By Brenda Buchanan
Nobody writes songs about March. In New England at least, the third month is long on gray and short on poetry. This year is the exception to the rule—warm days having begat bare ground and the early arrival of crocus and daffodil shoots. But more years than not, March is the dreggy end of winter, a 31-day slog of grubby snowbanks and freeze-thaw-freeze cycles.
If not for St. Patrick’s Day, March would have little to recommend it.
In my family, the holiday is a big deal. My mother and her siblings were born in America but my older relatives had brogues as thick as spring fog. Determined to hang on to their culture, they maintained certain traditions including teaching children (especially little girls) to step dance.
My older sister and I took lessons from a woman named Bernadette, who was off the boat from County Kerry. Irish step dancing involves complicated footwork. In her Saturday morning classes, Bernadette called out cues I remember to this day. Heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, hop one-two-three-four. A jig or a reel played in the background, helping little feet keep the beat.
The more difficult skill for me was to keep my hands at my sides, fingertips pointing to the floor. That is a defining aspect of traditional Irish step dance, intended to direct attention to the intricate steps. My little sister—who when I first started would have been two to my four—was too young to dance but old enough to keep me in line. Kate sat in the front row during practice sessions and called me out when my arms flew out from my sides. “Hands!” she’d chirp. “Hands!”
Thoughout the year, but especially in March, Bernadette’s troupe danced at various events around town. Our mothers made our outfits, green dresses with gold fabric on the underside of the skirt, designed to show when we kicked our tap-shoed feet. Somehow I have hung on to one of mine all these years. There it is at right, in all its tiny glory.
Our shoes were tied with Kelly green ribbons. On our legs we wore black tights. A back sash was pinned from left shoulder to right hip.
Such was the costume we wore the night a dozen or so of us were to be the entertainment at the 1962 St. Patrick’s Day party sponsored by the city’s Irish-American Club. We were the warm-up act for Ted Kennedy, who had just announced his first candidacy for United States Senate. His brother was president, of course, which made this gig a Very Big Deal to the older girls in the troupe. At the end of our performance we’d been instructed by Bernadette to skip down the stairs on the side of the stage—tallest to shortest—and shake the hand of the candidate, who was sitting in the front row. The oldest girl—my second cousin—had a small token of some sort to present to him as a gift from us.
I was four years old—too young to be nervous about anything but keeping my hands by my sides—but backstage jitters infected the big girls. We’d be dancing for the handsome president’s handsome younger brother, not to mention a hall packed with most of the Irish population of Fitchburg. The young teenagers were wound up. Moments before we went on one of them sidled over to me and said the plan had changed, I was now going to lead the troupe off the stage and be the one to hand the gift to Mr. Kennedy.
So out we went and dance we did and after we took our bow I led the way off the stage. Whenever my mother told this story she’d put her hand over her heart and exclaim that her relief at our fine performance gave way to dismay that her headstrong little Brenda was leading the march to Ted Kennedy instead of bringing up the rear. My memory is that he was very nice and people took pictures of all of us, then my older sister and I were whisked home because by then it was long past our bedtime.
The next day a telegram arrived at our house (yep, an actual telegram.) It read: My brother tells me you are the best step-dancers ever. STOP. Congratulations! STOP. It was signed JFK. Now that impressed me. I may not have quite grasped who the man in the front row of the audience was, but I knew JFK was President of the United States.
I was probably 12 before I learned that the telegram had been sent by my uncle, John Francis Kane.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all of the readers of this blog. My gift to you is this link to the fabulous McNiff Irish Dancers, performing in 1958. These dancers were the real deal. They performed on the Ed Sullivan show, not merely at hometown St. Patrick’s Day dinners. But we danced this same traditional style. Note that except for the parts when the piece called for them to clasp hands, the dancers’ fingers are pointed right at their tap shoes.
P.S. In my family, the tradition continues to this day. This week my five-year-old grandniece Caeley danced in her first recital.
Lovely post; I adore St. Patrick’s Day and love Irish dancing, as well.
Thanks, Skye! It is beautiful to watch, isn’t it?
Oh, yes, and the music is simply…ahhh, heavenly.
Loved it. Thanks.
That you, Gram, and happy St. Pat’s!
What a terrific tale! We have some Irish step-dancing cousins in my husband’s family, and it’s wonderful to watch! Slainte!
Do dheagh shlàinte , Linda!
What a great story, Brenda! It’s a good reminder how our writing is so informed by our experience — stories like this have a way of staying in our heads and coming out in our writing in all sorts of ways, big and small. The photo is priceless, too.
Thanks, Mo. As you know, storytelling comes naturally to the Irish . . .
Thanks for the wonderful Irish family story, Brenda.
Mary Esposito, who is a Burke, loved it also. I’m sending it to my stepson, Ethan Kane and his Dad, Tom Kane. I know they’ll enjoy it.
Thanks, David. My mother was a Kane, her father having come from County Mayo.
I know there are a lot of Kanes, but I’m gonna find out where Ethan and Tom’s Kanes came from and let you know in due course.
This is why you’re such a great writer! You sucked me right in and I did not see the end coming. What a story and what a great memory. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Thanks, Amy! And Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you!
