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  • Parish Halls, Dance Halls, and Marquees:Developing and Regulating Social-Dance Spaces, 1900–60
  • Méabh Ní Fhuartháin (bio)

The setting of John B. Keane's play The Field (1965) and the locale of William Trevor's short story "The Ballroom of Romance" (1972) juxtapose domestic and public interiors of rural Ireland in the early decades of the new Irish state. These literary examples deploy the twentieth-century vernacular architectural container of the dance hall, a site also central to the recent film Jimmy's Hall (2014), to explore the politics of change in a period of Irish history typically described as inward-looking and static. Attention to these locales from 1900 to 1960 addresses what Ruth Stanley calls the "striking dearth in historical narrative" in cultural terms of the era (231). These decades operate as scaffolding to chart the evolution of key public dance spaces in Ireland within an inter- and transnational context. In addition, such research situates the frequently discussed Public Dance Halls Act (1935) in a less parochial perspective than heretofore explored. The transnational context of public spaces built for dancing and the act's regulatory response to those spaces offer an understanding of the cultural, social, and economic forces "that are rarely contained within national boundaries" (Higbee and Hwee Lim, qtd. in Tracy and Flynn 175). This article concerns itself not with the sounds of music or the movements of dance. Instead, rather than asking who will dance with Bull McCabe in The Field, it asks what hall is the Bull dancing in?

Until the late nineteenth century dancing in Western Europe and North America ordinarily occurred within domestic contexts, whether in thatched cottages of west Clare or in grand private ballrooms in New England. Public dance spaces (either community halls or dance halls) were not part of the cultural or built landscape. At the turn of the century, however, dance began to move into a public domain; [End Page 218] in these new locales social dance as an increasingly popular cultural form developed symbiotically with ensemble dance bands. Engaging large numbers of participants, it emphasized new couple dances that, according to Abra, reflected, absorbed, and informed current social behaviors (6). This simultaneous democratization and commercialization of transnational public dance spaces was linked with the culture industry and a reflection of modernity.

Public Social-Dance Spaces

In America the origin of the public dance hall lay primarily in the nineteenth-century saloon where the "association of dance, music, liquor, and sex" was well established (Nye 14). However, by the end of the nineteenth century dancing began to invade private clubs, restaurants, and attached dance spaces, where, distanced from prostitution, it formed an architecture for respectable socialization (Nye 14). Although dancing continued in multipurpose venues such as saloons, the advent of ragtime and other social dances in public spaces from the early 1910s led to a dramatic increase of custom-built locales for public social dancing. Keen to capitalize on this increased interest, entrepreneurs opened the first dance palace in New York City in 1911 (McBee 55). In the post-World War I period on both sides of the Atlantic social-dance spaces proliferated. New venues were built specifically for dancing or, at the very least, built with such activity in mind, differentiating them from previous public venues where dance might take place (Ní Fhuartháin, "Comhaltas" 70). James Nott argues that the war democratized dance (Going to the Palais), an activity in which "multiple dancing publics" could participate (Abra 127). The introduction of the "palais-de-dance" in Britain provided "affordability, high-quality dance floors, excellent bands, general cleanliness, and efficient staff" (Abra 127). By the end of the 1920s most cities in Britain "boasted their Palais or Mecca" (Todd 803). The phenomenon of the dance palace as a large hall catering to general dance patronage grew in the United States as well, with ten such palaces opening in New York City by 1924, nine of them in Manhattan (Bowman and Lambin 287–288). Beginning in the 1920s Irish American dance halls in Boston, New York, and other diasporic sites joined this modern, transnational response to new demands for accommodation...


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pp. 218-250
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