In 2004, Launch of the May festival, Andy O'Connor at the flute, Peter Redmond at the tin whistle, and The Taylor's Cross Ceili band at a ceili in Castletown in 2006. In 2012, Pat Murphy teaching set dancing in Castletown. The demonstration set features Italian, Northern-Irish, French and German advanced dancers.
"Back home in Castletown" By Bill Lynch
Article from the Set Dancing News (2004)
Returning to Castletown is like coming home. When I arrived here for the Half-Door Club set dancing weekend on Friday, April 30th, the rest of the world seemed to vanish, all my needs were taken care of, my set dancing family was all around me and there was nothing to distract me from a four-day bank holiday weekend of enjoyment.
Castletown is in County Laois, of course, a place made famous by the set dancing weekends here-who ever heard of Laois before the Half-Door Club started the dancing here? I checked in at the De La Salle Pastoral Centre, got keys for a cosy little room upstairs and then savoured a few helpings of assorted salads laid on for hungry travellers. The Centre hosts religious retreats at other times, but makes an excellent base for scores of hedonistic set dancers. Even those who weren't staying in the hostel-style accommodation here were able to take advantage of the facilities and help themselves to tea and coffee at any hour. Some dancers came in caravans and campers and parked them around the centre or down by the hall, while others stayed in B&Bs and hotels. There's great satisfaction in having five ceilis to look forward to. I strolled down to Castletown Hall, which is in a lovely green setting on the River Nore beside an old bridge and opposite a disused grain mill and a golf course. Matt Cunningham was set up, sandwiches being made, and water dispensers were being filled-there were two this year, one in its own room. It wasn't long before there was an eager crowd filling all the chairs 'round the edge of the hall. The ceili got underway before ten o'clock with around eight sets, leaving ample space for new sets to form as dancers arrived. By the time of the break there were probably twice as many dancing.
Tea breaks in Castletown are unique. The food on offer is top class with a big selection of cream buns, apple pie, scones and other goodies brought fresh from a local bakery. The tea room is open for most of an hour without any interruption to the dancing. When the door opens, the lucky ones are those who are sitting out the set as they have first choice while the rest of us have to finish the set. Matt Cunningham and his musicians took a break, but even then the dancing kept going. Colin McGill filled in during the break and played a lovely Caledonian Set on piano accordion-it was worth skipping the tea! Fully refreshed, Matt and the band returned to give us more of their mighty music and dancing. There was a surprise after the last set when Auld Lang Syne greeted my ears and everyone joined hands around the hall. The cause for celebration was Micheál and Magalie Lalor's third wedding anniversary. Their marriage was on the Friday of the 2001 weekend and Matt played for the wedding night ceili. Micheal is one of the Half-Door Club founding members who plays a big role in organising the weekend. Larry Cooley of the band sang a waltz in their honour.
A beautiful morning greeted me on Saturday as I wandered down to the hall after breakfast. Inside the floor had been cleaned and dusted with talc to improve the slip, which made a noticeable improvement. Setting up equipment for the workshop was Pat Murphy, who has taught here for nine years. Interest in the Claddagh Set was strong as last night I heard several people enquiring when they could learn it. Pat taught it after the lunch break and around a dozen sets sacrificed the sunny outdoors for it. We also danced the Fermanagh Quadrilles, Ballyduff and South Kerry sets during the day. After the workshop many dancers attended Mass in the Pastoral Centre chapel before supper.
Swallow's Tail Ceili Band from Sligo were in charge of the dancing on Saturday night, and the dancers were out in force. Sets were quick to form, with some people getting ready for the next one soon after the last one finished and before knowing what it was going to be. It was a cool evening but the heat of dancing forced open all the doors, and a few sets took advantage of an outdoor platform. The tea break operated the same as yesterday, with two young musicians on fiddle and box relieving Swallow's Tail. During the second half we cleared a big circle around the floor for a show of solo dancing. Aidan Vaughan, Donal and Ronan Morrissey and Gillian Whelan entertained the crowd with sean nós reels. Melanie Barber from Yorkshire stopped the band to do an English clog dance to waltzes-something unusual that most of us were seeing for the first time. There were more sets after that, finishing with the good ol' Plain Set.
Sunday was another beautiful day and with a workshop and two ceilis it was a bit of a dance marathon! Pat Murphy got us moving in the morning with the South Kerry (finishing up what we'd started yesterday) and Doire Cholmcille sets. The electrifying music of the Emerald Ceili Band was energetic enough to blister feet and eardrums. There were more folks dancing today than last night, with twenty sets indoors and as many as five sets dancing in the sun on the outdoor platform. (Unfortunately the sun was behind clouds when I found time to take the cover photograph.) There was the same sumptuous tea served in the break, but this time there were no substitute musicians for a bonus set. An extra set is nice, but I like having a break too. In the second half there was a display of modern step dancing by four local children. My day was made when the band called the Plain Set as the last dance-it was completely non-stop, with not even the slightest pause going into and out of the jigs in the fifth figure.
