Ireland House Oral History Collection

Joan Dolan

Joan Dolan, 16 November 2006. Photo by Marion R. Casey.

Created/Published:

16 November 2006

1 hour, 31 minutes

Preferred Citation:

Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University

Biographical Note:

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.

Click on image to enlarge.

  1. The McNiff Dancers, circa 1957. Photo ourtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan (kneeling, second from right).
  2. 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.
  3. Joan Lynch and Felix Dolan on their wedding day, 24 October 1959. Photo courtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan.

Interviewers:

Photo Credit:

  1. Joan Dolan, 16 November 2006. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
  2. The McNiff Dancers, circa 1957. Photo ourtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan (kneeling, second from right).
  3. 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.
  4. Joan Lynch and Felix Dolan on their wedding day, 24 October 1959. Photo courtesy of Joan Lynch Dolan.

Notes:

  1. 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.