Grace Orpen’s Local Donegal Dances, 1931

The book Dances of Donegal Collected by Grace Orpen, published in London in 1931, is the first published collection of Irish traditional dances from one locality, as distinct from earlier general collections that included dances from different regions.

It is essentially a tutor for couple and group dances in the then living tradition, and it provides music for each dance along with dance notation and verbal description and instruction. The music is arranged for piano but some of the melodies were originally played on fiddle and concertina. Like some other Irish dance collections of the period, it has connections with a contemporary interest in exercise and physical education.

Grace Orpen (1905–66), the compiler and editor of the collection, was a member of a family from Carrickmines, Co Dublin, which regularly spent summer holidays in the Dunfanaghy area of Co Donegal. Her book is still in copyright and is reproduced here with the generous permission of the Somerville-Large family, who are the copyright holders. Her son Bill Somerville-Large has kindly provided this further information on Grace Orpen and the background to her book.

Grace Somerville-Large (née Orpen)

Grace Anne Orpen (1905–66) was born in Carrickmines, Co Dublin and was the second daughter of Charles St George Orpen and Cherry Darley.

The Orpen family spent regular summer holidays in Donegal from 1915 to 1939, mostly in the Dunfanaghy area, where they rented Marble Hill from 1917 to 1927. In Marble Hill they regularly held ‘kitchen dances’, to which neighbours from the surrounding area would come. Among them was David McElhinney whose son, also David, played the fiddle. David’s eldest daughter, Jenny, was a great dancer and remembered dancing all night and putting her head under the pump before going to work at Marble Hill the next morning.

Jenny married Harry Stewart, a farmer, who was killed in a farm accident. Jenny set up a guesthouse to which the Orpens went from 1927 to 1938. There were no more kitchen dances, but Grace would hum a tune and ask Jenny to name it. She had all the names. “And I'll lult [sic] it for you”, she would say. She would even dance to her own lilting.

Grace and her cousin Mary (Bunny) Orpen went to Donegal and wrote down Jenny's airs. They were helped with the harmonisation of the airs by Herbert Exshaw, organist of Stillorgan Church of Ireland church, who also used to spend holidays with the Orpen family in Donegal.

Grace trained as a PE teacher in Bedford College of Physical Education and worked in England for a while before getting the job as PE teacher in Alexandra College, Dublin. In 1931 and 1932 the Ling Society asked Grace to teach Irish dancing at their Summer School in London, during a week of folk dancing.

Grace's book, Dances of Donegal, was on sale during her two years at the Irish Countrywoman’s Association Summer School, 1931–32. It was subsequently on sale at the Country Shop, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, which acted as an outlet for the market of the products of Irish Craftworkers. Dances of Donegal sold out and was not reprinted.

Grace married Philip (Paddy) Somerville-Large in 1933 and was mother of Bill Somerville-Large. She died in 1966.

The above information has been contributed to the Irish Traditional Music Archive by Bill Somerville-Large, following conversations between Grace’s sister, Kathleen Delap, and their brother-in-law, Chalmers (Terry) Trench.

  ITMA would welcome the donation of other materials of this kind which are not yet in its collections (check our catalogues here), or of their loan for copying.

NC & MG, 1 June 2009