The 20th Connie Ryan Set Dancing Festival tinged with sadness

Joan Pollard Carew


Joan Pollard Carew


The 20th annual and final Connie Ryan Set Dancing Festival was held last weekend 8th to 10th June in Holycross Co Tipperary. Those of us who have been supporting this festival since its inception were sad when the committee announced earlier this year that this was to be the final festival. With numbers dwindling over the years and no new or young dancers getting involved the current committee who have been running the festival sadly called it a day. The festival was once more housed in the beautiful St Michael’s Community Hall. This building was a former church, built 1834 and renovated in 2000 for use as a community centre some of the original features were retained including the beautiful windows and a statue of the ark angel Michael which is over the stage. The hall is situated beside the historic Holycross Abbey.

The festival was first launched in 1998 to celebrate the late Connie Ryan who died on 7th May 1997. The first home for this magical festival was a large marquee beside the community hall in Clonoulty. Hundreds gathered for wall to wall and floor to ceiling dancing each June until 2007, when the festival then moved to Halla na Feile in Cashel. In 2010 the festival was again moved to Holycross.

Over those years this weekend has been a celebration of Connie Ryan and all that he contributed to set dancing. Connie moved to Dublin to work in 1960 and immersed himself in music and dancing there. He was an extraordinary man. Born and reared in the parish of Clonoulty. He was instrumental in the revival of set dancing, and taught his love for dancing to hundreds of people. Connie never used a strict teacher/pupil approach, but more like a leader passing on his knowledge and love of his talent. Classes and workshops were conducted in a happy, friendly, sociable and fun environment. Everybody enjoyed themselves, learned their dancing, and made new friends. Connie had a group of set dancers known as The Slievenamon Dancers who travelled all over with him and made two trips to Northeast U.S. in 1988 and 1991. With this group he was able to not only instruct in great detail but also vividly demonstrate with full sets of eight how much fun there was in dancing. Connie also spent much of his time collecting sets. He would make many visits to an area patiently talking to his contact and dancing the sets many times, to be sure it was right before he would teach the dance. This was all before the advent of videos, books etc Connie’s love of dancing was passed on to him by his father. His home was known as a “dancing house”

The weekend festival got underway with a ceili on Friday night dancing to the foot tapping music of Ger Murphy and Ken Cotter. Jim Doyle welcomed everyone especially the group who had travelled over from Manchester England. We had a brilliant night. Jim Doyle conducted the proceedings with guest calling from Michael Loughnane, Eamon Nolan and this correspondent.

Saturday night we did indeed raise the roof dancing to Rise the Dust Ceili Band. And on Sunday afternoon the magic of Kerry music doled out by Neily O’Connor ceili band kept the gathering of dancers’ stepping it out happily. We danced a spectacular selection of sets all weekend, with Jim Doyle at the helm and guest calling from Declan Doocey and this correspondent.

Committee chairperson Noreen Ryan thanked everyone for attending not just this year’s festival but for all the support dancers have given to the weekend for twenty years. She paid tribute to her hardworking committee and the numerous people who had been involved over the years. Noreen requested a minutes silence in memory of all those dancing friends who have passed to their eternal reward.

Thanking Jimmy Doyle for all he had contributed over the years Noreen said his great humour and skill added to the festival over the years.

Jim Doyle reiterated Noreen’s words of thanks to dancers and ceili bands he also thanked The Ryan family for their permission to run this festival in Connie’s memory. He wished everyone a safe journey home.

Maureen Culliton presented a thank you card to Noreen Ryan committee chairperson on behalf of the set dancing community. I took a group photo graph of the dancers who attended the finale Ceili.

All who were in attendance made a big circle and Neily O’Connor sang The Parting Glass. Then we all stood to attention for Amhran Na Bhfiann.

Amongst the happiness of music and dancing over the weekend many tears were shed as we reminisced on the years of Connie Ryan his teaching sets his uniqueness and friendship. The hardworking committee are to be commended for hosting this festival for twenty years. The sentiments of all I spoke to over the weekend are that memory of Connie Ryan and the legacy he has left us will be cherished and passed on to future generations.