Irish Dancing in South Australia

It is difficult to establish when Irish dancing first came to South Australia, but records show Irish dancing in the new colony from about 1844, brought here by Irish settlers. The first Irish dancing competitions were held in the mid 1850’s at Kapunda.

In 1912 the Irish Pipers Association appointed Patrick William (Bill) Doherty as its first dance teacher.  Whilst in the early part Bill Doherty lacked formal training, his ability to learn from watching others quickly meant his repertoire and knowledge expanded.  He travelled to Victoria, competed and learnt and before long his class and his reputation flourished. Mr. Doherty was adamant that the dancing he taught would remain traditional and he would not allow any changes or embellishments to the traditional movements.

Around 1918 Pat Greene from the Irish National Association joined with Bill Doherty and this brought with it renewed interest and enthusiasm.  The first management committee was Rev. Fr. K O’Hannan OP, a Dominican priest and musician (whose fiddle playing accompanied many Irish dancers over the years), President Patrick Doherty, Director, Patrick Greene and the Hon Secretary Patrick Eugene O Leary.

The original classes were held at St. Joseph’s Hall in Pirie Street, but as numbers grew transferred to the Rince Hall, alongside St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral. During these early days dancers were required to be 10 or 11 before they could start and one of these dancers Carmel Mayger (nee Larkin) well remembers the early days of tuition under Pat Green, and the competitions on the Hindmarsh Oval.   Carmel, Arthur Gilligan and Michael Kelly were renown for their three hand reels, which won many a competition.

After the death of Bill Doherty in 1950 Michael Kelly and Arthur Gilligan took over the class and gave it the title “the P.W. Doherty Memorial School of Irish Traditional Dancing”.  Jack Doherty, Bill’s son also was involved. From this time Irish dancing classes were formal, fees were charged, attendances were recorded, and classes were offered by trained teachers from beginner to senior levels.

Other notable teachers of the P.W. Doherty Memorial School included Valmai Moriary, Gwen Hickey (Jones), Carlien Mitchell, Geraldine Mangan and Margaret and Maureen O’Donoghue.  Carmel Malone (Hogan) and Leonie Mensforth were taught by Maureen and Pat O’Connell.  

In 1959 Mrs. May Tiernan and her daughter Rita arrived in Adelaide from Belfast.  Rita was the holder of many championship titles won in Northern Ireland, and Mrs. Tiernan soon established a dance class and introduced into Adelaide the soft shoe style, which up until this time had not been taught.  The Doherty school taught the Munster style of dance and were great exponents of jigs, hornpipes and treble reels, all performed in hard shoes and even the slip jig (then called the Foxhunter’s Jig) was performed in hard shoes.  In time the graceful soft shoe became very popular and dancers soon adapted to the reels, slip jigs, light and single jigs, which greatly added to the competition syllabus.    Ceili dancing, set dances such as the Three Sea Captains and Downfall of Paris, and many more, all came much later, when the teachers took Irish Dancing Commission examinations to gain their qualifications as teachers and adjudicators. This was a huge turning point in Irish dancing right throughout Australia.  In 1960 dancers from the PW Doherty Memorial School performed at Elder Park in the very 1st Festival of Arts.

From these embryonic beginnings Adelaide now can boast nine dancing schools.

AIDA (SA) Inc. was established in 1969. The aim of this Association is to provide tuition in professional surroundings by qualified teachers, offer competitions, and to promote and foster the beautiful art form of traditional Irish dancing to the wider community. South Australian dancers have achieved success in Australian championships, and some have represented South Australia on the international dancing circuit at the World Championships, the North American Championships and the European Championships.   We have certainly come a long way from very humble beginnings of dancing on the back of a truck in 45 degree heat at Macclesfield on New Year’s Day, to the beautiful air conditioned venues and non slip stages we provide for our dancers today.

Along this path there have been many changes and some may question whether they are good or bad.  The style of soft shoe dance has become much more aerial and balletic with fast moving turns, spins, and leaps, and the hard shoe involves challenging choreography, intricate movements and walking en pointe, which all require a high level of fitness, confidence in performance and many hours of practice.   Costuming has changed dramatically – from the kilt for men to trousers and shirts, and from simple, hand embroidered costumes to the elaborate dresses and waistcoats on our dancers today.

Accompanying Irish dance is in itself an art form.    The traditional music of talented and dedicated musicians such as Eugene, Ellie and Des O’Leary, John Gilligan, (all on piano) Father Kevin O’Hannan OP (fiddle) Tom and Paddy Finn, (fiddle and accordion)  Bill Ryan, (accordion) Colleen Kirby (accordion) and Margaret Atkinson (piano) has now been replaced by CDs and downloads to iPods. Our dancers today have a huge choice of beautiful music for practice and performance, and the luxury of being accompanied by world renown Irish dance musicians in major competitions.

Classes today are run quite regimentally, and in some cases as businesses, and Teachers are bound by the rules and regulations of the parent bodies as well as State legislation.

Whilst time and trends, and the advent of the many successful dance shows has changed the way people now see Irish dance, the traditions, passion, music and history behind the dance still continues to shine through, and it is this that the current Irish dance teachers in Adelaide believe they can perpetuate for many more generations to come.

In 1960 dancers from the PW Doherty Memorial School performed at Elder Park in the very first Festival of Arts.