A Handbook of Irish Dances by J.G. O’Keeffe & Art O’Brien

In 1914, the second edition of A Handbook of Irish Dances: with an Essay on their Origin and History, available here, was published in Dublin by M.H. Gill and Son. As with the first edition published in 1902, the dance manual gives instruction for 26 figure dances, taken mostly from the teaching of the London-based Kerry dance master Patrick Reidy, and Tadhg Sheáin Ó Súilleabháin from Glenbeigh, Co Kerry. The descriptions of these dances and their publication were the work of two prominent members of the Gaelic League of London: James George O’Keeffe (1865–1937) and Arthur Patrick O’Brien (1872–1949).

Art was born in London to a prosperous and established family, his father John Francis O’Brien being a native of Cork. He studied civil and electrical engineering and after working abroad returned to London in c. 1899. Late-Victorian London was the home of a variety of Irish cultural revivalist organisations such as the Southwark Irish Literary Club (founded 1883), the Irish Literary Society (1892), the Irish Texts Society (1896) and the Gaelic League of London (1896). Art O’Brien joined the Gaelic League of London in 1899, and gaelicised his name to Art Ó Briain… ‘thenceforth becoming a regular attendant at the classes and other gatherings’. At such gatherings, Art would have met one of the London League’s exhibition dancers Seamus O’Keeffe (James George O’Keeffe). A native of Kanturk, Co Cork, Seamus was steeped in the language, literature and dance of his native area. He was educated in Blackrock College, Dublin, and moved to London in 1885 to work as a civil servant in the War Office. As a member of the Irish Literary Society and the Gaelic League of London, he taught Irish-language classes. With the League, he and Kathleen O’Brien of Limerick taught step dancing classes in Madame Geree's Ballet Dance Parlours in Leicester Square, and with Liam O’Looney of Cork performed exhibition dances. London-based dance master Patrick Reidy introduced a repertory of group dances or ‘ceili’ dances such as 'The Siege of Ennis' and 'The Walls of Limerick' which were easier to learn. O’Keeffe and O’Brien visited Kerry following the Ballyvourney Feis in 1899 to add to their social dances and meet an increased demand for such dances. The role of the Gaelic League of London in introducing the concept of Irish ceili dancing is documented in the article 'The Beginnings of Ceili Dancing: London in the 1890s' available here. The popularity of such social dancing within the Gaelic League movement may well have provided the impetus to share and publish a description of the dances in 1902.  

Art O’Brien was to play a substantial role in nationalist politics following the outbreak of the First World War as a member of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in London, and in founding the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain (1920–21).  His political career was however marred by financial controversy and he removed himself from political life until 1933, but remained President of the Gaelic League of London until 1935.  Under Sean T. O’Kelly he was appointed Irish Minister to France and Belgium 1935–1938. He died in Dublin in 1949.

James George O’Keeffe was a respected and prolific editor of Irish-language texts as a member of the Irish Texts Society and Scoil Ard-Léinn na Gaeilge, publishing for example Táin Bó Cuailgne from the Yellow Book of Lecan with John Strachan and Buile Suibhne. In 1914 he was appointed a financial advisor for the British War Office in the United States and was awarded an OBE. in 1918. He died in Richmond, Surrey in 1937.

The second edition of the Handbook which we have digitised and made available on the ITMA site does differ from the 1902 edition but not in terms of the basic dance instructions. Of note also in the 1914 publishing is the use of Ireland’s first national trade mark ‘Déanta in Eireann’, reflective of the cultural and political nationalism of the period. The symbol was introduced in 1906.

ITMA thanks the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin Ireland for permission to upload the article by Art Ó Briain, 'Gaedhil thar Sáile: Some Notes on the Gaelic League of London' in The Capuchin Annual (1944), pp. 116–126, and also thanks Dr Brian Kirby, Provincial Archivist of the Irish Capuchins, for his help.

GT & MG, 1 April 2016