Michael Tubridy’s life in music and Irish traditional step dance

This guest blog was written by Laura Mannion, a student on the Masters in Performance and Musicology at Maynooth University. As part of her course Laura completed a five-week internship in ITMA and worked with ITMA staff to prepare a digital version of the 2nd edition of A selection of Irish traditional step dances by Michael Tubridy. In the process, she also conducted an interview with Michael about his life and music.

Michael tubridy laura mannion
Michael Tubridy with Laura Mannion in ITMA, March 2022

Michael Tubridy was born in 1935 in Kilrush, Co. Clare. He plays tin whistle, flute and concertina and is also a step dancer. He was a member of Ceoltoirí Chualann, led by Seán Ó Riada, and was a founder member of The Chieftains. He also played with the Castle Céilí Band.

As a child, one of his first musical influences would have been his mother’s brother who lived nearby and would visit every Sunday morning. There was a fiddle in the house that he would take down for his uncle to play. He had no formal lessons in his youth, but learned to pick up tunes and musical ideas from other musicians in the bands he played with.

In my interview with Michael Tubridy on the 29th of March, he recalled going to the horse races near his home. One of the stalls had a gramophone that played the tune Off to California on a loop. When he got home that evening he went out onto the family farm with his tin whistle and tried to bring out the tune he had been listening to all day. At that time, he was not certain he would ever hear it again.

He also told me that the flute he plays was made by a man named Wylde, who had worked with Rudall and Rose in London, and dates from the 1830’s/1840s. He bought this instrument for thirty shillings when working in London and continues to use it to this day.

Michael’s style of playing is not forceful, yet it creates a strong rhythm which is maintained by the subtle use of ornamentation and articulation. He does not overpower the sweetness of the melody, and remains faithful to the pure traditional music he heard as a child.

One of my fondest memories when looking back would be when we were invited down to play in Wexford for a Festival. We were in a room and a manager came in to ask us if we would fill in for this Rock band. We went out onto the stage, and I can only imagine what they thought looking at this group with uilleann pipes and bodhráns. By the time we were finished, they were asking for more. We could not believe it. Joe Lustig then put a proposal to us that if we came and played at the Royal Albert Hall and if he filled it, ‘will you take me on as manager?’ We started with ‘O’Neills March’, and I opened it.
Michael Tubridy on the beginning of The Chieftains

Later in his life, he pursued an interest in Irish traditional step dance. This gave him a unique perspective on the collective unit of both the music and the dancer - each complementing and guiding one another. His wife Céline, a wonderful step-dancer, taught him the dances she had learned - both as a child in Northwest Donegal from the travelling dance masters, and later from Dan Furey and James Keane.

Céline and Michael Tubridy
Céline and Michael Tubridy

As a dancer myself I was delighted to get the opportunity on my placement to work on the digital edition of Michael Tubridy’s dance book A Selection of Irish Traditional Step Dances. This book was first published in 1998 with 9 dances and a DVD. A digital version of the first edition was made available on the ITMA website in 2015, and a 2nd edition of the book with a further 9 dances was published in 2018. It is a guide to step dancing featuring the steps of renowned Clare dancing masters James Keane and Dan Furey, using a unique system of notation of Michael’s own invention.

A selection of Irish traditional step dances, cover

Michael told me in the interview that at the time he was developing the notation his wife Céline was teaching a dancing class. He explained the notation to the class and it gave him great encouragement to continue when a Danish girl was able to dance the steps directly from the page.

Céline and I were asked to go to the Reading Clog Dancing Festival in London. The organisers asked Céline to write out the steps, so I did that for her, and subsequently handed them out at her class back in Dublin. Terry Moylan was in the class and brought it to Mary Friel. She could follow them, so he asked me would I like to put all the dances in book form.
Michael Tubridy

Nine dances from the first edition of the book were already on the ITMA website, and for my placement I would work with ITMA staff to publish the next nine dances from the second edition, and create a page on the site that would pull all of the resources together in one place. Michael had very generously given ITMA permission to publish the book alongside the videos, making both the instructional video and the notation available for anyone who wanted to learn a dance. It was exciting to be part of this endeavour which I knew would go a long way to help keep the step dancing tradition alive.

Pat Murphy, the videographer, had given ITMA two videos containing all the material for the second set of dances. My first task was to identify the start and end times of each dance in the video and this information helped ITMA staff to edit the original video into nine separate ones. I also detailed the spoken instructions and individual steps as they were presented in the video footage itself. I learned that these time-codes would make it easier for users to learn the dances, as it would allow them to go directly to a particular step within a dance.

The next task was to upload the material to YouTube and then create a page for each dance in the Content Management System of the ITMA website. The link to the YouTube video was included on this page, along with a link to a PDF of the dance notation and the metadata about the recording of the video. The final step was to bring all of these pages together into one place.

The result is a page on the ITMA website featuring videos of all eighteen dances – each performed in full and then slowly with voice-over instructions – the notation for each dance and a download of the full book itself.

Dan Furey / unidentified photographer
Dan Furey / unidentified photographer
Dan Furey / unidentified photographer

Dan Furey / unidentified photographer


I am very familiar with reading scores for vocal or instrumental music but the notation for the steps of the individual dances has helped me see Irish dancing differently. I decided to use the notation from Michael Tubridy’s book and learn a step dance myself. As a former contemporary Irish dancer I was used to dancing on my toes, with my feet turned out and hands by my side. The whole body is one with the music. In traditional step dance however, it is what the feet are doing that is of the utmost importance.

I learned a dance called An Gabhairín Buí. This was a dance that Michael and Céline had learned from Dan Furey and it is danced around two sticks placed on the ground.

An Gabhairín Buí, set dance

A page from An gabhairín Buí written out in Michael Tubridy's unique notation

In former times it would be danced using two brushes lying across each other, and this required much agility on the part of the dancer, but Dan made his own sticks by notching them where they crossed so that they could lie flat on the floor.
Michael Tubridy

It turned out that the tiles in my kitchen were the perfect measurement for me to practice, and I cut myself a pair of sticks for the video recording.

Thank you to Michael Tubridy, ITMA Librarians, Treasa Harkin and Róisín Conlon, and Stephanie Ford for their guidance in this musical project.

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This blog was created in association the Department of Music at Maynooth University. Students undertook a five week placement as part of their course and gained experience in research and web publishing.