I’m counting the days to 4/26 when House of the Hanging Jade will find its way into my hands.
Great story, Brenda!
Happy Paddy’s Day from Dublin.
Thanks, Maggie! Enjoy your time in Ireland!
Love the step dancers, and the Celtic music is an added bonus. St. Patrick’s Day is my favorite holiday. Slainte.
Back at you!
I live in New Jersey, but we always celebrated this day with the traditional food; Philadelphia had their parade on Sunday with their precious dancers. 🙂 I adore Celtic folk music; actually I love everything Irish.
Where are you from, Skye? I was born in Trenton, raised in Trenton/Hamilton, moved to Bordentown Twp when I got married, now live in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Hi L.C; I live in Marlton, used to live in Medford and years ago, I lived in Cherry Hill. I am trying to relocate to another state; it is incredibly busy and aggressive here. At one time, it was quite lovely. I am familiar with Bordentown; I work for ETS ( Ewing, Princeton) but from home and online; I just retired from teaching . Do you love living in Maine?
Skye, before I started my own marketing consulting practice in 2002, my last “real” job was in Mount Laurel. Now I write full-time from Bar Harbor. Yes, I love it! We vacationed here for many years before relocating in 2010. Last couple of times I visited NJ, I was surprised at how intimidating the traffic was. I never used to give it a second thought (except on the upper reaches of the Parkway)! If you want to keep in touch elsewhere, find me at http://www.lcrooney.com. My social media links are on the website.
L.C. I am right up the street ( road) from Mount Laurel; I live on North Maple, but I have friends in Holiday Village and Church Road, so I am very familiar with all the small towns: Moorestown, Vincentown, and of course, Marlton is also known as Evesham, but it is daunting, L.C., Olga’s Diner is no longer, and have you ever been to the Promenade? I shop in Mt. Laurel and not in Marlton, for food, but I do adore Whole Foods. I will go to your web site, and thanks. Let’s stay in touch.
L.C. I just subscribed and I am also on Sisters in Crime: I have all Amber Foxx’s novels.
Hi Skye and L.C.,
I was going to ask the same question.
I grew up in Harrington Park, Bergen County 1950-1961, worked in a Mob-dominated Teamster warehouse in Secaucus four summers and frequented dive bars in Union City and Jersey City, some with co-worker, Kevin “Hooligan” Halligan, he of the lazy eye which magically attracted women. The area being the main setting of my almost-completed historical/crime novel occurring in 1960 on union politics and corruption, intersecting, of course, with the Mob.
Been in Maine since 1966 and love it, but strange as it seems, miss New Jersey, still have friends from there, and have been back a number of times.
Skye, hope you make it to a good place. I’d definitely consider Maine, most locations very livable.
Hi David: So nice to meet both of you. You came from Bergen County; North Jersey; such a little divided state, too. L.C. came from Central Jersey, and I am in South Jersey, but above southern Jersey ( too ridiculous). It makes a difference, though in local colloquialisms and sports teams. I was born in Center City, Philadelphia, and live about nine miles from the Ben Franklin Bridge; However, NJ has changed greatly. David, yes, at one time the mob infiltrated this state and had a major influence. I am just so very happy you were in Maine during 9/11 and not in Jersey City! My son loves Maine, but he lives in MD and works in DC and my daughter is in Florida. I would love to hear more about Maine.
You know what they say, David: You can never fully shake the sands of New Jersey from your feet! Virtually my entire (large, loud, extended Italian-American) family and several lifelong friends still live there, so I go back at last once a year.
Me too, on 9/11. I’d forgotten about Jersey city’s unfortunate bird’s eye view. My son was working 8 blocks away and at first thought it was a massive earthquake and aftershock. He wandered uptown watching the understandable thousand yard stares of pedestrians watching TV screens in bars and restaurants.
For more on Maine, consider checking pressherald.com (Portland) and bangordailynews.com for closer to Downeast.
If you have not explored them, great Maine writers community on this blog and at mainewriters.com (Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance), many of the featured writers publishing books about Maine and featuring Maine as the settings for short stories and novels.
L.C., yes indeed. My old high school friend, Roger Caruso, though no longer in N.J, kids me that he will send up some of his boys if I don’t watch myself.
There’s no blessing like a large Italian family that accepts you into the fold. As I say about mine: “You can get in, but you can never get out.”, but I don’t want to.
Hi David, Thank you so much for this wonderful information; I am putting it into a folder in my e-mail account. I grew up with so many Irish/Italians and I adore both nationalities!
Your son was close-by Manhattan during the nightmare. There are really no words, and it certainly changed my perspective of so many things. Marlton sent up EMTs and many of my students ran up to help in the Triage set ups.
I am just trying to tie some ends together in NJ, and then I will decide on where and when. I am definitely going to look into the information you sent. Do you have any suggestions of communities where I could search ? Thank you for all the wonderful suggestions.
Just briefly because there are so many great communities in Maine – I’m partial to South Portland and Gorham/Buxton with their diverse, yet in many ways, close-knit communities. This is partly because my grandchildren go to the schools there and we follow, and are involved in, some of their activities. Here are some possibly helpful links:
Bets of luck.
David, thank you so much: I am keeping all of these links. They are a great help and thank for letting me know your preferences, too.