More than once, people have remarked that the women I’m studying are not typical of the Free State period. ‘My’ actresses had financial independence; they had opportunities to travel; they had ‘bohemian’ lifestyles and so much more moral license. I’m not sure I agree. Yes, they earned their own money and spent it as they chose. They saw parts of the world (and lifestyles) that would have scandalised some of their rural (and urban) counterparts in Ireland. But, they still had to operate in the community and answer to their families. After those lengthy tours in the US, the Irish colleens had to come home.
In the 1930s, the number of Irish women emigrating was at its greatest for decades; the unmarried ladies getting on the boat with no plans to return far outnumbered the men. There were a myriad of causes: lack of marriage opportunities, lack of employment opportunities, horrendous living conditions, endemic diseases and poverty. But I can’t help wondering how many Irish women were finally spurred into packing and getting on the boat by the denial of one more fundamental right: the right to dance!
There was a fantastic documentary on Lyric FM last week called ‘Out with Paganism and all that Jazz’ about 1930s music in Ireland. There’s a link here:
I had a four-hour wait in Gatwick Airport and came upon it through the wonder of Twitter. It charts the history of jazz music in Ireland. Or rather, the history of ‘syncopated dance music’. As Ronan Guilfoyle (jazz historian) points out, the music reaching Irish shores was a sanitized version of the improvised jazz coming out of New Orleans. But the trumpets, saxophones and beats were still enough to get the Catholic Church and other lay groups hot under the collar.
The Abbey Company weren’t ‘bohemian’ enough to simply ignore the opinions in the vestibule. As Sean O’Casey pointed out, the Abbey Theatre had its very own ‘Vigilance Committee of the Actors’. He was disgusted with their backstage rebellion when rehearsals began for his play The Plough and The Stars. Amongst numerous other things, Eileen Crowe gave up her part rather than speak about children being ‘begotten between the borders of the Ten Commandments’, because of the mere suggestion that there were children who were not. (The fascists in Youth Defence would be proud of such logic.)
O’Casey did not write the part of Rosie Redmond with Ria Mooney in mind. In fact, his letters show that he couldn’t decide between Ria and Shelah Richards for the role of Norah. He may have been hedging his bets: Shelah was Protestant and already known for her outspokenness. She even had a motor car, which was right next to jazz in terms of moral danger. But O’Casey did think highly of Ria’s talents and she wasn’t devout. Ria had no Father Confessor, no mother, and the strength of mind to withstand the abuse she received from the other women. Thus, if O’Casey hadn’t had to bow to pressure and cut the song he included for Rosie at the end of the second act, she would have sung the ditty entitled ‘Dancing a Jig in The Bed’.
The song lyrics were deemed far too dangerous although jigs and reels were the very things the Church and State wanted the youth of Ireland to keep their minds on. Irish dances had strict, rigid postures, which kept the genders far apart. Unlike the barbarous, sultry movements brought on by jazz music.
Yet in 1926, in a dark, smoky nightclub somewhere, Louis Armstrong was singing of Irish Black Bottoms:
the biggest change that’s come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.
Now Ireland’s gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm’s drivin’ the folks insane.
The devilish laugh from Armstrong as he jokes about his Irish heritage is so infectious. Even then, people overseas were laughing at the outdated notions of the Irish. But the humour of it conceals something much more dangerous and insidious.
In a Lenten Pastoral in 1924, Cardinal Logue made a speech saying:
They may not be the fashion in London and Paris. They should be the fashion in Ireland. Irish dances do not make degenerates.
I can’t help reading the last line of that without thinking that he was really saying: dancing makes degenerates and it’s a symptom of degeneracy. Because along with illicit drinking and unrestrained physical movements, jazz music was of course associated with something else the Catholic Church didn’t trust: non-Christian Africans.
