Dance Hall Days

Love, livelihood, and left hooks in an Irish key
Episode Trailer

What did Irish Boston look like in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s? What were the days of social dance halls all about?

Sue Lindsay, Joanie Madden, Kevin Doyle, Helen Kisiel, and Brian O’Donovan tell tales about this colorful time in Irish American history… and about immigration in an Irish key.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Michele Sims, John Mullen, Kerstin Otten, Brian Benscoter, William Dodd, Jack McCreless, and Mark Johnson.

Episode 14: Dance Hall Days
Love, livelihood, and left hooks in an Irish key
This Irish Music Stories episode aired March 13, 2018

– transcript edited by John Ploch –

Speakers, in order of appearance:

>> Shannon Heaton:  flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories.
>> Kevin Doyle:  Rhode Island-born dancer and 2014 National Heritage Fellow who performs old style traditional Irish step dance and American tap dance
>> Susan Gedutis Lindsay:  Massachusetts-based flute/sax player, writer, and educator
>> Joanie Madden:  Bronx-based Irish flute and whistle player and composer who founded internationally acclaimed band Cherish the Ladies
>> Brian O’Donovan:  Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production
>> Helen Kisiel:  Watertown Massachusetts-based piano player who played with many great Boston legends, including fiddle player Seamus Connolly and her musical companion for over three decades, Brendan Tonra.


>> Shannon: Before I start the show, I wanted to say thank you. Thank you to everybody for listening. And thank you for sharing episodes with your friends. And a very special thank you to this month’s donors, read by my son Nigel:

>> Nigel: Thank you to:  Michele Sims, John Mullen, Kerstin Otten, Brian Benscoter, William Dodd, Jack McCreless, and Mark Johnson.

>> Shannon: Thank you. Your support helps me pull Irish music stories together to share with everybody.

If you can kick in, please visit And Thank you.

AND, I’m Shannon Heaton… and this is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music, and the much bigger stories behind it…

[ Music: “Free the Heel,” from Kitchen Session
Artists/Composers: Matt & Shannon Heaton ] 

… like the 1950s dance hall fights that step dancer Kevin Doyle remembers:

>>Kevin Doyle:  Sometimes there’d be football games in Boston, and stuff like that. And sometimes the rival football teams would be all coming down and, uh, they’d all meet at the dance and everything like that. And sometimes it would be some chaos and someone would step on somebody’s toe, I guess.  All hell would break loose, and then you know… (Laughter)


>>Shannon:  Ok, there’s nothing funny about a real fight. Violence is awful.

But I don’t know. When you step back in time, and you talk about rival football teams meeting up at a dance and, well, stepping on each other’s toes, it feels more slapstick—at least the way that Kevin Doyle tells it.

[ Music: “John’s Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton

And maybe that’s because Kevin is still busy doing things today. He’s moved on from the 1950s and 60s. But he’s happy to share stories. And when I hear Kevin talk about his Irish family, or his time driving a city bus, I hear perspective and gratitude. Kevin appreciates where things are coming from. And he’s still going places.

That’s one approach.

[ Music: “Hometown Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Then there’s another take on the past—that it was better. Simpler. More wholesome. That we should head back to those days when, when what? When dads worked? When moms raised families and hung laundry on the clothesline? 

Before feminism denigrated the family. Before the pesky internet came along. 

Before Black Lives Mattered? 

Come on. Today is tough. But back then was tough, too. And for Irish immigrants, their story was usually working to make ends meet and send money back to Ireland. By all accounts it was tough to survive and beat the loneliness and isolation that those immigrants found here. 

Their struggles paved the way for the Irish Dance hall scene. Most active in post-WWII America from 1946 ‘til ‘67, Irish people living in Boston, New York, Providence, Philly, and Chicago danced their cares away on the weekends. 

[ Music:: “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover,” from B-side of The Big Brass Band from Brazil (1948)
Composer: Mort Dixon and Harry M. Woods
Artist: Art Mooney, vocals, with Mike Pignatore, banjo ]

Dance hall scenes like the one in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood shaped people’s lives. It got them through. And then it came to an end. So, what was the rise and fall of dance halls all about? And if we could go back, would we?

