The 'sets' for which Johnny O'Leary plays are a form of country social dance with a well-documented history stretching back some 160 years. In their present form they show the effect of the 'folk process' in adapting what was originally an overnight sensation in the society ballroom of major European cities. The term 'set' is short for 'set of quadrilles', but the word quadrille is hardly used in Sliabh Luachra nowadays. When it is used the speaker normally seems to be referring to some sort of dance from the past which is no longer current; but as we shall see the sets still represent much of what has always been characteristic of quadrilles and indeed the western counties of Ireland are one of the few areas where quadrille dancing is still popular and widespread. The distinguishing feature of a quadrille dance is its basic configuration: one couple facing another couple. All the movements are executed from, and finish at, this position. As the name suggests, the quadrille, said in turn to be based on the cotillion, originated in France, from where it spread very rapidly all over Europe in the early years of the 19th century. It is not clear whether or not quadrilles were fully developed in France before the idea caught on elsewhere. From the beginning the British version of the dance were normally executed by four couples in a square formation, and dances of this sort all from the same origin, also turn up in the repertoires of country dancers from Romania to Sweden. quadrilleIn the fashionable circles of the 1820s weekly quadrille lessons were an essential entry in the diary and numerous schools were set up in London and elsewhere by dancing masters, many of whom published manuals. Some of these contained newly invented versions of the dance set to (on the whole unmemorable) newly composed music, but it seems that most of these were never actually performed. The terminology of course had to be in French, and a 'first set of quadrilles' seems to have become standard at an early stage, in which the figures are named 1. La Pantalon 2. L'EtÚ 3. La Poule 4. La Trenise (eg. in Wilson Panorama, Barclay Dun, 'A Translation of Nine of the most fashionable Quadrilles ... as preferred in England and Scotland (Edinburgh, 1818). Anon., 'Analysis of the London Ballroom (London, 1825) etc). Normally a fifth figure 'La FinalÚ' was added, featuring a flirtation where the ladies passed from partner to partner. As one manual of 1825 put it: 'The characteristics of the style are freedom, chasteness, and graceful ease." This convivial atmosphere and comparative freedom which have always been associated with quadrilles were responsible for their early and widespread popularity; by the 1850s, in England at least, they were being danced by all and sundry in towns and villages everywhere. As the century progressed several standard variants established themselves in the British social dance repertoire. For instance a modest and typical pocket book, 'Warne's Ballroom Guide' (London, 1870) lists under Quadrilles: 'First Set, Double Quadrille, The Lancers, The Double Lancers of Sixteen, The Waltz, The Mazurka, The Caledonians and The French Imperial'. 'The Lancers' became probably the most widespread of the lot and was the last to be outmoded by the influence of Victor Sylvester. In England and Scotland these quadrilles are now the preserve of self-conscious 'olde tyme' dancers. The spread of quadrilles in 19th century Ireland, radiating from Dublin, was promoted by local dancing masters who, once established, would each operate within a closely confined area, hiring rooms or hall and often providing their own music. It seems a fair assumption that the variations between the sets now performed in different districts are the result of the influence of different dancing masters. Quadrilles had been set to music in all the standard dance rhythms from early on: when the polka became fashionable, polka quadrilles abounded, as did mazurka quadrilles, waltz quadrilles and so on. As they penetrated rural Ireland the existing repertoire of dance music proved to be eminently suitable for accompanying them, another reason no doubt why they caught on. Nowadays in Clare the surviving sets that I know of are danced to reels with a hornpipe for the final figure, while the polka set is regarded as the most characteristic of Kerry. But this standardisation is recent and in the Gneevgullia/Knocknagree/Newmarket area of Sliabh Luachra various sets were being danced regularly up to the last war: the basic 'polka set', the 'Ginny Ling' (a jig set danced to three jigs, a slide and a reel - the name is presumably a corruption of Jenny Lind, the celebrated Victorian soprano), the 'Victoria', the 'Set of Erin', and what several informants call the 'Set of Mazerts', presumably a corruption of 'Mazurkas'. This and other information indicates that as well as using existing common dance tunes, the dancing masters introduced new Victorian composed music for the accompaniment of quadrilles, which is presumably the reason why many musicians can still play the odd mazurka or Victorian waltz. At cross-roads dances, outdoor platforms and even in the local dancehalls, where there would have been room for the larger circle dances, 16-hand reels etc., the