The Country House Dances

Recalled by James Reddiough

A huge scene

There was a huge country house dance scene in the rural parts of Ireland for centuries and this was certainly the case in my great-grandfather’s time in the 1920s and in my grandmother’s time in the 1930s and 1940s, when she was in her teens.

The period covered in this article would be from 1921–1950, when eventually the larger halls took over and people no longer met in the cottages for their entertainment. The Public Dancing Act of 1935 influenced their decline also.

The music makers

At the country house dances the musicians sat at the top of the house with their fiddles and accordions and played for the pleasure of the gathering. They played traditional tunes like the reel, the jig and the hornpipe, as well as the old time waltz, as the people present danced around the kitchen floor, and the old saying was, “around the house and mind the dresser” and they were happy times indeed. The musicians were all local men and women who could carry a tune and had learned the airs from the generations before them.

These dances were an extension of the rambling house held up to the fifties on a more regular basis each week. It was at these events that plans would be made for the next ball or house dance. The young people would learn to dance at the rambling house and the house dance. Indeed, in the 1940s, there was a burgeoning entertainment scene in the house dance, the rambling house and the weekly dance in the country hall co-existed easily without a hint of friction between them.

Entertainment everywhere

In the part of north Mayo where this writer lives, there were country house dances, rambling or visiting houses, card playing schools, concerts in the local schools and the existence of no less than seven country halls, all running in the same decade of the 1940s – quite remarkable when one considers the current state of rural Ireland bereft of its people and youth in particular. At the time of the Second World War 1939 – 1945, the countryside was teeming with people and in townlands where there are few people today, there were once ten to twelve houses with large families in them – no fear of closing schools then – here in the part of north Mayo where this writer lives, there were 62 pupils attending the local school where today, there is under a fifth of that number!

The social calendar in times gone by

The country house dances were once an important part of the social calendar of the rural parts around and indeed in the towns. They were called balls and they were held to celebrate special events in the life of the people, and they were held mainly in the winter but in the summer too. They were held in the kitchen or main living room of the house at a time when there were two to three rooms in house and of course refreshments were served in what was commonly called the room above.

The official view of dances

The country house dances were a popular form of entertainment in years gone by and the people at that time made their own entertainment in their own locale, at a time when there was little in the way of the world’s goods but they knew how to have a good time. Their easy and simple way of life was brought to an end by the hands of officialdom by way of the Public Halls Licencing Act of 1935, which meant that dances were transferred to smaller halls in the locality and they required a licence for public dancing.

The Catholic Church also frowned on the house dances as occasions for sin and they preferred that people danced in the larger halls where they could be supervised. In more remote areas they carried on with the house dances twenty years or so after the act and this is based on local folk memory of rural life.
There were three rooms in the houses at that time and the dance or ball was held in the main living room and the tea and food was served in the upper room.

The people of the house would employ musicians and they would buy in food and drink: ham, bread, tomatoes and jam. They would serve this to the dancers present. They would have whiskey and porter too from a barrel that would do for the night. They were long all night dances in those days with people often not getting home until the wee small hours of the morning. These events were popular in the 1920s into the 1950s before the advent of the ballroom boom.

Late nights

People in the surrounding areas would be invited to the ball and they would pay a token charge to cover the cost of the food and drink and then there would be guests too from England or America and they would be the focus of attention at the ball. Sometimes the fiddlers and the accordion players would be there playing for the people until the early hours and the music was once heard by a man in the hills looking after lambs by the water’s edge. As earlier stated, people danced a set or half set and the old time waltz too at these country house dances.

The dances would go on all night and the young revellers would often not get home until 5.00 o’clock in the morning. They would walk if they had a short distance to go, or else if they had a few miles to cover, they would cycle or go by horse and trap depending on their level of affluence. They had a good night and celebrated the sense of occasion that surrounded the house dances. They existed from the 1920s until the 1950s and early 1960s by which time the larger dance halls and ballrooms took over; and young people travelled longer distances by car to entertainment venues in the villages and larger towns to hear the modern pop stars of the day and enjoy a drink in comfortable ambience.

Memorable times

The dance will never be forgotten by those people now in their later years, or else passed onto their eternal reward. They had so much fun and pleasure in attending the country house dances. They were an important date in the social diary of the village. Christmas was a particularly popular time for the country house dance because people would be home from distant parts.