Here, the Abbey actresses were different. They had an education in race relations denied their friends and families at home. The students of the Negro university in Tuskegee, Alabama appreciated more than any other American audience the wit and humour of Lennox Robinson’s The Whiteheaded Boy in 1932. The Players were thrilled by the response: rolling about laughing, throwing up their arms and legs, getting up now and then to do a little dance. For Shields, it was an incredibly perceptive audience. Barry Fitzgerald (a life-long people watcher) frequently strolled through Harlem and observed with delight how they ‘seem to live so casual a life’. Shelah Richards, on meeting Showboat star Paul Robeson, reasoned to her fiancé that:
I’m certain the only reason we don’t marry black people (you’ll notice no allusion to ‘niggers’) is thinking of the consternation it would give our [parents] to be suddenly presented with a coal black grandson. Personally I wouldn’t mind, they have such a sense of rhythm …
Terrified communities took to the streets of Ireland to outlaw this pagan music they associated with a savage nature. The Gaelic League, championing the Irish language and music, were at the forefront of the campaign. At the main anti-jazz rally in Mohill in County Leitrim, a letter was read out from Cardinal McRory, where he said:
I know nothing about jazz dancing except that I understand that they are suggestive and demoralizing: but jazz apart, all-night dances are objectionable …
Again, there is something both insidious and hilarious in his phrasing: Of course, I don’t know what it is because I wouldn’t listen to it – but it’s definitely bad for you.
He went on to say:
To how many poor innocent young girls have [these dances] not been an occasion of irreparable disgrace and lifelong sorrow?
The Catholic Church always knew what was best for young Irish ladies.
Aideen O’Connor’s father was a Harbour Master in Dublin Port, where he worked to keep all kinds of illicit literature and material from reaching Irish shores. From one of his notes in the Shields Archive, it also seems he was an Irish speaker.
I can see the cramped back kitchen of the house on Hollybank Avenue on the evening when Aideen’s latest letter arrives from New York. Eileen, her elder sister and substitute mother, reads in hushed tones to Maeve, the youngest. They drink strong tea as they learn how Aideen has been practicing the latest dance craze in a club off Times Square. It’s too dark to see Eileen’s blushes as she reads how the ‘Big Apple’ is ‘really intricate and quite mad’. Still giddy and tipsy, Aideen reveals how after the performance on Saturday night they ended up dancing all night. On leaving, she and Frolie Mulhern realised that there was no sense in going home before the Sunday sermon and so they went straight to the 4am mass before sleeping until lunchtime. I can picture Eileen, gathering her things to get to the Church to say a rosary for her soul. Maeve is still in peals of laughter, hoping Aideen will remember all the moves to teach on her return. She tries out a jig in the kitchen while hunting for a hiding place for the letter. Aideen always includes a separate letter for her father in the same envelope so he’ll never know.
The Stork Club was a nightclub just East of Park Avenue. Dressed in her best dress (the likes of which I which tried out in this post), hair plumped with her new-fangled hair dryer, Aideen drank cocktails and danced here after her performances on Broadway in 1934. Frolie and Aideen powdered their noses while their sisters back in dreary Dublin were fasting for Sunday morning mass. And powdering her nose at the same mirror, or sitting at an adjoining table, was another respectable woman who was out too late.
Kay Swift had three young daughters but was recently separated from her millionaire banker husband. Adjusting to single life, she was a regular visitor to New York jazz clubs. I can see her, drinking a martini, tapping a foot. On a napkin, she notes musical phrases that she’ll try out composing tomorrow. Auditions for Porgy and Bess are in full swing and her lover George Gershwin is at home working on final changes. Perhaps it was here, dancing to the number that she wrote herself – The Jig-Hop – that Kay’s friendship with Aideen began. In the pause between musical numbers, I can see Frolie and Aideen trying to explain to Kay how at home, there is a rumour that next year legislation will be passed to ban public dancing unless it’s approved by the Parish Priest. They throw back their heads and laugh, order another drink and get up to dance …
This wasn’t meant to be a political blog post. I wanted to do something about Irish actresses discovering jazz music and dancing in Broadway nightclubs: The Jig Hop, The Big Apple, The Black Bottom. It was going to involve Nicky Byrne and Strictly Come Dancing. But in my research over the last few weeks, I’ve started to connect seemingly disparate threads and it was no longer just a bit of craic – because I started to think differently about the huge number of women getting on the boat in the 1930s.
Like thousands of other Irish women, I watched the demonstration outside the Dáil for Savita with one thought in my head: ‘I can’t live in a country that treats women like this. I want to emigrate.’
In the new year, I shall find a nightclub in New York where I can listen to jazz and dance any way I choose. I’ll wear lipstick, smoke a cigarette and drink a martini. I’ll say a prayer for the soul of Cardinal McRory and I shall toast all those Irish women who have been denied basic pleasures and fundamental rights.