Lives Remembered

Six decades at the vanguard of Irish dance

Anna McCoy pictured at the unveiling of an artwork celebrating her enormous contribution to cultural life

"I came from an ordinary part of Belfast, and when I was four, Anna took me by the hand and taught me Irish dancing, and led me into a world I never imagined I would experience."

The words of one of Anna McCoy's young charges capture the camaraderie and genuine friendships she nurtured over almost 60 years of teaching, spanning three generations in many Belfast families.

As leader of arguably the most famous Irish dancing team of the 20th century, she was highly sought-after for concerts and television performances and helped spread the style around world.

A commentator once wrote: "Apart from Riverdance no Irish group received so much publicity for Irish dance."

The eldest child of a family with deep roots in Gaelic sport, music and dance, Anna grew up near Carlisle Circus in north Belfast and could vividly recall the deadly German blitz of that part of the city on Easter Tuesday 1941, when she had to be taken home by her father from a performance at the Ceilidhe in the Ulster Hall.

Despite the privations of war and its aftermath, Belfast was a city with much to offer.

In addition to variety concerts and drama at The Empire and Opera House, there were lots of ceilidhes to keep young dancers on their toes and so, encouraged by Jim Johnston and later by Miss Ellie Mulligan, Anna came to love that form of expression which was to evolve into the rich tapestry of her creative life.

In 1943, having successfully sat for her `Senior` in St Dominic`s High School, and on the point of considering a spell at business school, she responded to the promptings of her boyfriend, Al McMurray, to sit for the newly-inaugurated Irish Dance Teachers Certificate.

In January the following year she welcomed the first members of the Anna McCoy School of Irish Dancing to a hall in Chapel Lane in Belfast city centre. From there she was fortunate to be able to attract pupils from all sections of the city.

Success came early. At the Oireachtas Rinnce in Dublin in February 1944, her pupils secured first place in the All-Ireland four hand reel.

As much a club as a venue for classes, Anna moved to larger premises in nearby King Street where, as before, her solo dancers and figure dance teams blossomed to find success at feiseanna and aeraíochtai throughout the island.

At an early stage her innovative instincts led her to explore the integration of traditional dance steps into pageants, fantasies and short dramatic productions that enriched many Sunday evenings in St Mary`s Hall.

The call of the Irish diaspora then beckoned in 1947 when Anna and her dancers were filmed in Botanic Gardens for Alan Macauley's 'Welcome to Ireland'.

In the wake of the film`s world premiere in White Plains, New York, enthusiasm turned into invitations and, in 1949, accompanied by the well known Derry dance teacher Brendan de Glin and soprano Eileen McIntyre, Anna and Al sailed from Cobh aboard the SS America for a six-week stay in the USA.

Appearing as `The Four Gaels', they gave concerts, exhibitions and dance workshops for many young Irish American dancers.

In the fifties Anna found new success as a choreographer. Never discarding traditional steps and footwork, she devised team dances stimulated by the intricate motifs of Celtic sources, such as the Book of Kells and Ardagh Chalice.

She said she was continually thinking of patterns, even as she was standing at traffic crossings.

Three very successful visits to the US saw the team participate in exhibitions and concerts in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, where their appearances on coast to coast television on The Arthur Godfrey Show, and a major St Patrick`s Day appearance in Carnegie Hall, captured not only Irish America but won national acclaim.

Back at home there were also repeated appearances in the `off beat` competitions organised by BBC TV for its series Come Dancing.

Succeeding teams continued to win All-Ireland championships, travelled to Europe and America and brought to an ever wider audience the traditional music and dance of Ireland.

Alas, it was with the virtual lock down of the city centre in the early seventies that the King Street classes had to be moved to the greater security of the outskirts.

Now being conducted in a variety of school and church halls, the organisational challenge was overcome by the dedication and continuing success of the pupils.

Finally retiring in 2005, Anna`s commitment to dancing involved her in administration and as an adjudicator, and she was chosen by Belfast City Council as one of the five iconic figures who since the late 18th century had made a significant contribution to cultural life.

Anna`s earthly existence ceased on March 14, but her spirit lives on, tangibly, and in the legacy she has bequeathed to those in many parts of the world where, Irish or not, they learn the beauty, grace and elegance of our native dance.

Many times she took my hand. Anna was my big sister.

Faoi an bhrat Bhríde go raibh sí.


Lives Remembered