Dancing on the Hobs of Hell: Rural Communities in Clare and the Dance Halls Act of 1935
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New Hibernia Review 9.4 (2005) 9-18



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Dancing on the Hobs of Hell:

Rural Communities in Clare and the Dance Halls Act of 1935

University of Missouri–St. Louis

The revolutionary state once envisaged by Patrick Pearse was nowhere to behold during the first decade of Free State Ireland. The Anglo-Irish War and Irish Civil War had left much of the country with chronic social and economic problems. Yet, despite its structural defects, the new state quickly won the overwhelming support of merchants and shopkeepers, well-off farmers, clerics, and middle-class professionals, all of whom had a vested interest in the benefits of stability. It was not long before this bourgeois cadre, which had a long pedigree in Irish history, sired a repressive zeitgeist of social and cultural conservatism that was to become an abiding hallmark of independent Ireland until well into the 1960s.

As early as 1923, the new Free State government suggested its conventional bent by passing the Censorship of Films Act. That measure censored films, most of them foreign, that were considered offensive to the conservative mores of the new Ireland. For the next two decades, lawmakers and the church hierarchy—aided by watchdog groups like the Irish Vigilance Society and the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland—shepherded their wayward flock from one moral sanctuary to the next. In the spring of 1924, the Irish bishops in their Lenten pastoral referred to the existence of shameful abuses in Irish social life. Chief among them were women's fashions and immodest dress; drink, strikes and lockouts; evil literature, theatrical performances, cinema exhibitions, and "indecent" dancing. Such public pronouncements may well have been influenced by the rise in promiscuity, sexual crimes, and illegitimate births that had reached disturbing levels in both urban and rural communities.1 By 1929, the Dáil had passed the Censorship of Publications Act, which was directed specifically against foreign magazines and books, most of them English. While not explicitly directed against native writing, this act had the long-term effect of ostracizing a generation of creative writers in Ireland, many of whom chose exile rather than succumb to a climate of unbending censorship. [End Page 9]

By the end of the 1920s, a wide-ranging spyglass of inquisition had other sinners in its scope. Though far from being a mouthpiece of the Catholic church in post-independence Ireland, even the Irish Times lamented the widespread breakdown of moral values in the country. Its indignation was every bit as forthright as that of the Catholic hierachy. In an editorial of March 2, 1929, the paper remarked that

The clergy, the judges and the police are in agreement concerning the baleful affect of drink and low dancing upon rural morals. Further restrictions on the sale of drinks, a remorseless war on the poteen industry, the strict supervision of dance halls and the banning (by law if need be) of all night dances would abolish many inducements to sexual vice.2

Country house kitchens and crossroad platforms had been customary locations of dancing in rural communities for generations. During the lean years of the Economic War (1933–38), when cattle prices collapsed and Ireland's small farmers struggled desperately to survive, country house dances were often used to collect funds for destitute families. Referred to as "raffles" or "benefits" in Clare, house dances were also used to raise money for soirées, wren dances, American wakes, and on rare occasions to collect funds for local priests home on holidays from the foreign missions. Likewise, benefits were held to raise money for political groups, among them the IRA, which was undergoing radical change in the political and legislative upheaval of the 1930s. To supervise these spontaneous gatherings, as the Irish Times suggested, was virtually impossible. Regardless of the improbability of the effort, however, country house dances generated as much indignation among Ireland's moral watchdogs as did modern dancing, which had crept into Ireland beneath the radar of the state in...