16 November 2006
1 hour, 31 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Joan Dolan, a former McNiff dancer and founding member of the Bedford (NY) Ceili group, was born in Manhattan, New York in 1937. Her parents were both from near Cootehill in Co. Cavan, Ireland. After emigrating circa 1930 to the United States, Thomas Lynch (from Drumnatrade) settled with his aunts in Tenafly, New Jersey while her mother, Margaret (from Killarue), worked as a cook for a Miss Robinson in Providence, Rhode Island. They met in 1936 at a County Cavan Society dance in Manhattan and were married shortly thereafter at St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side. At the time their only child, christened Mary Johanna, was born, Thomas Lynch was working for Jack Frost Sugar in Long Island City.
In 1939, Margaret Lynch brought two-and-a-half year old Joan to Ireland to live with her McCaffrey grandparents. Shortly thereafter World War II broke out in Europe and the Lynch family remained separated until Christmas 1947. Joan was educated at the local national school in Killarue until 1948 when she was brought back to New York City by her parents. She attended St. John the Evangelist grammar school on East 55th Street until the family settled in an apartment on Third Avenue in Yorkville, when she enrolled in nearby St. Jean Baptiste High School on East 75th Street.
When Joan was twelve she took Irish step dancing lessons for one year from the Co. Kerry-born dancing master James T. McKenna (1885–1977). After graduating high school and going to work as a secretary in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Joan Lynch started dancing lessons again, this time with Peter and Cyril McNiff who had helped introduce a new “northern” style of Irish step dancing during the 1950s and whose students often appeared on national television, such as on the Ed Sullivan Show. As one of the McNiff ceili dancers, Joan Lynch performed and competed in the metropolitan area as part of a group rather than individually. During this four year period, she met Felix Dolan (b. 1937), a second-generation Irish traditional musician from the Bronx, who played piano for McNiff dance rehearsals. They married in 1959 and raised four children: Phelin, Siobhán, Brendan and Dierdre. Irish music and dance continued to define their married life, first in the Highbridge and Woodlawn sections of the Bronx, and later in Golden’s Bridge in Westchester County.
In 1981 the Dolans relocated to Paris for Felix’s work in information security with for IBM. Irish set dancing – an older group form distinct from both step and ceili dancing – was being revived in Ireland at the time and shortly thereafter generated great interest in the United States. When Joan Dolan returned to New York in 1984, she took up set dancing with a passion and became a founding member of the Bedford Ceili, a monthly Irish music gathering in Westchester that was a critical force in the local Irish set dancing revival. At the time of this interview, Joan Dolan was dancing with the Michael Coleman Music Club in Yonkers and helping to raise her seven young grandchildren.
Excerpt No. 1
From Killarue to Times SquareDisc 1, 2:01–5:01
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
JD: For some reason, when I was about two, my mom brought me back to Ireland to visit her mother and to leave me there for awhile. It was not an uncommon thing. I’ve spoken with many people who were in this position. But while I was there the war – the U.S. got into the war and it became very dangerous to bring people back. You just couldn’t do it. So I was there, I was left there. Then my parents decided that they would continue, that my mother would continue working and that they would come back to live in Ireland. And that was their goal for awhile. And in 1948 they came back with whatever money they had saved but it wasn’t enough to get them started in Ireland. It was just too expensive after the war. So we came back. So now I’m coming back with a mother and father that I don’t even know. That was quite an adjustment in itself. When we got back here, there was no place to be found to live here either. My father, luckily, had not given up his job. He had a pretty steady job. He worked for the Jack Frost Sugar company. Luckily he had kept his job. They had not kept the apartment so there was no place to live. So, for our first year back here, we lived in an apartment with two other – with a mother and daughter and a granddaughter. We had one bedroom in their apartment for a year. And I went to school – that was in 56th Street in New York – I went to school there in St. John the Evangelist. Within – by the end of that school year, my mother through some contacts – because that’s where they had lived before they went back to Ireland – she had found an apartment for us on Third Avenue and 76th Street, right beside the elevated train. In fact, it stopped at the door, at our window. It stopped and started, so we had double noise, stopping and starting, but, you know, you get used to it.
MC: And in Cavan, were you in the country?
JD: In the country.
MC: Yeah, where in Cavan?
JD: The town, the nearest town was Cootehill but we were out in the country, three miles, on a very small farm because it was grandparents at this stage. My grandfather worked in a flax mill nearby.
MC: What did they call that townland or village?
JD: Oh, the village would be Killarue.
MC: Killarue. So it was a world apart to come to 3rd Avenue.
JD: Oh, my gosh. Arrived here and the first couple of days we stayed in a hotel in Times Square. I’ll never forget it. From Killarue to Times Square. Oh my gosh! The honking of the horns – it was unbelievable!
Excerpt No. 2
McKenna and the McNiffsDisc 1, 24:58–30:31
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
AC: You spoke a little bit about music, when did you start with music?
JD: When I came back [to New York].
AC: When you came back.
