Round the place where I was Born
In the world of traditional Irish music, dancing and singing, County Laois can surely take its place among the best in Ireland. For as long as any of the older folk can remember there was always a vast reservoir of tradition in Laois. As a young fellow growing up, I have vivid memories of the house dances, the crossroad dances and in particular the dancing boards that drew capacity crowds in the late twenties and early thirties. Places such as Poor Man's Bridge near Durrow was a gathering place for dancers and musicians on Sunday evenings during the summer months. There was a dancing board at the Crooked Wood Cross, also at Ballinaslee Cross and Killamuck near Abbeyleix. There were several more around the county as well. Of these perhaps the most famous of all was the Kildellig Dancing Board near Knockaroo, an area rich in tradition. The area itself catered to all facets of Irish life, heritage and culture. It was the home of the famous Kildellig Pipers Band, as well as the renowned hurling team, better known then as `The Boys of Knockaroo'. The Hill of Knockaroo famed in song and story produced some very fine hurlers. The beauty and the charm of this lovely spot is unsurpassed. Not far away to the north the Lordly Slieve Bloom mountains soar majestically above. Beneath its peak the River Nore flows gently along, which creates an aura of peace and tranquillity. It was amid these scenes of beauty and enchantment that Kildellig Dancing Board flourished for many years. Starting in the early nineteen thirties, people both young and old travelled long distances on foot and on bicycle to dance the evening away. The ring of the musicians' tunes and the echo of the dancers' footwork could be heard for miles around. The jovial laughter and kindly banter was always evident throughout the long summers' evenings, while the dancers were wheeling with glee. Unlike most other Dancing Boards this one was not located at a crossroads, but up a very narrow lane that serviced three homes. During the summer months when all things were in bloom the hawthorn bushes and trees that grew tall on either side of the lane met high above and formed a canopy. It was beneath this canopy of bloom and blossom that Kildellig Dancing Board was built. It was not unusual then to see a shower of swirling blossoms fall softly on the hair of many a beautiful girl as she made her way to the Dancing Board. The lane also would be covered with fallen bloom which made the scene so beautiful and grand. Not far away at Kildellig Cross, there stood a small thatched cottage, that served as a sort of dressing room and beauty parlour for the women folk. It was also a gathering place for musicians to play a few tunes before going out to play for Céili and set dancing. Sometimes a new Polka, jig, Reel or Hornpipe would be introduced. Meanwhile, the women would change into more casual wear for dancing. There were no boutiques or fancy dress shops in those days. Women made their own clothes then which usually consisted of a skirt and top that could easily be changed from week to week. Fashionable belts to compliment the top of the skirt were artistically woven from tinselled paper found in cigarette packs. While the women prepared and the musicians practised, a cup of tea would be served to all present. This was known as 'the cup out of your hand.' Outside of the crossroads, the crowd would gather and stay a while to listen to the music before going off to the Dancing Board. Dancing was from 6 to 10 with a break in between for lovely home made scones and tea. The midway break from dancing was a time for traditional singers to be heard. There were many indeed. The last dance of the evening was always the well known 'Threshing Set', which derived its title from the threshing dances that were held in the homes locally during the harvesting and threshing of the corn in the months of September and October. I should mention here that this particular set had faded into oblivion for years, until recently when thanks to our own Stephen Conroy and the Camross Set Dancers, the Threshing Set is back again to the delight of many old timers who remembered its popularity when they were young. Well the years went by [v. Public Dance Halls Act of 1935] and a change of clergy came to our parish. Very soon the new pastor directed that Sunday, (The Lord's Day) should be observed in a more meaningful way. Therefore the Dancing Board would have to close. And so after seven years the Dancing board closed in July 1938. While dancing continued in the homes around, the closing of the Dancing Board left a certain void in the area. People got separated, the much looked forward to Sunday evening gathering was no longer a reality. The Kildellig Pipers Band continued to flourish. They were frequently called on to perform at political rallies and GAA games. Political rallies were taken more seriously in those years. The band served as a stimulant to all who declared their patriotism for Ireland as well as drown the voices of those who would dare to foul the sacred air 'with their negative views'. During one of my recent visits to Ireland, I went back again to visit the places and scenes from boyhood years. Only a clump of briars, nettles and undergrowth amid stones and rubble is all that is left now on the site where a happy home once stood. The Kildellig Crossroad, too, is silent now.