Memories and Stories

Irish Manchester Revisited

Your memories and stories make and define us. Here are just a few to share:

Eileen Lally – (written in October 2012)

My dancing career started when I was 5 years old. My parents took me with my brother and 3 sisters to Mrs Margaret O'Neal at the Gaelic League which was off St Peters Square. Manchester. We quickly picked up the steps and were soon winning numerous trophies and medals in Ireland as well as in England. Sadly, Margaret has now died but I will always teach in the same way that she influenced me. As well as learning to dance we took part in Irish language classes and learnt to say our prayers in Irish!

When I was 18 year of age I was asked if I was interested in opening my own school. So, with the help of my sister Rose we decided to give it a go! Our first pupils were our 2 younger sisters Pat and Kathleen and it wasn't long before we were established as one of the most successful schools in the North West.

The first pupil from the school to win a major award was Eamonn Lee who became World Champion and All Ireland Champion at the age of 11 as well as holding many other titles in England and Ireland. Many years later James Keegan also won the world title three times and won every major championship that he competed for including American and European Championships. He is now one of the lead dancers in "Lord of the Dance"

In 1992 we decided to involve more children – (20 in a team) from just dancing solos and we introduced dance drama (dancing a story) which was now included in the World Championship syllabus. We came second with a story called "Finnigans Wake" and followed up the next year by winning with "Who will marry my daughter" a comedy which got a standing ovation from the audience. We then won the title again in 2010 with " the Brown Bull of ......................

With the success of Riverdance, Irish Dancing was in the limelight even more and the classes became more demanding. My niece Claire Usher (daughter of my sister Rose) was now in Riverdance with another pupil , Ciara Kennedy touring America. This is where Claire met her husband Jonathan who was also in the show.

Sadly, with the death of my youngest sister Kathleen in 1996, another of my nieces Anne Usher qualified and joined forces with me and Pat to continue the good work. Then another niece Jane, with Claire and her husband Jonathan, qualified and the classes are the success they are today because of their youth and expertise. We now have another young teacher recently qualified by the name of Megan Healy who is now teaching with us.

In the year 2000 I was greatly surprised and honoured to be awarded an M.B.E. by His Royal Highness Prince Charles for my services to dancing as well as my work in the Civil Service. That day in Buckingham Palace was indeed one to remember.

My adjudicating qualification has taken me all over the world including New Zealand, North America and Canada as well as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. If I had not had a career in Irish Dancing, I certainly would not have had the chance to see so much of the world. I cannot thank my teacher Margaret O'Neal enough for her encouragement and faith in me.

Even this year the school is still winning honours when Jessica Hindley won the All Ireland Championship and was placed 3rd in the World Championship.

Hundreds of children have passed through my classes over the years and many are still in touch to say what wonderful happy times they were.

To think I have been teaching Irish Dancing for over 50 years and adjudicating for over 30 makes me wonder where all the years have gone. They have been wonderful, happy years and have given me so much to be proud of. To see the children work and play hard is enough reward.

Pat Sweeney – (written in 2003 for the first Irish Manchester book)
Manchester Irish Post - 1945

I first came to Manchester in 1944 to work on the docks. The docks, at that time, employed over 3000 men and well over half this figure were Irish, young men from every corner of Ireland, indeed several of the superintendents and foremen were Irish born or of Irish decent. There was a very strong Catholic influence because the local church St Joseph's was called the docks church. The largest five were Holy Name, St Patrick's, St Wilfrid's, St Chad's and St Thomas of Canterbury. I remember one night going to the Sunday evening devotion at Holy Name and I had to stand on the doorstep outside. The Manchester and Salford hospitals at that time were staffed by fifty per cent Irish nurses.

There were several Irish pubs, the main ones were The Shakespeare and Nellie Kelly's on Stretford Road, plus the Frascali on Oxford Road. The Clarence in Rusholme, and the best known of all is Aunties Bar at All Saints – also known as the Irish Labour Exchange! Any Irishman arriving in Manchester went to Aunties and he was sure to be fixed up with a job.

Manchester Irish Gaelic League – Music and Dancing

The Bulls Head, on Hyde Road, always had a great reputation for music and dancing. This was due mainly to the work of the Gaelic League, which was founded in Manchester around 1900. The Gaelic League was very active music and dancing – they often held open air Ceili's They even performed, on more than once, in Piccadilly gardens.

The highlight of the Gaelic League year was when they performed at the Free Trade Hall on St Patrick's night. These nights were always sell-outs and the Gaelic league dancers performed with many artists from Ireland. I remember that these events were either opened by the McSweeney or Kerry Pipe bands.

At that time in Manchester there were several other pipe bands of note, like the Fianna Phadriag Pipe Band, led by the great Terry Dowling.