JD: The great thing that happened, about a year after I came back, roughly, my parents took me for Irish dancing lessons to a man named McKenna. Guess you’ve heard of him.
MC: Oh, James McKenna.
JD: James McKenna. He was teaching in the Leitrim House, Third Avenue and 59th Street, in the upstairs room. They took me there and I started with dancing lessons and, of course, music. You had to have music. I can remember being home in the apartment and trying to – specifically, I remember trying to get the hornpipe in time to the music. And I remember the day I got it! I felt so good! Because you go along, you know, learning the rudiments of it, and the very basic, but then getting it to the music is a whole other story.
AC: For those of us who might not know what a hornpipe is, could you explain that and how you’d go about getting it on beat, and getting the music?
JD: Oh, boy!
MC: That’s a big question.
JD: Well, there’s a jig, a reel, and a hornpipe, the basic Irish step dancing – tunes, I guess, or, dances, and then the music goes with it. You have to recognize the music that goes to each one.
MC: Is that what McKenna started you on, hornpipes first? Not the jig?
JD: No. I’m sure he started me on the jig. The jig must have come easier. It must have just been easier. The hornpipe for some – I know, it was single jig, you start with single jig. It’s just –
MC: Jump in, kick out, and one, two, three, four.
JD: Yeah, you know it, it’s simple enough. It’s when you start battering, which would be similar to tap dancing, when you’re doing the battering –
MC: The beats.
JD: – getting that to the music. And that’s – I imagine I did single jig. The reels are easy enough but then – there would have been double jigs, too – but it’s the hornpipe that I had the difficulty with.
MC: Yeah, when the feet become percussion for the music, it’s harder.
JD: Yeah, yes.
MC: So why, do you know why your parents made that decision? Or do you remember asking them for step –
JD: To take me for dancing lessons? No, I don’t. No, they just took me.
MC: But a decision that changed your life.
JD: Absolutely. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed
MC: What do you remember about McKenna? Can you describe him? What do you remember?
JD: Pretty – well –
MC: He was fairly old at that stage, was he?
JD: Yeah, he was. He was. Pretty strict, I guess, but nothing remarkable. I guess what would be expected of a dance teacher. You just got up on the line and he stood out there and did it. He had you do it, then he had you do it one at a time, and he corrected you.
MC: Were you afraid of him?
JD: Afraid of him? No, I wasn’t. No, I wasn’t afraid of him.
MC: Did he think you were a good dancer? Did he ever say it?
JD: He never said and I only danced for a year with him. I don’t know why I stopped. But I had been introduced to music. I can remember listening to Myles O’Malley on the tin whistle playing out at the house and realizing that I liked it. But then I stopped dancing and, when I returned to dancing, I was nineteen and that was a remarkable experience to me. At that time, there was a ceildhe band out from Ireland – they used to bring them out, they still do. They came out to do concerts and they were appearing at the Jaeger House on a Sunday afternoon. And my mother and I and a bunch of friends went to hear them. And, at this point, the McNiff dancers were well established actually and they had their practices on Sundays in a place called the Kopling House on 89th Street. And they came in after their dance practice to hear the band. And they were invited to get up and give us a step, you know, that would be the protocol. So they got up across the top of the hall, about ten or fifteen of them, and they danced and I said, “Oh, my God, I have to do that! I just have to, I have to get back into that.” Then I got a couple of my friends, there were some Irish, some Irish-American, and we went to the class and started dancing as adults. Now – so, that was pretty much ceili dancing, group dancing. We did step dancing but if you’re starting at nineteen I don’t know how great you’re going to be and I never got to be a great step dancer. But I loved the ceili dancing.(1)
- Andrew Ciancimino [AC]
- Marion R. Casey [MC]
- Joan Dolan, 16 November 2006. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- The McNiff Dancers, circa 1957. Photo ourtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan (kneeling, second from right).
- The McNiff Dancers at a concert in honor of Irish tenor Edmund Browne at the Henry Hudson Hotel in Manhattan, NY, circa late 1950s. Musicians, left to right: Andy McGann, Jerry Wallace and Larry Redigan. Dancers, left to right: Peter Smith, Joan McNiff, Peggy Buckley (kneeling left), Joan Lynch (kneeling right), Mike Bergin, Hannah O’Sullivan, and Cyril McNiff. Tenor Edmund Browne in white jacket; soprano Maureen Walsh in black blouse in front of Irish flag. Photo by Gramercy and Verna, New York City, courtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan.
- Joan Lynch and Felix Dolan on their wedding day, 24 October 1959. Photo courtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan.
- In 1978 Cyril McNiff told the New York Times, “The traditional patterns for ceili dancing, or party dancing for groups of 8 or 16, are based on rural life. There are square figures to represent the fields, circles for wheels and a rush to the center to represent the harvest stack-up. Everybody knows the song ‘Oh, the days of the Kerry dancers’ and there are ‘Kerry sets’ of dances but also ‘Clare sets’ and those representing other counties.” Laurie Johnston, “For the Reel Thing, Come to the Ceili,” The New York Times, 6 January 1978, p. C1.