August 12, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Irish Dance in Baltimore (Part 1): A Steady Trickle, then a Mighty Stream

A pretty decent amount of newspaper articles, primarily from the Baltimore Sun, describe events over time where Irish dance was a featured activity at some gatherings, and I learned that traditional Irish musicians were a real key to the genre. While dancing to recorded music became common in later years, it was the presence of traditional Irish musicians that brought dancers to an event.

Our recent writings about Irish fiddlers was a precursor to today’s offering, and men such as Larry Ward, John P. McGowan (below, right) and Mathew White (below, with fiddle) provided music for those who danced in the Irish manner during the pre-1940 period. There were plenty of Irish events where music was performed by pianists, bands and orchestra, but these usually accompanied talented singers. Irish folk singers and balladeers are part of many of our life experiences, and play a valuable role in the community as well.

Dancers have depended on the patterns of the traditional Irish music genre, and rely on the perpetuation of important pieces of music that present a pattern and rhythm that travels from ear to foot. This music and dance are a hand-in-glove relationship, with each depending on the other to create a full expression and display of a rich Irish tradition. It is in that spirit we speak of Irish dancers today.

Step dancing in Ireland seems to have begun in the 12th and 13th centuries, and has been presented in different forms and settings over the years. Some is known as “sean nos” dance, and likely includes the use of the full body to a degree. Others dance with the lower body only, keeping the arms still at their side. Other forms are also used within the genre, and are worth exploring.

Musical and dance gatherings in Ireland were a bit difficult during the years of the Penal Laws, with Catholic churches being outlawed by the English, but no matter. Music and dance was performed in homes and even at nearby crossroads, where both musicians and dancers would gather (see image above).

Irish music and dance continued in the homes of Baltimore, as described in our previous issues of the Irish Railroad Workers Museum’s “Big Pivot” series. There’s not been any indication that the genre continued at any local crossroads; we have actual public buildings for that these days! Perhaps we could count the dancers that travel parade routes as ones that continue the outdoor tradition.

The state of step dancing certainly modernized once Ireland worked its way into the 20th century. Margaret Byrne wrote on the subject in a Sun article dated April 20, 1903. She commented on a recent tour of Ireland, where she observed that the genre in its variant forms included both traditional dancers with a “quiet countenance” as well as those on the flashier side, more oriented towards giving a dynamic performance. She also paid compliments to a dance teacher in Dublin who encouraged his students to use their whole body, rather than just the lower.

Baltimore was an active center for the perpetuation of Irish dance and music, and the role of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (logo included) would be difficult to overstate. Their several divisions in the Baltimore area hosted hundreds of gatherings between 1890-1940, including a “Shamrock Feis” in September, 1906. Irish dance was part of Division 5’s annual reunion that year, where Larry Ward played the fiddle for those who wished to participate in a reel and jig dancing contest.

A.O.H. also held annual “Hibernian Day” celebrations that included Irish dancing, partnering with fiddler Matt White in August, 1915. These events drew people from around the city and region, and were made possible by the hard work of a considerable number of Hibernians, including P.J. McCusker of County Tyrone (pictured, with wife Aileen). He and his wife led a family that was very active at St. Mary's, Govans Church: an historic Irish parish in Baltimore.

Baltimore’s Irish parishes were key to the perpetuation of Irish culture. Among them was St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church and parish in West Baltimore (pictured), where a series of pastors and teaching brothers promoted their Irish heritage via various events and gatherings.

Among these was Rev. Thomas J. Kenny (pictured below), who worked with local Irish musicians such as Shane McShane (pictured, well below) and John P. McGowan to present an Irish Ball on January 13, 1913. Shane was an Irish native himself, and a fierce advocate for the rights of his homeland. He was joined that evening by dozens of Irish that gathered in St. Peter’s Hall, including Irish dancers.

St. Peter’s parish was similar to many that held summer festivals to build up the community and add to the coffers of the church itself. Their “Community Frolic” of July, 1922 lasted five nights, and included an Irish dancing contest on Thursday night.

McShane promoted his Irish traditions at other venues. An Irish Ball was held at Freidman’s Hall (Wilkens Ave. and Pulaski St.), in the famous Mill Hill row house neighborhood where his family lived (pictured above). The gala event was held on March 17, 1916 and was attended by natives of all 32 of Ireland's counties.

Music was provided by Shane McShane, Matt White and John P. McGowan. Their playing was enjoyed by the large gathering that included dancers who performed the jigs and reels of the evening, and also participated in “rince fadha” dances (see the link below).

Hibernians continued their ethnic celebrations into the depression era, and sponsored a Chesapeake Bay Moonlight Excursion in June, 1933. The evening included Irish quadrilles, jigs and reels. Summer gatherings were held on land as well, and the annual A.O.H. summer picnic of 1938 included Irish dance with violin, flute and accordion accompaniment.

Perhaps the most remarkable of their activities of the era was being host to the fourth ranked University of Notre Dame “Fighting Irish” football team in November, 1938. They were local due to their upcoming gridiron contest vs. the Naval Academy Midshipmen. Irish Music and dance were part of the evening’s festivities, and must have added to their determination to have a good showing at Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium on November 4, 1938, where 58,271 gathered to watch the rivalry. Notre Dame won the contest 15-0, led by head coach Elmer Layden.

An upcoming issue will continue with the story of Irish dance in the Baltimore area, and will focus on the post WWII era.

Please enjoy the links below to illuminate your understanding of Irish dance, and enjoy!

Sean Nos dancing in a Connamara Pub:

Sean Nos Dancing in a modern home

Step Dancing, 1963

Rince Fadha Dance

Set Dance, Emerald Isle Club

We also thank those who contributed to this article:

Ancient Order of Hibernians of America

Archdiocese of Baltimore

Baltimore Sun

Emerald Isle Club

Linda McHale Poggi

Descendants of Shane McShane

Larry Smith (in loving memory)

McGowan, Menefee and Kurth families

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