A new feature of this year's weekend was the barbecue that followed the afternoon ceili. This was a great convenience for people attending both ceilis today and was well supported. Dining was at tables set up outside and the charge was just €5.
The Abbey Ceili Band were in peak form at the Sunday night ceili, with some of the best music they've ever played. I was dreaming all weekend of a West Kerry Set and my dream came true tonight. There was a nice tea break again, but otherwise it was a night of sets, pure and simple and at their absolute best. After the last dance the atmosphere was still so strong that it took the best part of an hour for the crowd to even start thinking about going home.
And of course, there was no need to go home with the late late session under way in the Pastoral Centre. This one was the best of the weekend with many musicians and singers joining in. There was even a welcome appearance by Elvis himself, whose spirit seemed to have taken over the body of mild-mannered Dublin set dancer Jim Monaghan long enough to sing us a couple of songs. The session continued long past my bedtime, and I heard that early risers found the sessioneers still going at 7am.
Bank holiday Monday was a perfect day for lying in after the late session, with no dancing scheduled before the afternoon ceili at 2.30pm. Several dancers, myself included, found time to visit County Laois's other big attraction, the designer outlet mall in Rathdowney, though it was a rush to get the serious shoppers back in time.
Making the first appearance in Castletown for the Monday afternoon ceili were Mort Kelleher and family. Their music was a hit with the dancers who shouted their approval from the floor. There were cheers for Colin Kelleher when he played a solo during one figure. The afternoon tea was our last chance to sample such generous hospitality for another year. In the second half we were treated to another display of solo dancing, beginning with three visitors from Holland who danced steps in a ceili style. The others were all young Irish dancers who gave riveting demonstrations of sean nós-Gillian Whelan, the Morrissey brothers, Sinéad Bray and Edwina Guckian. Melanie Barber gave another welcome clog dance performance, this time danced to jigs. After the last dance there were plenty of farewells, though a significant number seemed to have no notion of going home. As I said, it feels like home here, so why would anyone want to leave?
The Half-Door Club excelled themselves in Castletown this year. Their hard work behind the scenes meant that dancers from all around Ireland and great numbers from England and Europe could do exactly what they love most-dance plenty of sets!
"A tribute from Simona Bucsa"
Article from the Set Dancing News (2004)
Dia Dhuit Half-Door Club,
This is my special letter to you-for the envelope I chose Set Dancing News, and for stamps, people dancing. The only difference is that you might not be the only one reading the letter but, as they say, the more the merrier.
So, here I am in Castletown. I close my eyes and I find myself hearing the music, tasting the brack, smelling the freshly cut grass, seeing the village coming to life in the morning. So far, it could be only a dream. But here you are, my friends from Castletown, holding my hand, swinging me around, and that is for real.
I am really back in Ireland, back to the place I am so fond of, back especially for Castletown. It is amazing how the Irish Celtic spirit reached countries all over the world and it took hold of the heart of a Romanian girl forever-this heart just happens to be mine. And I have good reasons for my words.
The lively music and dances bring so many people and smiles together in reels and jigs, waltz and polkas, leading them around the dancing floor for another set and another set, and maybe for a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and again for another sweat, sorry, set. God, I forget how to walk, I will swing forever, for Ireland. And it feels so good!
Only the light makes the difference between day and night, not the music; the latter seems to be eternal, dances, songs, flutes, whistles, accordions, guitars, voices, so many good voices. I wonder, who taught you to play and sing so well? Who taught you so many songs? I am astonished, all I can do is to applaud-is it enough to be noted?
Still, I have the courage to join the dancing session in the nice pub in Mountrath. But here we go, I might need something else, an anaesthetic to get me stunned in the middle of a jig. How could I forget about Guinness? It is still part of the Irish spirit, no mighty craic without a pint and a music session. I can very well join in. I have the spirit, or maybe the spirits?
Back to the ceili. I couldn't miss any of the five ceilis, maybe a workshop for the sake of the Castletown scenery and beautiful sunny spells. I am finally beginning to remember the figures after two years. Well, I must admit that if it had not been for the partners who stopped me from leaving them for somebody else right in the middle of the set, I would not have made it to the end.
It is not so difficult to remember the figures after all. Each set has something particular: looking in your partner's eyes, greeting the couples, lots of swinging, house, house, house, or this is the way I remember it anyway. For the rest, always be ready to feel the music and to go back to your own partner.
This is just one Half-Door in Castletown-I try to make out the other Half as well. There you are, my friends from Ireland from the Half-Door Club who have always been so kind to me, so welcoming, so genuine. You give me the feeling of truly belonging to this special place. Here I feel home, even far away from home.
You are the very reason why I always want to come back to Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat for making your songs my songs, your dances my dances, your brack my brack and, the most important of all, your Door my Door.
Love from Romania,
Simona Bucsa, Brasov, Romania
"It was a sight I shall never forget" By Lorraine Cunningham
Article from the Set Dancing News (2000)
Several members of a set dancing class in New Jersey attended May bank holiday set dancing festival, 30 April-1 May 2000, in Castletown and Coolrain, Co Laois. Lorraine Cunningham, Peggy McManus and Bill Milles were three of the visitors and kindly wrote the following reports and poem to share their experience.
