Dancing, the church, and post-colonialism

A black & white photograph of Countess Markievicz surrounded by a group of 15+ men and women on the night she was released from prison in May 1919. Everyone in the photograph is well-dressed in darkly-coloured suits and dresses, most also wearing hats. Markievicz is holding a bouquet of flowers and takes up the centre of the frame.

The gaining of independence in Ireland left the country free but wounded. With its newly gained freedom from the oppressive colonialism of the British Empire, the nation was in need of a powerful new sense of identity in order to undo the cultural erasure that the nation was subjected to over the course of nearly 800 years.

Img descr: Countess Markievicz surrounded by other Irish political figures the the day she was released form prion in 1919. Source.

The unfortunate overlapping of newly-gained independence with the stronghold the Catholic Church had on the country, meant that the construction of the ‘new Irish identity’ was intrinsically linked with the values and beliefs systems of the Church. This link is notable in much of the legislature of the new Irish constitution (Bunracht na hÉireann, 1937), and one of the many industries that was affected was that of the nightlife industry. Nolan notes that “The (sic) influence of Catholicism was not felt in many areas of administration under the new régime, but in specific areas, such as education and public morality (i.e. divorce, censorship, public dancing, and sexual matters), the influence was marked” (128). In 1935, the Public Dance Halls Act was brought into legislation. The act dictated that “No (sic) place whether licensed or not licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquor, shall be used for public dancing unless a public dancing license granted under this act is in force in respect of such place” (10.–(1)). This prohibited many spaces from operating, unless they conformed to the draconian regulations set by the church and state.

This act, which seems undeniably outdated, is still effective today with only a few amendments since 1935. The enforcement of this law has constrained the night-life industry’s ability to grow. Along with the infamous censorship of literature, films, television, and theater releases by the Irish State (Censorship of Publications Act; 1929); the music and dance industry was also heavily afflicted. These expressions of freedom and liberty were seen as counterproductive to the catholic agenda, and so extreme measures were taken to constrain them. The legislation surrounding the industry was harsh and oppressive for its time. Now, nearly 100 years on, they still inhibit the industry from prosperity. (Post on 80’s Rave Culture coming soon).

A browning poster with green lettering from 2012 which reads: "FIR AGUS MNÁ NA hÉIREANN DOWN WITH JAZZ. 24/25/26 AUGUST 2012. REMEMBER YOUR PATRIOTS. YOUR COMMUNITY NEEDS YOU. THE SCOURGE OF JAZZ WITH ITS FOREIGN RHYTHM AND DIABOLICAL  AIRS HAS NOT YET BEEN CLEANSED FROM ERIN'S BLESSED SHORES. PUBLIC RALLY. MEETING HOUSE SQUARE, TEMPLE BAR, DUBLIN 2".

Certain genres of music were even prohibited, as they seemed too ‘provocative’ for mass consumption by the public. (Post on the Anti-Jazz Campaign of 1934 coming soon).

Img descr: poster advertising an anti-jazz rally in 2012, which reads “DOWN WITH JAZZ”, and details of the time and date of event. The poster echoes sentiments of the 1934 Anti-Jazz protest that the church & state encouraged as part of the Irish nationalist movement. Source.

The racist and classist undertones of the Church’s belief systems catalyzed this campaign, as music which originated in black culture was prohibited. A demonstration took place in Mohill, Co. Leitrim in 1934, during which the attendees held up signs inscribed with anti-jazz and anti-pagan rhetoric (Brennan, 2011). The Irish state was interweaving its new ‘nationalist’ identity with racism, while decrying the ancient Irish traditions of pre-colonialist times. The new Irish identity was therefore not an authentic reflection of irishness, but instead it was seemingly just another symptom of British imperialism taking shape.

Commenting on the anti-jazz demonstration, Eamonn de Valera famously said, “I sincerely hope that the efforts of Conradh Na Gaeilge in your county to restore will be successful, and within the reasonable hours which have always been associated with Irish entertainment” (Duffy, 68). Due to this state-supported draconian mindset towards dancing and music, the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act was passed. The act imposed a legislative level of control over expressions of dance that were once endemic to pre-colonial Irish culture, thus bringing about nearly a century of restricted liberty in terms of public dancing and, subsequently, musical expression.


Works Cited:

  1. Brennan, Cathal. “The Anti-Jazz Campaign.” The Irish Story, 1st July 2011. https://www.theirishstory.com/2011/07/01/the-anti-jazz-campaign/
  2. Censorship of Publications Act, 1929. Irish Statute Book online. No. 21, 1929. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1929/act/21/enacted/en/print.html
  3. Duffy, Jonannah. “Jazz, Identity and Sexuality in Ireland during the Interwar Years.” IJAS Online, no. 1, 2009, pp. 62-71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26234239?seq=7#metadata_info_tab_contents
  4. Nolan, Michael. “The Influence of Catholic Nationalism on the Legislature of the Irish State.” Irish Jurist, vol. 10, no. 1, (Summer 1975), pp. 128-169. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44026219?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
  5. Public Dance Halls Act, 1935. Irish Statute Book online. No. 2, 1935. http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1935/act/2/enacted/en/print
  6. Townshend, Charles. “Religion, War, and Identity in Ireland.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 76, no. 4 (December 2004), pp. 882-902. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/427571?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents

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