Céilí dancing is the traditional group dance of Ireland that has been performed in the Emerald Isle for nearly 500 years. Its history in Portland doesn’t go back quite as far, but it is still venerated within the community and consecrated by four decades and counting of robust participation. Started by Mary Rose Kerg and Brother Eugene Traynor (a Servite friar) in 1978 and named for the county in Ireland from which Traynor hailed, the Tir Eoghain (Tyrone) Dance Group continues to bring céilí dancing to the masses every Tuesday night.
“Céilí dancing is a lot like square dancing—it’s pattern dancing—set to Irish music,” says Kerg of the dance. “It’s very popular in Ireland, and here too.” Unlike the jigs and reels many are familiar with, which were made wildly popular the world over by shows like “Riverdance,” céilí is much closer to American contra or square dancing, though it is still performed to traditional Irish music.
There are a wide variety of different céilí dances, including ones with lines of men facing lines of women and dances where different numbers of couples dance together in circles and other formations, switching partners along the way. There are dances with callers, like square dancing, and without. The tradition has been around since the 1500s, but really gained steam as a popular national tradition in the late 1800s.
Mary Rose Kerg has been living in the Pacific Northwest for more than a half a century, and she has been a member of the Portland All-Ireland Social Club for nearly as long. She eventually rose to the rank of president in 1978, the same year the céilí dance group was formed. It was during the celebrations for her election to president of that club—the first woman to do so—that she met Traynor and he pitched her on an idea to use folk dancing to attract more young people to the cultural social club. At that time the group focused little on the arts and more on social gatherings and politics. Brother Eugene passed away in January of this year, and Kerg continues to keep his memory and the beautiful tradition of Irish dance alive.
“We started at Queen of Peace Church in North Portland, and then we came over to St. Rita’s multipurpose room, and we were there for 20 years,” says Kerg of the tenacious group of dancers. Along the way, they spawned the Portland Céilí Society, which has now itself been around for over 35 years, giving Southwest Portland a céilí outlet, and a group that sprung up in Tualatin led by accomplished caller and upholder of the Irish tradition, Sam Keator. Now the Tir Eoghain group have moved into the St. Therese Parish on Northeast 132nd Avenue and Halsey Street, where they’ve happily spent the last year and will continue to dance for the foreseeable future.
“Most of the time the music is from CDs, but sometimes we have a three-piece band play and people dance to that,” says Kerg.
They usually get between 12 and 15 attendees but have gotten as many as 50 dancers in the church. “One thing about it is it’s great exercise,” says Kerg about the pastime, noting that there’s no age limit, and the age range goes from 12 to 65 for usual attendees.
“We’d love to have more people. Some of these dances can be two people, four, six, eight—and kind of like square dancing, the more the merrier as they go through the whole routine,” says Kerg, “so we would love to get the word out, because a lot of people don’t know about céilí dancing.” For class information, call Kerg at 254-1377, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.