Ireland . . . and all that jazz
The Jazz Age? In Free State Ireland, the moral guardians weren’t having any of it. A free music festival in Dublin looks back at the Anti-Jazz Campaign of 1934 – and celebrates the rise in Ireland of ‘The Devil’s Music’
IT WAS like cocaine for the feet. We’d always been fond of a good hands-by-your-sides dance, but this new foreign music was something altogether different. The first decade of the Irish Free State coincided with the Jazz Age and the viral spread of what was essentially the world’s first pop music. New-fangled contraptions such as the wireless and the gramophone were bringing its infectious rhythms to every corner of the civilised world.
In rural Ireland, returning immigrants brought sheet music and fancy notions back from London or New York. Everyone, it seemed, was suddenly doing the Black Bottom and the Collegiate Shag. And the moral guardians of the new state weren’t one bit pleased.
Of course, it wasn’t really the music that the Catholic clergy and the more conservative elements within Conradh na Gaeilge were unhappy about. What was really getting them so hot under their starched collars was the kind of dancing that jazz inspired. Unlicensed dancehalls were springing up everywhere in rural Ireland, and within these sinks of bohemian depravity, unsupervised men and women were actually touching one another. Someone had to put a stop to it.
Enter the Very Reverend Peter Conefrey of Cloone, near Mohill, Co Leitrim. A zealous cultural nationalist, Fr Conefrey was determined to realise Pearse’s vision of an Ireland not only free but Gael, and on New Year’s day 1934, he led a demonstration of several thousand people along the main street of Mohill, grandly inaugurating Ireland’s Anti-Jazz campaign. They unfurled banners in the chill January air, reading “Down with Jazz” and “Out with Pagansim”, and five pipe bands spurred the marchers on.
When they reached the local parochial hall, Conefrey delivered a fiery speech. A graver danger than drink or landlords, he told the congregation, was stalking the Irish countryside. Jazz was “borrowed from the language of the savages in Africa, and its object is to destroy virtue in the human soul”.
Messages were read out from President De Valera and former President Douglas Hyde in which they expressed support for Irish music and dancing, though they wisely avoided any direct condemnation of the music that had everyone else jumping for joy. The Catholic Primate, Cardinal Joseph McRory, however, had no such qualms and wasn’t going to let total ignorance stand between him and a chance to pontificate. “I know nothing about jazz dances,” he wrote, “except that I understand they are suggestive and demoralising, and in country districts and small towns are a fruitful source of scandal and ruin, spiritual and temporal. To how many poor innocents have they not been the occasion of irreparable disgrace and life-long sorrow.”