August 12, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Irish Dance in Baltimore (Part 2): A Steady Trickle, then a Mighty Stream

Records of public events and various writings are a few of the trails I have followed to discover the path of Irish dance into current days. This writer does not have a desire to present an exhaustive history of Irish dance in Baltimore, but rather hopes to relate to the reader how the discipline was maintained, and eventually arrived into the present era which I think can be fairly described as an eruption of enthusiasm. Are there now more than a dozen Irish dance organizations in the Baltimore-Washington area? It seems so.

Baltimore’s outward displays of Irish culture, such as St. Patrick’s Day gatherings, music sessions, parades and festivals are large subjects, and we have written about them to a measure in many issues of our “Big Pivot” series that is sent out to our community. Today’s writing includes these outward displays in a broader context, as part of eras that were frequently interrupted by the twists and turns of the word at large.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade had stopped being held in the late 1880’s, but was reestablished in the first decade of the 20th century through the efforts of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The annual event was held until 1910, but then faded away…not to return until 1956.

The Irish community continued its passion for dance despite events such as World War I and the Great Depression, while some participants simplified things a bit. Fiddler Mathew J. White and his daughter played for Irish dancers within the homes of Baltimore’s historic 10th Ward during the 1930’s, and in major celebrations at their parish church, St. John the Evangelist. A few other musicians joined them on occasion, and dance lessons by the Parles sisters, among others, continued the tradition. Unfortunately, a void was created with White’s death on February 23, 1940.

World War II brought tremendous tumult to Baltimore, and no more so than at West Baltimore’s St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, a primarily Irish parish where at least 900 went off to war. Thousands more worked for the B & O Railroad…an essential war industry. Ship yards, plane manufacturers and steel mills employed more than 100,000 from Baltimore and well beyond, and homes were sublet just to give all the wartime workers a place to sleep. This undoubtedly led to a de-escalation of ethnic celebrations, as the nation itself was challenged. Every citizen was part of the war effort, and a patriotic people celebrated two major American victories overseas.

Not much is known about Irish music and dance in the post-war era, but the 1950’s welcomed an important return to ethnic celebrations. Baltimore began an All-Nations Festival in 1951, which was held initially at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. Irish native Mary Starrs Helinski brought a group of adult dancers to represent her native culture there. Mary became an early member of the Emerald Isle Club as well (see link below).

The Emerald Isle Club was established in 1956, with Larry Smith (pictured with his co-champions of baseball at Loyola College) among the early leadership. The group has been a central force in the perpetuation of Irish dance in the Baltimore area. John P. McGowan was a charter member of the organization, and undoubtedly provided music via fiddle and uillean pipe for their gatherings. His death on November 7, 1960 was surely a blow to the Club, but they persevered.

The new beginning of the St. Patrick Parade (see link below) was an essential part of the rejuvenation of Baltimore’s Irish community, and an important cultural celebration. John J. Sweeney, Jr. and William J. Guerin led the 1956 event, and worked with Larry Smith as he served as Treasurer for the organization. The new parade format included young dancers, including this collection of participants (see Photos) .

Baltimore has held several ongoing public events that were a natural fit for students and their dance troupes who sought out places to hold public performances. The St. Patrick Parades, Fell’s Point Fun Festivals, Baltimore City Fairs and Baltimore/Maryland Irish Festivals have showcased Irish step dancers for the last fifty years or more.

The Fell’s Point Fun Festival began in 1967, and included folk dance demonstrations by several ethnicities. The Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians brought a group of dancers there for several years, led by member Pat Grady. Among the dancers, known as the Junior Hibernians, were Patricia Susie and Rosemary Gunter.

