[xxviii] Leitrim Observer, 28 Mar. 1936.

[xxix] Patrick McNabb, ‘Social Structure’ in Rev. Jeremiah Newman (ed.), Limerick Rural Survey: 1958-1964 (Tipperary, 1964), pp 193-242.

[xxx] Joseph Ryan, ‘Music in Independent Ireland since 1921’ in in J.R Hill (ed.), A New History of Ireland; VII Ireland, 1921-1984 (Oxford, 2003), pp 621-649.

[xxxi] Vincent Power, Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’:The Showband Story (Cork, 1999), p. 12.

[xxxii] Power, Send ‘Em Home Sweatin’, p. 14.

[xxxiii] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000 (London, 2004), p. 603.

[xxxiv]John A. O’Brien, ‘The Vanishing Irish’ in John O’Brien (ed.), The Vanishing Irish (London, 1954), pp 15-45.

[xxxv] Edward O. Henry, ‘Institutions for the Promotion of Indigenous Music: The Case for Ireland's Comhaltas

Ceoltoiri Eireann’ in Ethnomusicology 33, no.1 (Winter, 1989), pp 67-95.

[xxxvi] Catherine Curran, ‘Irish Music as World Music: Changing Audiences for Traditional Irish Music in the Twentieth Century’ in Michael H. Prosser and K.S Sitaram (eds), Civic Discourse: Intercultural, International and Global Media (Stamford, 1999), pp 229-240.

[xxxvii] Curran, ‘Irish Music as World Music’, p. 235.

[xxxviii] Curran, ‘Irish Music as World Music’, p. 237.

[xxxix] Harry White, ‘The Divided imagination: Music in Ireland after O’Riada’ in Gareth Cox and Axel Klein (eds), Irish Musical Studies- 7: Irish Music in the Twentieth Century, (Dublin, 2003), pp 11-29.

[xl] The far-sightedness of the act (especially for the Irish Free State in 1926) is reflected in the wording of the act; ‘Wireless Telegraphy is defined as any system of communicating messages, spoken words, music, images, picture prints or other communications, sounds, signs or signals by means of radiated electro-magnetic waves originating in an apparatus or device constructed for the purpose of originating such communications, sounds, signs, or signals’ from Article 2 of Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926.

[xli] Desmond Fisher, Broadcasting in Ireland (London, 1978), p. 21 and Cathcart and Muldoon, ‘The mass media in twentieth century Ireland’, p. 679.

[xlii] Paddy Clarke, “Dublin Calling”: 2RN and the Birth of Irish Radio (Dublin, 1986), p. 46.

[xliii] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London, 1964), p. 304.

[xliv] Leon Ó Broin, Just like yesterday (Dublin, 1986), p. 167.

[xlv] Richard Pine, Music and Broadcasting in Ireland (Dublin, 2005), p. 4.

[xlvi] KG Forecast, ‘Raidió Éireann listener research inquiries, 1953-1955’ in Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, XIX, 1955/6, pp 1-28.

[xlvii] Brian Fallon, An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930-1960 (Dublin, 1998), p. 254.

[xlviii] Cathcart and Muldoon, ‘The mass media in twentieth century Ireland’, p. 684.

[xlix] Maurice Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting (Dublin, 1967), pp 110-116.(The results of the first ever listener poll of 2,575 homes showed that ‘Question Time’ was by far the most popular show on Radio Éireann)

[l] Breandán Ó hEithir tells the story of Private Bill Doonan who went missing for several hours whilst on duty as a radio operator in the British Army near Monte Casino in 1943. He was found ‘up a tree on the side of a steep hill and seemed to be in a deep trance’. He had, after much effort and experimentation, tuned into Ó’Hehir’s commentary of the second half of the 1943 All-Ireland football final between Roscommon and Doonan’s native Cavan. Breandán Ó hEithir, Over the Bar: A Personal Relationship with the GAA (Cork, 1984), p. 215.

[li] John McGahern, Memoir (London, 2005), p. 164.

[lii] Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting, p. 131.

[liii] Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting, pp 132-133.

[liv] Gorham, Forty Years of Irish Broadcasting, p. 132.

[lv] Cathcart and Muldoon, ‘The mass media in twentieth century Ireland’, p. 693.

[lvi] Ethna Conway, ‘Ireland and Television’ in The Furrow 9, no. 1 (Jan., 1958), pp 33-38.

[lvii] John Doyle, A Great Feast of Light: Growing up Irish in the Television Age (London, 2005), p.97.

[lviii] Browne, Ireland, p. 250.

[lix] Reeling in the years: 1964 & Reeling in the years: 1966, produced by John O’Regan. Originally aired October 2004.

[lx] Doyle, A Great Feast of Light, p. 11.

[lxi] Brennan, The Story of Irish Dance, 125.

[lxii] Mary Kenny, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 2000), p. 217.