By Fionnuala McNicholl

When I turned eight, like my older sisters, I was handed a pair of black cross-laced pumps and told I was going to Irish dance lessons. It was my mother’s last chance to have at least one of her children be upside with her relatives’ children looking out from the broadsheet pages of Friday’s Derry Journal, holding the latest trophy or medal won at yet another Feis.

With butterflies churning in my tummy, off I went with Dad, driving me in his Singer Gazelle to St. Patrick’s Hall in Strabane. The parish hall buzzed with boys and girls ascending a creaky, wide wooden staircase leading to a stage auditorium ringing with chatter and laughter. The slight-figured dance teacher from a Derry School of Irish Dancing, wearing a smile and roller-curled hair, welcomed us there.

After a quick chat, Dad paid the few shillings lesson fee and returned to wait in the car. After a friendly wave and summon from the only girl I recognised, I sat beside her at a long, low bench, where other girls and boys were already changing into dance shoes. As butterflies subsided, I crisscrossed the long black pump laces over my white bobby socks with fumbling fingers, concentrating not to fankle them.

A ceili band rendition of The Rights of Man rang out as the dance teacher cranked a square reel-to-reel tape player alive, prompting an ever-increasing echoing of foot tapping throughout the high-ceiling room. Soon, the fidgety black patent, silver-buckled, hard-shod feet rattling the bare floorboards stood in line with toes poised and arms by their side. Then, with synchronised precision on cue, their well-rehearsed clattering dance began.
I watched in awe as the children of Strabane’s Feis dynasties danced the hornpipe. Straight-armed girls with heads held high, clicking heels and toes and high lift stepping with poise and grace. Boys, straight as flag poles, raising and dropping their legs in unison, as each tap-toed shoe collided rhythmically with the floorboards.

There was pride in their eyes as they stepped every intricate triplicate step, seemingly synapsing from the heart to their feet from deep within. I hoped one day, I would dance with the same aplomb.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own