A second dance group joined the roster for the Fell's Point Festival. They were known as Geoheghan School of Irish Dancing, led by Elizabeth Geoheghan Unsworth (pictured, with dancers). She was an Irish native, and a 1947 all-Ireland dance champion. She gave lessons at the Y.M.C.A., located at Northern High School. Her group won the Fell’s Point Festival children’s division in 1969, and numbered about twenty dancers (enjoy these several photos). Among them was a very young Linda McHale Poggi (pictured, below left), who would later give dance lessons to children and adults herself.

Unsworth eventually moved to England, and her students were taught by Annette Cribbin, a native of County Meath who established a dance group known as Ceanannas M’or. Annette had arrived in Baltimore in 1967-8, and was asked to do a presentation on Irish dance to the 60 members of the Emerald Isle Club. They were thrilled, and monthly Ceili dances began.

Her Ceanannas M’or dance school also flourished, and Annette had 100 dance students (both step and set dancers) in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County. They danced at several Irish Festivals and other citywide events.

Annette Cribbin eventually turned her school over to Kevin Broesler, who commuted from New York to hold classes.

Some of Baltimore’s success in regard to Irish dance and music can be attributed to imports from New York City and Washington D.C. One of the most important of these is Lou Thompson, an Irish accordionist and member of the Black Thorne Ceili Band. He taught both step and set dancing in D.C., and eventually started classes in the Baltimore suburbs of Catonsville and Perry Hall. Lou and his wife Peggy also organized a traditional Irish band known as Irish Tradition. Their playing was an integral part of the success of Irish dance in the Baltimore area.

Ceili dance lessons were also taught by Michael Denny, in cooperation with the Emerald Isle Club. Larry Smith organized Roisin Dubh (Black Rose) adult dance school (photo, with a performance in Hopkins Plaza at the Irish Festival), with Denny giving instruction. His role was eventually “transferred” to Linda McHale Poggi, who taught step dancing to both adults and children.

Larry Smith, in his ‘get-er-done” fashion, floated a trial balloon Linda’s way. While she thought about teaching in Michael’s place, Larry pronounced that she was his “anointed”, and word was spread. Linda’s classes were popular and large (pictured below); she is still teaching Irish dance to adults and children to this day.

A solid structure of Irish dance within Baltimore was ripe for explosion, and huge events were held at St. Pius X. Catholic Church from the late 70’s through the mid 80’s. Ceili dances drew up to 25 traditional Irish musicians and hundreds of dancers, who each paid $7 at the door (beer included) on the first Saturday of the month. The Emerald Isle Club sponsored these large events (see photo).

This huge ceili was known as the largest on the East Coast, and drew dancers that were both well-known and unknown. The Straw Boys (see photo) appeared at one of the gatherings, caused all kinds of ruckus and disappeared just as quickly after a few dances.

What was that all about? Be sure to follow the link below to learn about this dance tradition from the West of Ireland.

Baltimore’s Irish dance community had transformed from a steady trickle of enthusiasm to a mighty stream, and important Irish dancers visited for special events and exhibitions. Among these were dancing masters Connie Ryan and Joe & Siobhan O’Donovan, who were retained to present advanced steps to a hungry dance community.

World-famous dancer Michael Flatley made his way to Baltimore’s St. Elizabeth School in March 1981, where he joined traditional musicians in concert with his champion-caliber flute playing.

These wonderful days of music and dance were part of a string of events and locations where traditional Irish music and dance flourished. Prime spots for the genre have included the Gandy Dancer in the Pigtown neighborhood, Kavanagh’s in central Baltimore and J. Patrick’s in Locust Point. While each has since closed, the Emerald Isle Club continues to hold monthly Ceili (COVID-19 permitting), and many schools of Irish dance are thriving in the greater Baltimore area.

Please enjoy the links below:

More about the Straw Boys:

We also thank those who contributed to this article:

Ancient Order of Hibernians of America

Archdiocese of Baltimore

Baltimore Sun

Emerald Isle Club

McHale School of Irish Dance

Marge Mulcare

Linda McHale Poggi

Maureen Shettle

St. Patrick Celebrations Inc.

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