sets swept the board almost completely. John Clifford, who used to play for dancing with Padraig O'Keefe and Denis Murphy at Lacka Hall, says a typical evening before the War would be made up mostly of set, with the occasional old time waltz or so-called 'quickstep' (the music for which, incidentally, the last of the travelling fiddle masters used to learn from a weekly feature in the 'News of the World' - and then pass it on to his fellow musicians). And of course the sets were ideally suited to house dances and back rooms in pubs. The polka set as danced in Knocknagree and district is a very fine example of a country quadrille, with longer than average figures, of which there are six rather than the usual four or five. Some expert would say that the set is really only the first four figures, and that the 'slide' and 'hornpipe' figures on the end are extras. In other areas of Kerry and south west Cork quite different sets are danced, some with shorter figures, some without a slide, some to reels rather than polkas. There are also two 'rival' schools of thought on how sets should be danced, both developing from contrasting and perhaps conflicting qualities in the quadrille. One school is linked with the polka set competitions organised by the Gaelic League and emphasises precision: a group of dancers will work hard to synchronise their movements exactly and insert tricky steps to impress the judges. This process is thought to be rather sterile and foreign to the nature of the dance by the other school, represented by Dan Connell, who maintains that the dance should be a lively exercise in a personal expression within a fixed framework. It seems probable that both approaches have helped to revive interest in the sets in recent years, and while I find the type of dancing at Connell's much more to my taste than the stylised competition dancing, especially from the point of view of the accompanying music, I think the competitions also play a useful part in involving young people and spreading new ideas. It's worth bearing in mind that all the sets developed from a stylised original. English readers used to attending 'country dances' may be surprised to learn that these genuine traditional dances are generally executed without the aid of a caller since all the participants are fully familiar with the progress of the figures. Typically at Dan Connell's a set is announced and the dancers get to their feet and gather roughly into groups a eight. Quite frequently there are a few additional dancers but not enough to make up full four-couple sets; at Connell's this tends to be overcome by making up six couple sets. This makes no difference to the length of music required for each figure (in the sections where two couples would normally dance alternately groups of three couples dance instead) except in the hornpipe where the women pass from partner to partner. (An alternative to these augmented sets would be additional 'half sets' of two couples which are also commonly danced where space is confined or when dancers are in short supply). by 'Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra - Dance Music from the Cork-Kerry Border'When the dancers seem to be ready, Johnny O'Leary [see photo] and his fellow musicians strike up the first polka and play through eight bars. The dance commences with the second eight bars and the musicians play on until the figure is complete. There are often so many people just standing around and the atmosphere is so informal that one could be forgiven for not noticing that the dance had actually started. Sometimes the only evidence is the movement of the men's caps as they circle round 'like corks bobbing on the ocean'. The musicians' role is equally informal and since the exact length of the figures can vary (though in our experience at Connell's the figures did in fact work out at the same length each time) no attempt is made to fit the music exactly to the dance. Each figure always starts with the second eight bars and Johnny is clearly no concerned that the last time through a tune may be cut short - he is just launching into 'The Frost is all over' after 'The Goat in the Green' when the figure finishes and the new jig is left only half complete. Similarly, no problems arise when tunes with three or more parts are played - as long as a tune can be divided up into 8-bar sections it is suitable. All the figures and hence the music for them are performed at a much faster pace than outsiders might expect. The polkas have little of the ponderous swing of, say, the tunes played for northern English clog morris dancing, but flow along smoothly with little conscious emphasis on the beat. The slide figure is danced to single jigs (which are therefore referred to as 'slides' as well) which are played especially fast, and the hornpipe is a genuine hornpipe with no schottische elements in it. A reel is sometimes played instead: the 'horn-pipe' has the structure and characteristics of reel which is slowed down to serve as fast hornpipe - it clearly suits the dance ideally as Johnny uses this particular tune very frequently. Between the figures the couples stand around talking and only disperse at the end of the set. Gaps between the figures can be as short as half-a-minute or so.