We were on a day trip to Fermanagh to do some workshops and a forty-minute free concert in the Tourist Information Centre in Enniskillen. The event was organised by a charity that brought live music to the public, in places where it might not usually be heard. We played in prisons, day centres, nursing homes, libraries, psychiatric hospitals, you name it. The centre was quite a small place, warm and modern, and there was good demand for the traditional music; there were about ten rows of plastic seats, which soon filled up as the start time approached. Laura, our contact from the charity, had come with us this on this trip and was sitting to my right at a table with various piles of information leaflets about the charity. We’d already done several performances in schools around the area, and it had been a long day, with a lot of travelling; we were tired and looking forward to getting back to Belfast and maybe a last pint in the Hatfield Bar.
We started the set with some reels, The Navvy on the Shore and A Midsummer’s Night. Towards the end of the first tune a woman entered the room. She disturbed the mood completely, letting the door slam behind her, and walking across the room, in front of the audience, to sit on the floor to my right. She was in her late forties, dressed in a long skirt, white blouse and a brown-green tweed jacket. Her wavy, greying fair hair hung loosely down to just above her shoulders. Hung around her neck on a gold chain was a pair of tortoiseshell spectacles. I instantly and incorrectly stereotyped her as a prim librarian or schoolmistress. At the end of the piece she jumped to her feet, applauding energetically and whooping. After she had finished her performance we introduced the next set of tunes, three jigs. As we started the first one, she turned to the audience and announced that she was going to show them some Irish Dancing. She had been taught to dance properly as a child, and was dismayed at the way the children of today pranced about with no appreciation of the good old style. Michael O’Flaherty and his Riverdance nonsense was to blame.
I watched with a mixture of horror and amusement as she kicked off her shoes – too much of a heel presumably – and started to leap into the air, kicking her legs in front of her, arms rigidly locked down by her side. She zoomed up and down in front of us, making full use of the available space. At times like this it is difficult to maintain composure. I knew our guitarist, Alan, was trying to get my attention; I could feel his eyes boring into me. From experience, I knew better than to look at him; a laughing fit would spell disaster for the performance. She was a terrible dancer, like a puppet with some of the strings cut. After the jigs were finished, she again addressed the room, exclaiming that the floor was too slippery for her to dance properly, and she needed some dancing shoes. She sat back down.
There was a palpable sense of relief in the room. But it was not over: as the next set of tunes commenced I could see her gaze running searchingly round the band and the front row. It settled on my feet, and with rising panic I realised that she was eying up my shoes for suitability. Obviously, nothing was going to prevent her from dancing. Alan knew what was going on: he was managing to keep his face from view behind his long hair, but I could see his back shaking. Mercifully she rejected my shoes and approached a tall man in the centre of the front row who was sporting a pair of loafers. He handed them over meekly and she wasted no time slipping into them. No good: they were far too big. Undaunted, she approached Laura’s table, seized a pile of flyers and stuffed a handful into each shoe. Job done. The improved traction made her bolder; she flew up and down, producing daring turns and jumps with no fear of slipping. In terms of technique, the quality of her dance was no better, but the new zeal was breathtaking. She continued for the remainder of what had once been our show, and when the music finished, she led the applause for an encore. This was the good traditional music, the old stuff, the way it should be. Afterwards, as the crowd started to disperse, she sat on, relishing the afterglow of a great performance. The man in the front row was still sitting there in his socks after most of the others had left; it took him some time to pluck up the courage to ask for his shoes back. She pulled the flyers out, all mangled and damp with sweat, gave him his loafers and then handed the leaflets back to Laura: Here love, you might need to run the iron over them; they’re a wee bit creased.