The Gaelic League and their dancing schools always had a big input into the Whit Friday walks, which were a great expression of our freshness.

On the subject of dancing I remember Mrs Kelly, who everyone regarded as "the mother of all the dancers". I also remember Mother Reilly with the hairnet, Betty Kelly, Mary Walsh, Margaret O'Neal, the Grainger sisters and Eileen Kelly – they were all legends.
Sadly by 1950 the Gaelic League was in decline, I could never understand why, as a result organised music and Ceili dancing was weakened – although there was still music in the pubs. Although a band formed by Father O'Flynn, for many years parish priest at the Sacred Heart, Rochdale kept going for a few years but they were short of a piano player. I remember that someone suggested Kathleen Holdsworth from the Gaelic League, but Father O'Flynn believed that a woman's place was in the home – not playing in a Ceili band! Several years later Father O'Flynn was at St Brendan's, where Kathleen was playing the piano with the Five Provinces Ceili band, and she reminded him how he didn't approve of women! I used to go and see Father O'Flynn and his band once a month in Rochdale, for years the Head teacher was Michael Kierans.
Irish Dance Halls in Manchester
There were so many Irish dance halls that I remember, like the Old Adelphia and All Saints, on Rumford Street, sadly they were very rough places. There were also a few on Jackson Street just off Stretford Road. If I remember correctly there was another dance hall on Stretford road above Burtons, but it didn't last long.
In November 1949, Pierce Coogan leased the Astoria Ballroom in Plymouth Grove and opened it as an Irish dance hall. It was the first great dance hall in Manchester, it was huge, tastefully decorated and had every possible amenity. I was a doorman or bouncer as they are called today, and worked at the Astoria for fourteen years until it closed in 1963. On St Patrick's night in 1950 there was a crowd of around 1700 and we didn't have a spot of bother. We used to get coach loads of Irish people from all over the north of England, when Joseph Locke came over from Ireland we had 1750 people, this was during the era of great Irish show bands.
Some of the other bands that played the Astoria included, Johnnie Butler, Maurice Mulcahy, the Melody Aces and, the greatest band of them all, the Cliff Colton band from Tyrone. When they came over from Ireland we had so many people that we had to close the doors!

Irish Unification by Peaceful methods

In 1948 there was an organisation called the "Unity of Ireland anti –political league", which formed to promote a united Ireland by peaceful methods. They staged a mass rally in the old Kings Hall, Belle Vue, it was attended by 5000 people. I, along with many others, walked from Belle Vue to Maston cemetery, where Eamonn De Valera gave the oration at the Martyrs Memorial. What made this event more memorable was the fact that the Mac Sweeny pipe band led the march.

Irish Cultural Scene in Manchester

In 1964 a branch was formed in the Shakespeare, on Stretford road. They ran a Fleadh Cheoil in the Holy Name club, which was the first in Manchester. In 1967 they attended the first all Britain Fleadh, in Glasgow, where the late Des Donnelly was the senior fiddle. Unfortunately the branch folded in 1968.

By this time St Brendan's, Old Trafford, was in full swing. It was run by the Legion of Mary and the Pioneers. There was no beer just Tea and scones. My wife, Margaret, Kitty Treacey and Nora Madden did a lot of the work in the Kitchen.

In 1970 Father Joe Feely, who was the parish Priest at St Brendan's said that he wanted to form a branch of the Comhaltas – and so a committee was formed. The first teacher was Marian Egan, who did some wonderful work and still comes back to visit. Music lessons were also held, in order to revive Ceili dancing. We held a Ceili every Friday night for five years with crowds of two to three hundred people attending – other monthly sessions were also successful.

After five successful years a new branch was formed at St Wilfrid's and O'Carolan's moved to the Holy Name church, where they still hold a Ceili every Friday night. There were many great young musicians that learned there, to name a few Dezi Donnelly, Michael McGoldrick and Brendan Dempsey.

These were creative times and another feature of the great work that was being done was the plays produced by Margaret Sweeny. They played to full houses, the most notable performances were "A Day in the Meadow" and "The Day of the Match Maker". We took them on the road around the rest of the north and North West. Margaret also produced many of the great concerts that took place at St Brendan's.

Formation of Irish World Heritage Centre

In 1980 the first Council of Irish Comhaltas was formed in Manchester. I was the first chairperson and it was from a decision taken by the council to create the Irish World Heritage centre.

Becoming President of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ)

Having come through the ranks of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) organisation I was elected as the World President in 2000 - the first president outside of Ireland in Fifty years.

It was a great honour for me and my family but also for the great people that I have met and worked with over the years.

This was also a great honour for Manchester. A Great city, a great Irish City.