When Donncha O Muineachain died of a heart attack in 2005, he had, by all accounts, one of the biggest funerals ever seen in Portmarnock, Dublin. Hundreds and hundreds of people turned out to say goodbye to a man who was known more for his sideline than his profession. A career civil servant, O Muineachain helped rescue Irish ceili and set dancing from quaint obscurity.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, long before Riverdance triggered a resurgence of interest in Irish music, dancing, and culture, O Muineachain and his Coiste Rince Comhaltais dancers appeared on Irish television and did a successful US tour where they not only performed but taught local dancers the age-old steps to the Caledonian Two Hand, the Plain Break, and the Connemara–the Celtic equivalent of ballroom or barn dancing, depending on your perspective. One of those stops was the MacSwiney Club in Jenkintown, where ceili and set dancing continues regularly today.
In March many of the McSwiney and Irish Center regulars joined dancers around the world to honor O Muineachain by dancing for charity–in this case, the Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ. O Muineachain regularly held charity dances for Irish organizations, including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis’ Hospice. They took over the dance floor at the Irish Center in Mt. Airy under the tutelage of local dance instructors Jim Ryan and Eileen Pyle.
“Donncha came here pretty regularly starting in the 80s,” says Ryan. “He was one of several teachers who came over to teach us the steps. I didn’t start dancing until the 90s and it was really a thrill to learn from a master.”
Along with having a few grin-producing whirls around the dance floor, the dancers raised $575 for the Samaritan Hospice. “We hope to make this an annual affair, donating the proceeds to various charities,” says Cass Tinney, who teaches set dancing at the Irish Center.