While Europe prepares for war, Galway dances the Lindy Hop!

Charles Lindberg made his famous non-stop flight from the US to Europe in May 1927. A young pilot of 25 years, he flew from New York to Paris, on a plane christened The Spirit of St Louis, and his achievement was celebrated across the world. Even on the dance floor!

The Lindy Hop, later more widely known as the ‘Jitterbug’, owes its origins to Black Harlem influence, and to the granddaddy of Swing himself, Mr Shorty George Snowdon. The legend says that Shorty was watching couples dance in his club when a journalist asked him what were they dancing? A newspaper article which headlined: LINDY HOPS THE ATLANTIC was nearby. Shorty replied: ‘They are doing the Lindy Hop’.

The name stuck. It became the rage all over America, and in the 1930s it hit Ireland and Galway like a fever. There were other dances too, and with the always popular ceilidh sessions, it appears that the town was dancing mad. In one week in February 1937 many of the dances were ‘hops’ organised by individual clubs and societies to generate funds. Six hundred people attended the Galway Garda (Irish-speaking division ), annual ceilidh in the Pavilion, Salthill on February 3, where ‘everyone was sorry when the function came to an end at 4am’. On Sunday February 5, the Sorrento Band supplied the music for the dancers at Galway Golf Club. The Blackrock Swimming Club ran their ‘final hop of the term’ on Tuesday February 9 at Bailey’s Ballroom from 8 to 12. Music again by the Sorrento Band. A ‘great crowd’ also attended a ‘practice dance’ at Bailey’s Ballroom that same weekend. Of course all this followed the hectic Christmas season where staff dinner dances were universally held well into the New Year.

All this licentiousness, however, did not go unnoticed by the clerical authorities. Addressing the Tuam Pioneer Association, the Revd Father Hickey warned of the ‘dangers of young boys and girls contracting the habit of excessive drinking at dances’, with all its attendant moral consequences. Bishop Michael Browne, in proposing the vote of thanks to a Mrs Coyne for her lecture to the Aquinas Study Circle at the Dominican Convent, Taylor’s Hill on the topic ‘The Convent Girl’, warned against the dangers of such pastimes as dancing and drinking.

A fews days later, a letter writer to the Connacht Tribune, using the pseudonym ‘Pro Bono Publico’, thanked Bishop Browne for his ‘welcomed, much-needed, and comprehensive address on the evils resulting from the dance craze of our day...Let us hope that many a girl, unconscious of the pitfalls surrounding her, will have her eyes opened when she reads the fatherly warning’.

Intimate glimpse

We are given an intimate glimpse into Galway life in the 1930s as a result of a nationwide survey organised by the Irish Folklore Commission. During the 18-month period between September 1937 and January 1939 approximately 100,000 schoolchildren, aged 11 to 14, in 5,000 national schools, asked their parents, grandparents, and adult friends about their lives, traditions, entertainment, beliefs, poems they remembered riddles, language and customs. With the collaboration of the Department of Education and its teachers, this remarkable undertaking may well be the largest folk-lore collecting scheme in the world.*

A welcome escape

If the love of dancing was evident, it was a welcome relief from a harsh world where opportunities for young people were few and far between. Jobs were hard to find, and emigration was the solution for many families. Radios were scarce, but if there were, newspapers were avidely read. People were aware of what was going on in the wider world, even though Ireland was sheltered from the growing political storms in Europe.

On January 12 1937, great interest had been taken in one of the Christian Front Ambulances, a gift from its Irish supporters, which drove through Galway prior to being shipped to Spain ‘to aid general Franco’s forces’. The ambulance had been on display in Messrs Aylward and Donnellan’s garage in Lower Salthill, and was being driven around Ireland to ‘run it in’. It cost £700 and was one of a fleet of eight ambulances being shipped to Spain that week.

The Connacht Sentinel carried a story of a plot to assassinate Stalin, by placing a bomb under a government box as he watched a performance at the Little Theatre in Moscow. Apparently Stalin frequently used the box. ‘The manager of the theatre had been arrested.’

On a lighter note there was great excitement at Blackrock, Salthill in September 1937. Crowds gathered, ‘many of them armed with cameras’, to get a glimpse of a strange dark figure that had been sighted in the bay. It was widely rumoured to be a merman!.

When the poor creature came in under the diving board at Blackrock, people were dismayed to realise that it ws a 15ft long tiger shark. A member of the Garda Síochána swiftly shot the shark in the skull with a .22 rifle.

News of the growing power of Germany, as Europe edged toward war was also well reported. In October 1938 Bishop Michael Browne expressed gratitude to God for the signing of the ill-fated Munich Agreement, which he and others believed would secure peace in Europe. “Last Sunday,” he said, “We prayed for peace, and our first act today should be to offer up our thanksgiving that peace has been restored.”

Towards the end of the year a local editorial sounded a warning note: ‘Those who hug to themselves the delusion that in a general European conflict we on this little island shall be free from its repercussions and perils are living in a fool’s paradise.’

More next week....

NOTES: *The result of the survey can be viewed, bound and paginated in 1,128 volumes (500,000 manuscript pages ), in University College Dublin. The material relating to Galway schools, however, can be viewed in the Galway Co Library. The Galway collection has also been digitised, and is available at www.dúchas.ie

I am grateful, however, to take this Diary from a new publication, City of Streams-Galway Folklore and Folklife in the 1930s, by Caitríona Hastings, published by The History Press at €20, which highlights the main findings of the survey.

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