Step Dancing in the Ballybunion / Ballydonoghue Area

This area was very strong in its step dancing and some of them were legends in their time. History tells us that traditional dancing, as we have come to know it, was introduced to North Kerry by Tom Moore. Where Moore originated from is not clear. Some claim that he came from Clare while others state that he was from Belfast and came with a circus to North Kerry, where he remained and took up the teaching of dance as a way of making a living. Some of his pupils turned out to become the greatest masters of their time. The greatest of them all was Jerry Molyneaux better known as Jerry Munnix.

He was born in Gunsboro, Ballydonoghue around 1885 and was a blacksmith by trade; He was regarded by all who knew him as the greatest of masters. There is a story of a house wedding party which took place at Scanlan’s of Gortnaskeha in the early part of the last century and Mulnix was present. He was asked to dance “The Blackbird”.  A door was taken off the hinges and placed on the ground in the yard in front of the house. The Father of the bride was a renowned fiddle player of his time and his name was John Walsh of Clashmealcon Causeway. He was asked to supply the music for the dance. He was an old man then and his sight was failing. While playing for the dancer, he knew by the sound of the steps on the door that this man was no ordinary dancer. Later on in the evening he asked Mulnix, as a special request, if he would oblige him by dancing the same dance again, which he did. This time old John gave the fiddle to his son Jimmy to do the playing while he himself went down on his knees, so that he could get a closer look at the footwork of Mulnix. He stated afterwards that up to that day and up to the day he’d die that he could never imagine how any two feet could perform such intricate steps and this view is also expressed by all who ever saw Jerry Mulnix dance or learned from him.

Mulnix taught many fine dancers all over North Kerry, operating from village halls and private houses. In this area he had dancing schools at Dee’s of Lisselton and O’Connors of Balleigh. Timmy Leahy from Ballyeigh and now living in Causeway tells a story worth relating of other events in this dancing school. A few pints of porter was always available for Jerry to cool his thirst after a strenuous hour of teaching. This was usually kept in the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen and during a break he would retire to the bedroom to consume the precious liquid. One night before the break, Timmy visited the bedroom and made “short work” of the contents and filled the bottle with water. When Mulnix went to the room for his break and discovered what had happened he was not one bit amused. He returned to the kitchen with the intention of finding out who the culprit was. All the men were standing along by the wall, he stood in front of each man and stared him straight in the face for a few seconds but when he came to Timmy, he stared him closely for a much longer period than the others, but says Timmy, “I never as much batted an eyelid”, and Mulnix moved on to the others without success.

The charge for each lesson was at one time as low as four old pence, but money was scarce in those days. Those who could afford to pay did and others picked up the steps from them. At the end of the year, Mulnix would stage a local concert where the pupils could display their talents. Liam was born in Lisselton and was one of the most talented step dancers of that era and he won many of the top competitions. He made several television appearances in his time with Jerry Nolan, Seán Cahill, Willie Goggin, Maura Kissane and Jack Lyons. He was well regarded by Fr. Pat Ahern and performed in Siamsa Tire in Tralee. His sudden passing away was a great shock not only to his family but to all his many friends. May he rest in Peace.

Jack Lyons

Jack the man of many talents was regarded as one of the best step dancers in the area. He was also a dancing teacher and taught several pupils in his time. I often heard that some of his pupils turned out to be better dancers than him. He learned from the great Jerry Mulnix and I knew of no other step dancer in North Kerry outside of Jack Lyons that could dance so many different steps of jigs, reels, hornpipes as well as many set dances including “The Blackbird”, “The Garden of Daisies”, “The Job of Journeywork”, “The Wearing of the Green”, “St. Patrick’s Day”, etc.. He lived very near to where Mulnix resided and they spent a lot of time together. Long sessions of traditional dance teaching is a mighty energy sapping and thirsty business and the pub was often visited by some of these people to help them regain lost energy.

Mulnix was one of those who would enjoy such a visit. Lyons knew this and he also knew that Mulnix would be reluctant to give his best steps to his pupils, so Jack would often take him to a quiet pub and treat him to his favourite beverage. During these sessions, Jack succeeded in getting many of these fancy steps and different dances. According to him Mulnix could demonstrate the steps by using his fingers on the bar counter and passed them on to Jack who in turn picked up this skill. Jack was well known in North Kerry and outside of the area. He appeared on RTE television on several occasions with local step dancers, Liam Tarrant, Maura Kissane, Jerry Nolan, Willie Goggin, Sean Cahill and Michael O’Carroll.

Mossie Walsh

Mossie is one of a small number of those people who is still with us and who was lucky enough to have been taught by such a great teacher. He comes from the Ballydonoghue area and is still giving great performances. He tells a very interesting story about an All-Ireland senior dancing competition that was held in Killarney in his young days. The people of the area persuaded Mulnix to enter. The night before the competition Jerry was up very late at some party and the following day they were taken to Killarney on a lorry. In the competition there were nineteen dancers from different counties and each of them had to dance five dances, namely hornpipe, a blackbird, a reel, a jig and the Garden of Daisies. Mulnix got first place in every dance so there were great celebrations afterwards. The following year when the other dancers discovered that Mulnix was taking part they would not compete against him and for a second time he collected all the medals.

Other well-known step dancers  

John Joe O’Donnell, Kilgarvan. Michael Fitzgerald, Ballyconry and Brendan O’Sullivan, Leanscane.