Dancing at the Crossroads

All roads led to Ughtyneill on Wednesday July 6, 2005 for the 22nd annual crossroads ceili organised under the auspices of Cairde Rince Ceili na hEireann.

Dancing at the crossroads to the strains of ceili music conjures up images of a bygone era from the dim and distant past. But the tradition lives on in the North Meath hamlet of Ughtyneill, thanks to the Cairde Rince Ceili na hEireann and its national chairman, local man Tom Marry.

“The tradition dates back to the turn of the century (20th) when the crossroads ceili was an important part of social life. That tradition lives on in Ughtyneill, where we stick to traditional ceili dancing. That fact attracts lovers of ceili dancing from all over the country,” Tom enthused.

For the past 22 years traffic on the Kells - Kingscourt road has been diverted, north of Moynalty at Ughtyneill for a few hours on a night in July to facilitate what is probably the only crossroads ceili that remains in the country.

“It is certainly the only crossroads ceili in Meath, if not in the whole country. The Cairde centre in St. Margaret’s organises something similar, but it isn’t held at a crossroads. It is held outside a Church of all places,” he quipped.

At a cursory glance Ughtyneill would appear to be a curious venue for a celebration of Irish music and dance. But delving deeper, it soon becomes apparent that Ughtyneill has a proud cultural pedigree.
“In my younger days there were classes in the Irish language, Irish dancing and drama so there was a cultural background there. We built on that by setting up a branch of Comhaltas Ceolteoiri Eireann and introduced music classes and well as adult ceili dancing classes,” Tom confirmed.

Around the same time the idea of a crossroads ceili was first mooted. The first crossroads ceili was held in 1983 and has grown in popularity down through the years.

“The establishment of the Comhaltas branch and the first crossroads ceili coincided. In latter years the ceili has been run under the auspices of Cairde Rince Ceili na hEireann,” he noted.

Hundreds of dancers, musicians, interested locals and inquisitive tourists descend on Ughtyneill one night each year for a celebration of Irish music and dance. “We have bus loads that come from Dublin and other parts to take part in the ceili. We would also have a strong local contingent taking part,” Tom elaborated.

It is hard to estimate just how many people attend the annual ceili, because there is no cover charge, and people to tend to come and go throughout the night, but conservative estimates put the average crowd at between 300 and 400 people.

On the occasions when poor weather conditions dictate that the ceili can’t be held outdoors, the musicians, dancers and onlookers move indoors to St. Patrick’s Hall, which is located beside the crossroad.

“The dancing is quite a spectacle. Large numbers come just to watching the dancing and listen to the music. The traffic is diverted for the evening to facilitate the music and dancing. There is no charge and light refreshments are served on the night, so all in all it is a great social occasion,” he enthused.
“It is a big night in the area. To the best of my knowledge it is only native Irish dancing ceili in Meath. There is no where else in the county that caters exclusively for native ceili dancing, outdoors,” Tom affirmed.

Vincent Tighe from Munterconnaught and guests supplies live music on the night. Indeed, Vincent is a veteran of the Ughtyneill event. “He has been playing music here for the last 20 years. He would also have a few friends with him to ensure and great night of music and dance,” Tom remarked.

Throughout the course of the night Vincent and his fellow musicians accompany the dancers through at least 18 different dances. Tom explained that dancers of all grades are catered for.

“We would always start with the simpler dances and progress to the more difficult dances. By and large the people that are dancing are attending dancing classes, but many of the spectators also get involved.”

“Some just come to watching the dancing and before long they are out there dancing. In fact we encourage everybody to get involved on the night. It is no shame not to be able to dance. All of us had to start somewhere. We all had to be taught,” he enthused.

He added: “If you come along and are receptive to being taught, you’ll pick it up. It is like learning the accordion or the fiddle. You have to start at the beginning. We would always encourage people to give it a go and see how they get along.”

Cairde Rince Ceili na hEireann, which was established in 1996, now runs dancing classes at 30 adult clubs across the country. The centres are strong supporters of the Ughtyneill crossroads ceili.
He elaborated: “We would have centres in Ashbourne, Dunboyne, St, Margaret’s, and Rathmines who would support the ceili. We would also have people driving from Co. Leitrim, Roscommon and many of the northern counties.”

Cairde was established at a time when ceili dancing was in decline throughout the country. “The committee was established in 1996 to coincide with the centenary of the first formal ceili, although ceili dancing has been around for the past five centuries.” Tom recalled.

“Ceili dancing was at an all-time low at the time and we decided we should try reactivate interest in ceili dancing countrywide,” he added.

Nowadays the organisation has in the region of 30 teachers actively involved in teaching dancing to adults and children. Tom, a qualified teacher revealed: “We teach in many of the primary schools and some of the secondary schools on voluntary basis. Each year in excess of 10,000 Irish children are taught Irish dancing under the auspices of Cairde.”

A dearth of ceili dancers in 1996 meant that Cairde decided to focus its attention on the youth of the country. “We had to start with a new generation of dancers and that meant beginning with the children. My generation didn’t have the opportunity to learn ceili dancing, but the youth of today have every opportunity to get involved.”

At local Cairdre Rince Ceili na hEireann has a thriving centre in Ughtyneill. “We run weekly adult classes in ceili dancing from September right through to the following Easter. The classes are held in St. Patrick’s Hall.”

He continued: “We would also run music classes (accordion, tin whistle, fiddle etc) as well as an Irish language classes for all age groups. Again these classes would run every week from September through to the following May.”

Down through the years, the local Comhaltas and Cairde branches have been working away quietly in the background to promote the Irish language, music and dance. Over the past 20 years or so, they have built up a fine reputation as protectors and promoters of Irish culture.

“We stuck with it over the years. People now realise that we are offering Irish language, music and dance in its purest form and they are responding accordingly by attending our classes,” he asserted.