Mid-winter, an announcement was made at our set dance class about an upcoming set dancing weekend in Ireland. I was intrigued by the idea of dancing in Ireland. It had been a dream of mine for some time but was I ready? An invitation to the Half-Door Club May bank holiday weekend was all I needed to get myself in gear.
It was raining Thursday morning when my plane from New Jersey landed in Dublin. By the time I reached Castletown the sun was shining to greet me. Area residents Tom and Phil Brown kindly opened their home to me for the long weekend. It was a lovely home on a hill that overlooked the village.
Our set dance teachers, Colleen Kisielewski and John Sinnott, organized a welcoming party for us at the home of Dr and Mrs O'Dwyer to introduce us to some members of the Half-Door Club in Ireland. A group of young musicians, Mary Bridget, Joan and Olive Culleton along with their friend Robert Gleeson provided lively music. A group of visitors from France eagerly joined us for their first set-dance experience.
On Friday I explored the Irish countryside hill walking through the Slieve Bloom Mountains. A warm evening found me at Sheeran's Thatched Pub in Coolrain. Eight sets quickly filled the outside wooden dance floor with music by Mike and Tim from Kerry. I danced under the stars.
Saturday I was ready for Pat Murphy, our instructor and author of my bibles for set dancing, Toss the Feathers and The Flowing Tide. First he guided us through the Set of Erin. He has a gift for expressing the dance. As he moves effortlessly across the floor he inspires us to listen to the music and flow through the dance.
Thirty sets filled the Community Centre for the Saturday night ceili which found couples dancing with unbridled enthusiasm to the music of the Abbey Ceili Band. The Cashel, Plain, Lancers, Newport-we did them all. One of the highlights of the evening for me was seeing Phil and Tom Brown arrive to do a waltz. At 1 am we made the short walk to the Pastoral Centre for the traditional late night session. As I sat there discussing the night's experiences spontaneous music, singing and dancing erupted.
Sunday morning greeted us with glorious sunshine. Invigorated by the beauty of my surroundings a morning stroll was a necessity. A peacefulness filled my spirit as I walked along the River Nore. Rolling hills all different shades of green surrounded me.
Pat Murphy had more sets to teach which warmed me up for the afternoon ceili with Swallow's Tail. They played the best music I've ever heard anyone play for the Connemara Set. A quick dinner, a shower and we were ready for Esker Riada Sunday night.
Monday morning workshop consisted of a waltz set and the Kildownet Half Set. Walking home from my last workshop I reflected on how much I had learned, not only in dance class, but from living in the village, meeting the people and experiencing the heart of the area.
I was not prepared for the final event Monday afternoon at Sheeran's. It was a sight I shall never forget. It seemed as if the whole countryside had taken a break from their normal routine and come out to celebrate May Day with music and dance. Ten sets all jockeyed for position on the outdoor dance floor while six danced in the street. The energetic music of the Glenside Ceili Band filled the hills. It was enchanting watching the old and the young being lifted by the music. Adults, children, even the family dogs were part of the movement.
As I flew home across the ocean my head was filled with many thoughts of my journey. I felt an inner peace knowing my ancestors were rejoicing. The spirit of the Irish tradition of dance, music and friendship continues not only in Ireland but also in America.
Thank you Half-Door Club for a brilliant weekend!
My grandmother used to tell us, "a good dancer could dance on a thruppenny bit." Well I met some of these people in Castletown, Co Laois, on the May Bank holiday weekend. At the end while saying my goodbyes and making plans for the rest of the year and into the next I realised how much I am enjoying the people, the places and the dancing. We practiced doubling in the space of an imaginary shower.
In one set a man turned me this way and that till I just let my feet do the dancing and my dance partner decide every which way we manoeuvred. I hadn't the heart to tell him I never danced the particular set before. He was a gentleman, like all the others I danced with from Friday to Monday, both male and female, children and adults. I laughed from the inside out. There is no doctor in the world could prescribe anything that would have the desired effect as a weekend in Castletown dancing. New friends, old friends, new and old talents set us on the road for more.
For what it's worth,
my thoughts on the Castletown weekend just gone:
What is in the bubbles in the water in Castletown
That makes us all dance out of our skins?
I have seen lame men jump so high in the air
As if to catch a passing airplane and avoid the queues at our airports.
People with the bad knees passed me by like one of
Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh's greyhounds on a bend at Shelburne Park.
Musicians dance in the Plain Set
While playing for everyone else dancing it.
You would have to have been there to view the miracles-
Backs straightened, cured even
Bodies float, energised and oxygenated.
No medication prescribed
And best of all, no surgery required.
No VHI, no BUPA protection needed,
Just Celtic Crest, the water.
Noreen Uí Laighin, Mountrath, Co Laois
Celtic Spring is the brand of bottled spring water kindly supplied free of charge to dancers in Castletown.