Illustration by Brett Affrunti
My three companions have begun to grow weary with walking. We have been on the path toward Ross Castle for over an hour. By day four in this country our eyes have adjusted to the sight of castles and round towers and the hues of springtime. Dewy green hills roll on forever and meet the ubiquitous gray of stonework and sky. Sunlight on the Irish landscape is more glittering and verdant than a thousand daydreams could conjure.
We amble along past fences and pastures flecked with the shiny black coats of Kerry cattle. My friend reports that her boots are too tight. I sense a collective regret that we gave up seats at the pub and pints of Smithwick’s for this supposedly short jaunt from Killarney to the castle. Arrival times are ambiguous without GPS, leaving minds restless and legs heavy.
But tiredness has no place in my body. For weeks I’ve belted out “Ireland, I’m coming home” while Garth Brooks played on repeat in my car. For years I’ve dreamed of this land my ancestors left behind. So dear was the reverie that I was almost afraid to say yes to the trip. A part of my mind, or maybe my heart, resisted letting go of the imagined place and the anticipated adventure that sustained ordinary days with extraordinary possibility. It is always this way for me, with hopes held long and deep in my heart. Instinctively, I guard my dreams like secrets, keeping them close lest I cease to hear their whisper beneath the noise of routine. But today I allow dream and reality to mingle, because tonight we dance.
The ceili club meets at the Killarney Grand hotel’s first-floor pub. Ceili, pronounced “kay-lee,” is Irish for a social gathering involving music, dancing and general merriment. It also denotes the traditional figure dances that have been performed at such gatherings for centuries. I first heard the word six years earlier as a senior at Notre Dame. A hundred students and I shuffled and hopped sheepishly in Professor James McKenna’s Irish American tap class. We were soon tapping along to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and the jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” But when we learned the ceili, I fell in love.
With my back straight like a soldier and feet wild like rebellion, I learned to dance a ceili jig. We lined up and joined hands with our neighbors in rows of four facing four. Hopping forward with the rhythm, each row advanced toward center then retired, like two sides of an accordion. I loved the beat our shoes made when they landed in unison and the floaty feeling that I was momentarily suspended in air between footfalls. We took hands in a circle and rotated, seven steps to the right, seven steps to the left. We spun like a giant clock. We blurred time. We stumbled, laughed, collided and formed a pattern that repeated as each group of four progressed up the room, dancing with the next group. Music and movement swept into me like a wave that, as it retreated, carried away the stress of exams and the unknown of life after graduation. With each heel-click I felt my spirit buoyed. I was bolstered on the wave.
Learning to dance, I gained perhaps the most valuable lesson. To dance requires a suspension of disbelief in oneself. To enter the dance, knowing that failure is possible and sometimes quite likely, is to reach past fear and find joy. When Professor McKenna said people in Ireland still do ceilis in pubs, I decided I would go to Ireland — and dance a ceili in a pub.
The adventure is afoot in Killarney. We dance tonight at 9. The ramble to Ross Castle is but an enjoyable prelude to the evening’s events. The fields give way to tall trees whose branches reach out like dancers’ arms raised in arches above us. My thoughts flit among fiddles and flutes.
I cannot recall whether we walk back to town or ride in a horse-drawn jaunting car. My mind leaps forward to the pub where an unperturbed barkeep sits behind a long bar. In the corner three musicians perch on stools and plunk out a traditional tune. I turn a full circle and survey a deserted cluster of spindly chairs and tables. I feel my throat constrict. No one else is here. No one is dancing. Can this be the ceili club? An open doorway at the far end of the bar beckons. We press on to another room with a larger bar and a raised stage, but the lights are dim and the stage is empty. This can’t be it.
We stumble through another pair of doors to a hallway where a man with spiky, orange hair smiles at us. “Are you dancing?” he asks, “Or here to watch?” “Dancing!” I clamor, relieved. He glances at us quizzically. “Do you know the set dances?” “Yes!” I nearly shout, as my friends chime in, affirmatively. “Okay,” he chortles, “I’ll take 10 euro for the lot of you. Be sure to introduce yourselves.” We stride into yet another bar with a wide dance floor. A portly gentleman pumps the accordion while a woman accompanies on flute. He hollers the next set and the dance floor awakens. Some 20 couples maneuver seamlessly in groups.
We sit down to observe. Age outnumbers youth. Men with wrinkled brows and plaid shirts spin gray-haired women in floral dresses. A gal in a skirt and sleeveless shirt flicks her feet in tempo. Three lads wearing Gaelic football jerseys spring along athletically. One of them leaps into the air and whoops, switching places with his partner. Most dancers wear dark leather shoes, slightly stacked at the heels and toes. I am mesmerized by the footwork. The style is quick, loose and somewhat improvisational. It is like nothing I have seen before. I try to decipher the set, but everything is a blur.
When the song concludes, I hesitantly approach the accordion player and inquire how to join. He picks up the mic and gestures towards me. “This young lady would like nothing more than to give this a go. Would anyone be her partner?” Time stagnates. I stare out at the faces now peering back at me. No one volunteers. My face burns and I want to shrink back to my seat. The voice repeats, “Who will be her partner?” Mercifully, a woman steps forward and says her name is Annette. She introduces me to her group, and I fumble as the song begins. “Just get your 1-2-3s,” Annette guides. She is right. We dance two jigs and a reel. Then my friend Kara joins in, as do an American couple and an Irish woman whose footwork is rusty. We dance a crazy, frolicking set. I take a turn with an Irishman whose hands feel like leather. We twirl and gain speed as the room expands like laughter.
The cadence continues like an echo. And my feet are music. They are rain that patters the roof and lulls me to a place somewhere between waking and dreaming. They are the rhythm of familiar voices that float upstairs through the vent in Grandma’s kitchen and circle round my ears when I am supposed to be asleep. They are the hum of siblings too seldom gathered, of aunts and uncles still storytelling as clock hands push past midnight. My feet are patterns. They are chants that connect me to people and places long passed. But I have never felt more in the present. Repetitious beats flow from me and I hear my heart pulse. I feel it rise up from my chest to meet the flute’s melody.
And I watch them: my heart and the jig. They take hands and spin with delight.
Ginny Varraveto’s essay is one of three second-place winners of the 2020 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Varraveto dances with the Driscoll School of Irish Dance in Kansas City, where she works as a program manager for an information technology company.