Great life lessons I gained from 18 years of Irish dancing

Broadside: the childhood passion that overwhelmed my life and gave me confidence

You know when you’ve been told a story so many times that you start to tell it as your own, even though it’s not your memory? Well that’s what I’m about to tell you, my mother’s memory of my first Irish dancing class.

So I’m five and rather clumsy and my mother anxiously watches on as I trip over blades of grass or misuse my spoon and she worries. She worries I’ll be bullied when I start school “and you already had the red hair” so asks around, what’s to be done.

She gets some solid advice to send me to Irish dancing classes to, "straighten her out" and finds a class in Pope John Paul II school in Malahide and drops me off. An hour later she finds me sitting cross legged on the floor, staring up at the school hall stage as the next class are preparing for their lesson.

I was quite a good child in that I never really acted up; I was very laid back but that day I threw a strop. I would not stand up to leave the hall when my class was finished. “Mommy, the big girls are on the stage.



My Irish dancing teacher at the time, Máire Mhic Aogáin, came over to tell my mother that I’d be fine to stay on and watch if she had other things to do and that she could come back in an hour to collect me. An hour passes and she enters the hall to find me there, in the exact same spot as when she left me, transfixed, “at five years of age”.

She always stresses this, “at five” business and I’m sure if I had a five-year-old I’d know why but she maintains that in that moment, as she held my hand and looked down at my freckly face, she knew something had been ignited in me.

I think every child radiates potential and deep curiosity and I think it’s that which drives their interest to understand their world and their place in it. I was lucky enough both to have found that interest and to have had parents that understood its importance to me.

So began my 18 year relationship with competitive Irish dancing. I attended classes twice a week with competitions on a Sunday and would proudly display my medals and trophies on my bedroom shelf. I grew up through Irish dancing, I learned the steps certainly, but more importantly I learned about skill and focus, I engaged with my peers and environment, I developed confidence, poise and grit. I learned graciousness through winning and humility in defeat.

I owe a lot to my teacher Claire McKenna, whose class I shyly joined in 1989 and confidently left in 2006, as a fully fledged grown up. Shortly after that I studied acting professionally and so have been working as an actor for the last seven years.

Peeing in an elaborate costume

After an involuntary hiatus last year I decided to take matters into my own hands and write my own show. It was my first play and so surely had to be somewhat autobiographical, The Humours of Bandon followed and the response to it has been magical.

It won the Bewley's Little Gem award, Fishamble offered to produce it for touring and it will soon be published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. It seems to have struck a chord with anyone who had a childhood passion that overwhelmed their life and I hope it brings back fond memories to all those who happen to catch it and feel nostalgic about my description of trying to go to the toilet in an elaborate Irish dancing costume: "I wish I didn't know who the judges were. I feel sick but like, if I drink my 7up I'll get a stitch and if I drink too much water I'll need to pee and the bathroom is miles away and they don't wait for ya. Actually sometimes, needing to pee is a good thing, for your light anyway, cos it makes you lift higher but see as soon as ye stop, you're dyin again. Man, I hate goin to the loo at these things. So gross. The dress is always too big for the tiny toilet and you don't want it to touch the sanitary bin so you've to hold the side flaps up around your waist as you squat down. I never touch the seat and there's never enough time to make a paper one. So groooss."

Fishamble: The New Play Company presents The Humours of Bandon, written and performed by Margaret McAuliffe, directed by Stefanie Preissner. Irish tour begins February 7th, Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire. Tour includes Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire; GB Shaw Theatre, Visual Carlow; Draíocht, Blanchardstown; Siamsa Tíre, Tralee; Glór, Ennis; Hawk's Well, Sligo; Axis, Ballymun; Nenagh Arts Centre, Nenagh; Bewley's Café Theatre @ Powerscourt, Dublin; Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar; and An Grianán, Letterkenny.