The 1935 Dancehall Act was passed in the atmosphere of racism and media hysteria which surrounded jazz. Originally intended to target this salacious newcomer it had a serious detrimental effect on the practice of traditional music in the countryside. Justin Cans takes a look at how it has had serious repercussions ever since.
My first introduction to this bedevilment of the Irish Statue Book came around the year 2008, when at the end of a night of daaycent raving in an undisclosed venue in Dublin City Centre, a load of gardaí showed up and started spouting on about not having a dancing license.
‘A dancing license? What, for dancing like?’ You have got to be fiddling me I thought, whilst it was elaborated that The Public Dance Halls Act of 1935 apparently is where all this dancing license business comes from.
Surely this was a piece of law written by a colonial oppressor, a draconian paymaster? Upset in their belly that all around the country, subjects were gathering around fireplaces for a bit of a knees up and a chat about the ails of the time and other rebellious mutterings.
Nope, the background to the act can be found in anti-jazz campaign of the early 1930s. An inherently racist campaign initiated by the moral crusade of the Catholic Church and various elements of the press and state. Jazz music spawned from a diverse web of influences and social conditions. Similar to what was happening in some parts of America it was denounced by press and pulpit, and regarded as a sexual and cultural threat.
The tendencies invoked in the listener for jiving and body-shaking to the fast paced rhythms were considered an invitation for sexual immorality. It was seen as leading to all types of abuses including illegitimate births and emigration irregardless of wider general social conditions and facts.
In Ireland a further cultural argument was also made against the jazz dances. An Irish Times article of 1929 claimed that “the nation’s proudest and most precious heritage was slipping from its grasp”. The Gaelic League, one of the most vocal proponents of the campaign, believed that the foreign music, “borrowed from the savages of the islands of the Pacific”, would destroy Irish faith and music. Public anti-jazz campaign meetings called for the training of young teachers in Irish music and dancing, and on occasion would finish with a ceilidh, a cupán tae and a hang sangwich.
The state bowed to the growing moral outcry, and the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935 was promptly penned and passed.
Ironically, in the years that followed the act had a devastating effect on Irish cultural traditions and music. The clergy started to build parish halls to house the now licensed public dances, and the state collected taxes. But as Junior Crehan wrote ‘country people found it hard to adjust and to them, the dance halls were not natural places of enjoyment; they were not places for traditional music, story-telling and dancing; they were unsuitable for passing on traditional arts’.
Crehan, a noted traditional musician from Co Clare, would later eloquently capture the impact that the act had on Irish culture after its implementation:
“It was this loneliness that I felt most of all; there was no one to swap tunes with, very few to talk about music, and the flag floors were silent. In corners, in attics, and on shelves, fiddles and flutes lay gathering spiders and cobwebs. There was no heart to play and I remember finding it a struggle to take down the fiddle and play a few tunes to oblige a neighbour. There seemed to be no point in it; the music was slipping away in spite of us.”
While the act itself refers only to dances in a public place, the interpretation of the legislation went further still. Gatherings in country houses were subject to dispersal. Breandán Breathnach writing in the 1980s noted that if the although the act shouldn’t have extended to private parties that was beside the point. ‘The local clergy and gardaí acted as if it did and by their harassment they put an end to this kind of dancing in those areas of rural Ireland where it still survived.’ In this way, gatherings of friends and neighbours were relabelled as “illegal” activities, and punters were instead directed to licensed dances. Presumably there would have been even exactly the same kind of moral temptations on offer but this time licensed and taxed by the state.
Now if my memory serves me correctly, and I seldom have cause to doubt it, although in fairness the old head could have been a little bit fuzzy at the time due to a few cans like. When I first heard about this back in 2008, were the actors of the state not at the same game still on that night? Nearly 80 years later and the Dance Hall Act is still being implemented to the detriment of Irish cultural life. For Junior Crehan, the implementation of the act meant “it was a lonely time for anyone interested in the music and all that it meant”. Little has changed.