By Sheila O’Kelly
My Irish dancing days commenced in the late fifties in my hometown, Portarlingon, County Laois.
At that time there were two Irish dancing teachers in the town, Miss Elizabeth Flanagan and Miss Ann Carroll. Miss Flanagan lived with her sister in a three-story house on Saint Patrick Street and had a small grocery shop in the front room. Miss Carroll also resided on Saint Patrick`s Street near the Christian Brother`s Primary school.
Miss Carroll was a sister of Johnny Carroll (RlP) who owned a grocery shop situated between Kelly`s pub as it was known then and Finlay`s pub and opposite Alo Donegan`s bicycle shop in Main Street. Miss Flanagan, my teacher, was a tall slim woman and wore spectacles. She was rather energetic and sharp for her elderly years hence her nickname ‘Electric Liz’.
Classes were held every Monday afternoon in the town hall on Foxcroft Street beside the Boy`s Club and opposite Lawlor`s anvil. The first dance I learned was the reel. Miss Flanagan, always in a three-quarter length dress with black laced shoes called out the steps slowly and clearly.
I lined up with other girls and we stepped out to ‘Aon dó trí cathar cuig sé seact, aon dó trí aon dó tri, aon dó trí cathar cuig sé seact, aon dó trí aon dó trí. I learned reels, jigs, hornpipes and the Highland Fling. Whenever Miss Flanagan was busy with other pupils, I, along with other girls disappeared to Johnny Carroll`s shop or Kitty Lawlor`s for sweets and we never received a scolding from our kind teacher.
Miss Flanagan entered us into Feis competitions which were held in the Mill Field beside Odlum`s Flour Mill on Sunday afternoons in the summertime. These were nerve-racking events for me , thankfully, there was not too many of them. Miss Carroll`s pupils took part also. There was no rivalry between the two groups but I have to admit I was jealous when the opposition won medals.
The highlight of the year was the ‘Céilí’ which was held in the town hall on the Friday after Easter. Extra dancing lessons, dress rehearsals and learning lines for a play were spent in preparation for the big night. Rehersals for the play often took place on evenings in Miss Flanagan`s house. At the end of rehersals we were provided with tea and biscuits before going out into cold night air.
We were not required to have a Irish dancing costume but on that special night we wore red tartan skirts and white blouses for the Highland Fling, short white dresses with white ankle socks (no shoes) for the Fairy Reel and black shoes with silver buckles for the Sailor`s Hornpipe. The hall was always full to capacity.
Looking elegant in a long black dress with speckles of glitter, Miss Flanagan with notes in hand calmly and firmly steered us through our paces. We pounded out various dances such as, the Haymaker`s Jig, the Four-hand Reel, the Eight-Hand Reel, and the Bridge of Athlone to music provided by Frank Conway on the banjo and Jimmy Keogh on the accordion (R.I.P). (Apologies if I have forgotton to mention other musicians).
The Fairy Reel was a favourite of mine. Eight or nine girls lined up both sides of the stage. We danced forwards and backwards left and right. Then the fairy queen in a long white dress, a silver tiara on her head and waving a wand appeared on the stage. She danced gracefully to the front of the stage and back and then we danced in a circle around her. I was never chosen to be the fairy queen but my sister Carmel (O`Reilly, Station Road) was just one of the girls chosen to perform that lovely honour.
When the red velvet curtains finally closed on the night we were treated to buns, biscuits red lemonade and orange. It was always a successful and enjoyable night all due to a wonderful and kind woman who instilled in us her passion and commitment for Irish dancing.
I cannot recall the year Miss Elizabeth Flanagan passed away but I know she was sadly missed by family and friends and a huge loss to the community. Go Raibh Dé a hanam.