The Ceilidhe House

By Maureen O¹Dwyer

Before the advent of Television or cosy Lounge Bars, the Ceilidhe House was the only meeting place for the locals to meet on a cold winter’s night. Every townland could boast of at least two good houses where people would gather and pass away a few hours either in conversation or by entertainment.

Many a good ghost story or fairy tale was related on these occasions which have since been handed down through the generations and recorded in some of our archives for posterity. Unfortunately, some of those stories have been lost by the wayside or might even lose the true ‘gist’ by being told by someone who had not the right flow of words and failed to add the extra trimmings which helped to convince an audience that the tale was honest truth no matter how incredible it might sound.

Even in those years a good ‘seanchai’ was a rare thing and was always in demand at wakes or weddings. He could hold command of his audience until they were almost spellbound. I can still remember, as a child, sitting on the long stool in the corner of the big open hearth, too terrified to even turn around or look towards the window, because in those days we had no Venetian or Holland blinds to cover the windows. Some were lucky enough to have the wooden shutters to close over, while others had the previous week’s issue of ‘The Anglo Celt’ held in position with four drawing pins to ward off any peeping Toms who might be in the vicinity.

A Ceilidhe house for conversing only was an education in itself to hear all those old and not so old men get through the day’s or week’s events, especially after a fair or market day. Prices were compared and valued, sometimes finishing up in a heated argument as to the age or price of some neighbours beast, the crops, or the yield of a certain field of oats after the threshing mill had left the townland was always a good topic for conversation.

Many a time I heard my father relate the story of a certain Ceildhe house which they used to frequent around 1910 when Halley’s Comet last circled the earth. It seemed the prophesy was that each time the Comet comes around, it would come lower and lower until eventually it would touch the earth and burn it.

Old Dan wasn’t exactly a man with green fingers, and the weeds in the garden were almost growing across the wall, he would just let the ass and one or two goats graze on it, he always had a good excuse for not tilling the half acre. So, in the Spring of that year, when someone asked Dan if he was going to plant anything in the garden, he quickly remarked. “Do you think I’m mad to plant potatoes and have Halley’s Comet come and burn it up.”

Card Games
There was always the Ceilidhe house where the card games were played on the long winter’s night, oddly enough the cards never were played in a house where there was a cradle in use. I’m not sure if it was a superstition or the fact that a small baby might be kept awake by the noisy excitement of the players. The Tailor’s Cottage was a very popular card house, where many a game of ‘45 and ‘25 was played especially before Christmas time when turkeys and geese were played for and many a family were sure of a good Christmas dinner by the good luck of their father in one of these card games. The cosy kitchen behind Mary Anne’s little shop was also a great card-playing centre, as the men gathered for their regular game they could buy their packet of Woodbines or the half quarter of Mick McQuaid plug tobacco on their way in and relax for the night with a good hand of cards and a good smoke. I was always fascinated by little Tommy who visited his brother-in-law about three nights a week. As soon as he came into the kitchen, he drew up a chair to the table, took the pack of cards from the dresser and started to play Patience. He just sat there all night, turning over card after card, now and then joining in the conversation of the other ceilidhers, at 11 o’clock he would gather up his cards, replace them on the shelf of the dresser and head for home again.

The most popular Ceilidhe house for the younger folk was the musical one, we all looked forward to these, especially in our teenage years when we hardly knew our right foot from our left! I remember one particular house where they had a new gramophone and some modern records brought home from England by their daughters who were nursing there.

Every Wednesday night we met there and picked up the steps for the quick-step and the slow fox trot from the local lads, some of whom fancied themselves as a Victor Sylvestor. By the time we had spent a winter at these sessions, we were ready for the Ballroom of Romance in the local Parochial Hall on a Sunday night.

Regular Dancing
The older folk had their own regular dancing house where another gramophone with traditional type records provided the music for the half sets, four hand reel, stack-o-barley or the old-time waltz. Many a night I listened to John McCormack singing his Irish melodies or the McNulty family sing the Irish ballads. When the gramophone spring would snap, an empty cotton spool would be fixed underneath the winding handle to hold it in position and finish off the music for the set dancers. Many a time the sparks flew from the cement floor as the steel tips from the heels of men’s boots came down in full force in the big swing as they danced to “round the floor and mind the Dresser”. The older women’s long skirts created such a whirlwind that I often thought the fire would be swept up the open chimney.
As I travel pass some of those houses nowadays all I can hear is a stereo blaring out the top of the pops at a volume fit to burst, any human eardrums, a complete contrast to Moore’s Melodies or ‘The Geese in the Bog’. Gone are the old doors with the latch which we just opened and walked in, they are all mahogany or aluminium with press button bells and fancy knockers and one has to wait to be invited in to the home.

I wonder is there friendship or understanding behind those fancy doors and windows. Somehow I can’t imagine the chairs and tables being pushed aside to make room for the set dancers.

The Ceilidhe house is a thing of the past, everyone has their own form of entertainment now produced by the television in the corner of the room. The art of conversation has also gone for us although I am glad to see it being revived through the debating societies.

I know there are so many types of social functions to choose from these days, discos, dances, dinner dances, tea parties and all sorts of outings but for me there is nothing can compare with a good old Ceilidhe house where neighbours were neighbourly and kind to one another even if some of them would try to ‘pull the wool over the other one’s eyes.’ It was all done in good clean harmless fun.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2000