Cork Couple Honored For a Life Of Dance
By Paul Keating
Joe and Siobhan O’Donovan (both 87) helped revive set dancing in Ireland and the U.S. Now they are to be honored at Ireland’s best traditional festival writes Paul Keating.
IN the ten years that I have been involved with the Catskills Irish Arts Week, I am come to expect –or dread—that last minute, somewhat panicked phone call from the young Dancing Master, Patrick O’Dea. He is 27 now traveling the world doing what he loves –teaching Irish sean nos step dancing and set dancing— following in a noble tradition of many Irish dancing masters of old, but on a far wider stage. It was ten years ago that I first hired him for the East Durham week (also celebrating its tenth year of existence this coming week) solely on his reputation at Willie Week in County Clare where he started teaching at age 12.
Also, Patrick and I shared the “Pauline” experience of being transformed upon meeting an elderly couple from Blackpool in Cork City, Joe and Siobhan O’Donovan. In Patrick’s case, upon meeting them in London at a dancing class first, he went on to become their most amazing protégé and almost a clone of Joe O’Donovan in manner, style and commitment.
In mine, they did their best to make me a better and more knowledgeable dancer and teacher as well but they also transformed me unwittingly into being “an organizer” after meeting them two decades ago at Willie Week.
O’Dea’s phone call this time wasn’t about his own travel woes but rather to solicit accolades for the auspicious occasion taking place this Wednesday at Willie Week when a special honor will be accorded Joe and Siobhan O’Donovan in the Community Hall in Miltown Malbay.
In 1984, fate sent me to Willie Week in in Clare. My parents were just miles from the granddaddy of all summer schools, the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay.
Founded eleven years earlier after the death of the famed piper from Miltown, the traditional music classes grew every year and by 1982 there were a number of “workshop widows or widowers” who needed something to occupy them while their mates were in the music classes. Into the picture strode the two Corkonians, an inspired choice by the Summer School directors Muiris O’Rochain and Harry Hughes.
Joe and Siobhan O’Donovan developed the concept of set dancing classes for beginners and organized classes for other teachers. They also managed to double the number of dancing students from that first year and again when I arrived in 1984.
I was there in search of my native Caledonian Set— which my own parents danced with great delight and skill— as a fledgling dance teacher at the Irish Arts Center. I veered into their beginner’s class to get the fundamentals with some polka sets from Kerry and Cork.
I was immediately taken with them, their thorough technique and forceful but friendly manner and the instant results that sent many dancers out into the evening air with the right steps for ceili hall or the pub.
In easy conversations with them I discovered that Joe had recently retired from a trade union job that had brought him to all parts of Ireland. The job had aided his own dancing research and collecting of steps and sets.
After retirement, Joe and his wife, Siobhan, were fit and able to travel and looking forward to the golden years of their lives, dancing together and passing on the rich heritage that was ingrained into their lives.
My instincts told me they were a perfect pair to do missionary work on set dancing in the U.S. and all they needed was someone to facilitate and line up places to go and stay. That notion was posited in my brain for the next year until I returned to Miltown in 1985 with a few more Yanks in tow and the practical reality of “importing” these cultural gems became my own mission for the following year. They enthusiastically embraced the idea of a six- week itinerary in 1986 before their revered Willie Week appearances.
It is entirely fitting that Willie Week acknowledge the incomparable role of Joe and Siobhan O’Donovan, now retired from teaching with both of them in 87th year. I hope Patrick O’Dea will come to New York to carry on their mission. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, they could have no better disciple. It would be an enduring legacy of Joe and Siobhan’s historic contributions to Irish life.