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A Step in Time: the story of Irish Dance at home and away

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After a showing at the Ulster Folk & Transport Gallery from 2014 to 2017, the exhibition ‘A Step in Time’ has moved to The Ulster American Folk Park in Omagh, where it opened on 15th June 2018.

The full title of the new exhibition is ‘A Step in Time; the story of Irish Dance at home and away’ to reflect the fact that, this time around, the exhibition content includes a look at how Irish emigrants in the USA and Canada have maintained their links with their mother country through traditional arts and culture, including Irish Dance.

The exhibition has been enhanced by the inclusion of new material sourced and collected by colleagues Pat O’Donnell and Fiona McClean at UAFP. Now visitors in the gallery can listen to the stories of Joan Dolan and Donny Golden, in their own words, as they recall their memories of learning Irish Dance.

New content also includes a beautiful dance dress from the Anna McCoy School in Belfast. This dress has been kindly loaned by Teresa McQuillan, sister of the late Anna McCoy. Since the exhibition, in its original form, was first shown at Cultra there has been continued interest in the collection of costumes and archival material at UFTM relating to Irish Dance, with several recent acquisitions by the museum of dance dresses. The work of developing the Irish Dance collection at National Museums NI is ongoing and will be include in the collecting policy for the museum over the next few years.

As with all exhibitions, a lot of work is undertaken ‘behind the scenes’ before and during installation, to ensure that all the content is presented to best effect and the story told clearly. The team for ‘A Step in Time’ has included curators, a graphic designer, technical staff for the set and lighting, a care of collections officer, object handlers, a picture library executive, ICT manager and audio technical officer. Many hands make light work!

Image: National Museums NI Care of Collections officer Julie Anne Tolerton adjusts costume in the exhibition gallery before it goes on display.
National Museums NI Care of Collections officer Julie Anne Tolerton adjusts costume in the exhibition gallery before it goes on display.
Image: Behind the scenes.  A view of the exhibition gallery during installation.
Behind the scenes. A view of the exhibition gallery during installation.

Images play a crucial role in this exhibition, bringing it to life, quite literally, for the visitors. In this respect National Museums NI has very rich resources to work with. Some of the large b/w images in the exhibition have been selected from the F.J.Bigger Collection of photography at National Museums NI. This archive includes photographs taken at the first Feis in the Glens of Antrim, which opened on 30th June 1904. One of these images shows a young dancer, Cassie McNeill of Carnlough, in full flow. Note how the raised stage gave the audience a good view of her fancy footwork – and how those who attended the event were all decked out in their best clothes (the hats!). Cassie has become something of a ‘poster girl’ for the exhibition and she now appears at the gallery entrance, larger than life, to invite viewers inside.

Image: BELUM.Y10008 Cassie McNeill pictured as she competes in Irish Dance at the 1904 Feis, Waterfoot, Co. Antrim.
BELUM.Y10008 Cassie McNeill pictured as she competes in Irish Dance at the 1904 Feis, Waterfoot, Co. Antrim.

The resulting exhibition will be on show at The Ulster American Folk Park until June 2019 and will be accompanied by a full programme of related activities and event (see the exhibition page).

Image: A view of the section showcasing a number of class costumes, from 1955 to 1985
A view of the section showcasing a number of class costumes, from 1955 to 1985

Incidentally, in case anyone is wondering – the section titles for the exhibition e.g. The Set of Erin, School Dance, Northern Style, Blaze Away etc. have all been taken from pieces of music or dance styles. So, now you know!

Pleased to say that women feature prominently throughout the exhibition. One of the first sections in the exhibition, ‘The Set of Erin’, displays a recreation of an outfit worn by Brigid Quinn of Banada in County Sligo, in 1911. Others include a dress and shawl worn by Netta Long in 1933 and an outfit worn by Irish Champion dancer Pat Bond (nee Henderson) in 1955.

Follow this exhibition blog over the coming weeks as I tell the stories behind these and other exhibits in ‘A Step in Time: the story of Irish Dance at home and away’.

Curator of Costume and Textiles