They Danced the Night Away
Mary Lou Schnell McGurk was five years old when she took her first Irish dance lesson with Maureen McDade. Like most kids, she sampled just about everything else life had to offer, from ballet and tap to sports. But in the end, she settled on a single activity. Irish dancing won.
“It was the only thing I was really good at and liked,” laughed McGurk, who was one of hundreds of people who filled the ballroom at the Springfield Country Club on Sunday, September 30, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the McDade School of Irish Dance by a young Philadelphia woman, the granddaughter of Irish and Scottish immigrants.
But when she was 18, McDade, then Maureen McGrory, gave McGurk a gift. “She told me that I was getting to be too old to be taking lessons with her and that I should go to the Irish Center where I would be with other people my own age,” says McGurk, who is president of the Philadelphia Ceili Group, the organization that ran those dances at the Irish Center that McGurk attended. “So I went to the Irish Center,” she said, “and I never left. To the people who like me, that’s why. To the people that don’t, Maureen’s to blame.”
There were plenty of stories, punctuated by dancing, throughout the night as Irish group after Irish group presented awards to Maureen McDade McGrory’s family. That included daughters Sheila McGrory Sweeney and Maureen Heather Lisowski who, as teenagers, took over their mother’s school with friend, Bridget O’Connell, after Maureen McGrory’s tragic death from cancer. O’Connell, frequently tearful, remembered the early days. “Maureen turned my life upside down and inside out,” she said to laughter. To allow the school’s students to continue to compete, O’Connell got her certification as an Irish dance instructor. Sheila, the oldest McGrory daughter, was only 18, and instructors had to be 21 to become accredited.
At one point, O’Connell looked at the two McGrory sisters and smiled. “Thank you both for being the sisters I never had,” she said. She then directed her attention at the two McGrory boys, John, the oldest, and Jim. “And thank you for going to dances with us when we didn’t have a date!”
Barney McEnroe, an old family friend, took the microphone from event host Tom Farrelly and recalled taking Maureen McDade to her first Irish dancing lesson with noted teacher Sean Lavery, who had a school in West Philadelphia. “She came to me and said she wanted to take Irish dance lessons but she was wondering how she could get to Lavery’s school. I told her I’d take her though I didn’t know where he lived. I dropped her off.” He paused slightly. “I don’t know how she got home,” he said, as the crowd started to laugh. He paused again, until it got quieter. “But there’s no good worrying about it today,” he continued, to renewed laughter. He looked up and smiled. “But I think she was a success,” he said.
That’s abundantly clear. McDade dancers regularly qualify for both national and world competitions. In fact, there are so many students that the McDade School merged with the Cara School of Irish Dance to accommodate the crowds. And, 50 years later, students from year one gathered with current students—some, their grandchildren—to say thank you. And happy birthday.