In the world of set dancing Connie Ryan (Paid), who died on May 7th. was a major figure. He himself was proud to be considered a dancing master and nothing more. But thousands of his pupils over the past two decades, many of them well into middle age and even early old age, believed that he had a mission. It was to help us all rediscover in ourselves something which suburbia, and perhaps stress, are near to destroying, that sense of merriment and of joy which we associate more readily with, say, school children released from the classroom. And from his people Connie had the means to create merriment set dancing.
He managed in one brief first class to bring out the child in us. Like children, it was ourselves we were applauding as soon as we had barely learned some intricate figure of a set. We had been caught unawares. Something of our essential selves was laid bare. At dancing sessions Connie divested us of all the trappings of class, status, bias, age or whatever. We were recreated and we had become privates in Connie's army. He was our only general. There was of course a lieutenant-general and there were a few non-commissioned officers - oifigigh bheaga - but all were perfectly happy to be privates. Sets filled our lives. We knew, weekend by weekend, where in the world the fun and sport was. It was at the Merriman Summer School, or in Tory or Inis Oirr or Newport or in London or in a city in continental Europe or America. It was wherever Connie was conducting a workshop.
As a teacher he had all the essential qualifications: enough showmanship to keep us entertained; enough discipline to ensure progress; enough humorous patter to keep over-seriousness at bay. But above all he had patience in abundance. It was no bother to him to immediately pick out the weakest dancers and give them all individual tuition. He taught us more than dancing: that dance was another way of listening to music. He taught us a sense of proportion: that music and dance, and by implication literature and art, are as important in our lives as politics or economics. He taught the men to be considerate of the relative delicacy of women's fingers. He taught us to loosen Lip. And much more.
He was our manager. As a member of a cast of nearly 50 which he bought on a tour of the USA, I can bear witness to his great grasp of detail in a situation where perhaps as many as a thousand decisions had to be made and implemented: assembling the cast, a balanced programme, finance, travel, accommodation. He had his loyal helpers, but essentially it was he who carried the responsibility. His ability, his professionalism, and his sense of command were such that we sometimes fancied him in a soviet of long ago, managing a couple of thousand happy workers producing, motor cars. In this whimsy tricy would all be happy because Connie would know them all individually, and their families. Morale would be high. He would have kept them all in good humour through organised sets at lunch and coffee breaks. And he would always be doing his best for them. But, typically, preferring working parties, he would not have given his blessing to the setting up of any committees.
Connie was a Tipperary man and the quintessential country man, an fear tire, a man of the land. He had great nature. There was great friendship in him. He had a nudur and an old ha for people, as an older generation in his native Clonoulty might have termed it. He combined generosity with punctiliousness. Six months after you stood him a drink he would remember and insist on buying you two. Perhaps I exaggerate. But all his followers will agree that it was a matter of actual physical grappling with him before he would let you pay.
Connie was able to converse with any one, no matter how learned or exalted. He was never stuck for the right question to ask, or for the suitable remark. Many of us will remember him tutoring the ambassadors of Spain and Britain at the Merriman School in Lahinch in 1990. He instinctively knew always what the form was. He was a simple and ordinary man but in the same breath you would describe him as complex and sophisticated. Even at his most outrageous the ardent feminist could enjoy him just because he was Connie. The women loved him as much as the men did. Jut because he was himself. Bhi misneagh aige, that combination of courage and hope.
When driving dancers to go beyond themselves he would shout: "Never say die till the hearse backs in." There is in that challenge some of his own determination to live life to the best of his ability no matter what the circumstances were. All his pupils over the past three years knew that he was struggling with cancer but he carried on regardless.
A non-dancing friend asked me had Connie any successor. I was stuck for an answer and my mind fixed on the old cliche: "Ni bheidh a leitheid aris ann." Connie happened at a particular time and through unusual circumstances. It was a problem with his eyes which first brought him to Dublin as a telephonist in the Bank of Ireland. And it may well have been that same problem which concentrated his mind and talents on spreading a love of set dancing. It was the sort of miracle which Ireland badly needed but did not entirely deserve. We would be indeed thrice-blessed to see his likes again. Sna Flaithis ata a leaba inniu agus ta na murtha failte a gcur roimhe ag fonnadoiri agus gan amhras an rinceoiri a dhiongmhla.