Be careful how you dance this Advent

Old Mayo

We are one month out from Christmas, to the day, and I would like to mark it by wishing you and yours a happy Black Friday. The retailers’ fabricated start to the Christmas shopping season has already caught on in little old Ireland. The run up to Christmas no longer begins on the Church’s specified day, but instead is determined by frenzied shoppers, wound up by delighted retailers. Of course, the upside is that shoppers bag bargains, businesses take on extra employees, and extra income is regenerated as a result of the additional footfall.

These coveted weeks in the calendar have been commandeered over and over again throughout the centuries by different beliefs and practices. Christian preparation for Christmas during the period known as Advent began in at least the fifth century. It was not until the early 20th century that the Church’s control of the faithful’s actions during Advent was seriously challenged. The Catholic hierarchy in the early Irish Free State feared, but also recognised, that its place as guardian of morality was under attack by outside influences it was unable to counter alone. The foreign aggressor in the thirties was jazz music, and to a lesser extent motor cars that made jazz dances more accessible. The motor car allowed undesirables to visit even the quietest parish dance hall. This was very serious, the Church believed, as it led directly to an increase in illegitimacy, it claimed. The Church turned to the State in the hope that where its moral authority failed, legislation backed up by the police would succeed in combating ‘anti-national’ fashions. The Government’s 1931 Carrigan Report admitted that the clergy were unable to control their flock and that strict measures must be adopted to enforce sexual morality. So embarrassing to the State were the findings of the report that it was let slip off the agenda. By 1932, Éamon de Valera and a conservative Fianna Fáil were in power. De Valera consulted with the bishops as to the greatest evils facing the nation. They agreed that dance halls, motor cars, and immoral behaviour on the public highways, all linked, were to be tackled and tackled quickly. The Gaelic League had launched its own anti-jazz campaign that fed into its hope for constrained use of Irish dance halls. The Gaelic League’s dance hall patrons in Mayo were told that Irish dancing in the céilí setting was the only response to combating ‘Oriental practices such as jazz’. The legislative response to suggestive dancing from the Government was the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act. Under the Act, dance hall licences were to be administered by the district court judge, who often took his advice on the matter from the local clergy and police.

The Act was honoured more in the breach than in the observance. When three Mayo dance hall proprietors applied for licences for dances during Advent in 1966, the practicalities of the 1935 Act were debated. Recent licence applicants in Mayo were entitled to run dances during Advent, while others had been prohibited. In seeking his court order be changed, one applicant wrote to the parish priest of Bangor Erris notifying him that he was making such a request to the judge. The priest did not respond. Silence was taken as consent. In reality, dances were being held throughout Mayo during Advent for years but the Act was still, and is still but with amendments, in force. The then bishop, John Walsh, was named by one of his subordinates as the only figure opposing Advent dancing in the area. The judge amended the order to read, ‘that no dancing should be held on the night of December 24th, eves of Church Holydays, Saturday nights and Lent (except on St Patrick’s Night )’ and he deleted the three important words ‘and during Advent’.

If you need to dance this Advent, do so modestly and to an Irish step, lest the 1935 Act be thrown at you.


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