[ Music: “Celtic Grooves,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt & Shannon Heaton

Flute player Sue Lindsay’s book “See You At The Hall” explores that dance hall scene in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Back then, from neighborhoods all over Boston, you could take the Blue Line train straight to Dudley Street. 200 yards off the train, you had your pick of five dance halls. And for about 20 years, Irish immigrants and Irish Americans packed those halls. They went for a taste of home. They went to tap in to the 1950s ballroom craze sweeping the U.S—and they went to meet people.

Sue and I talked about the old Roxbury dance halls in her sunny home office. All of her solar powered lucky cats waved and danced on the windowsill, so you’ll hear a few taps from the cats as we chat.

>>Shannon:  Can you tell us a bit about the scene?  What this all meant for the people who were flocking to Roxbury to dance on the weekends to socialize.

>> Sue Lindsay:  Yeah, Dudley Street…the whole story is so compelling because it’s such a colorful time in Irish history in Boston. I mean, by all accounts and by everyone you will still meet who went to those dance halls, every Friday, every Saturday night in Dudley Square, the Square was mobbed. There were people everywhere. Ah, it was a community. You would go there and see someone from home you didn’t even know they had come out. It was really the central place to be, to feel connected. 

So, it was a mix of Americans a mix of Irish American-born kids of Irish parents. And you had these young people from Ireland.

[ Music: “Thousands Are Sailing to America,” from Parallel Lines
Artist/Arranger: Andy Irvine ]

>>Shannon:  So. Many. Irish immigrants!

WWII ended in 1945. And Irish people were flocking to the U.S. to escape shortages and bad harvests back in Ireland. 

[ Music: “Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

The US Immigration & Nationality Act of 1952 made it easier for Irish people to come over—and it made it harder for Asian people and anyone with views that the Atty General deemed anti-American. That’s why Harry S. Truman opposed the Act. He said it was discriminatory. It implied that Americans with English or Irish names were better than those with Italian or Greek or Polish names. He called the concept—some of which is still in place today—“Utterly unworthy of our traditions and our ideals.”

In any case, after the Act was passed, there were lots and lots of new arrivals from Ireland. And savvy promoters immediately start leasing dance halls. They’re hiring musicians, organizing refreshments (though a lot of people did bring their own refreshments). And they’d have these big deals for women to try and pack the halls. They’d raffle off stockings. Sometimes they’d raffle off a car—just to get people in.

And before long, the message was out: Go to Dudley Street, and you’ll find people from back home. You’ll meet new people: young, available, attractive people. Then it was easy to sell tickets.

[ Music: “Buttons and Bows” 
Composer: Music by Jay Livingston, lyrics by Ray Evans
Artist: Gene Autry 

>>Sue:  By in large, everybody coming out in those days was young, unmarried, in their twenties (in number) so there was the whole romantic pull, you know. So, it was a mix of Americans and a mix of Irish—new immigrants and the music really reflected that. 

>>Shannon:  There’s a great quote from accordion player Joe Derrane in Sue’s book. He said: “It got to the point that you could put four chimpanzees up there on the stage with washboards and tin cans, and I think they still would have come.”

>>Sue:  One of the most popular bands of that time was the Johnny Powell Band. And typical band make up would be accordion, was sort of the centerpiece like. Someone like Joe Derrane would have been the centerpiece musician in these bands. 

[ Music: Inisheer, from “Ireland’s Harvest”
Composer: Tommy Walsh
Artist: Joe Derrane ]

Um. the dances were a lot of waltzes, a lot of what they would call modern tunes, you know, um. Things from the American Songbook-type of melodies that were popular. And then there would be a few Irish tunes during the night, but not every tune. But, you know, “The Siege of Ennis”, I understand, was the centerpiece of the night.

>>Shannon:  A big ceili dance?

>>Sue:  A big ceili dance. 

[ Music: Siege of Ennis
Artist: Johnny Powell Band ]

>>Shannon:  American kids, new Irish immigrants. They’re all coming into these buildings. And they’re heading up to the third floor to dance. Or they’re playing for the dances and making a living with the fiddle or the accordion or the banjo.


>>Sue:  Johnny Powell’s band was the most, kind of, American/modern band, 

But there were also the more traditionally schooled musicians, who were playing. All these dance halls had the big hall, and then they had smaller halls, like, on the second floor where you’d have the more traditional ceili music. And typically, those musicians were those who had come from Ireland and had only ever learned Irish music, and they would play, maybe, ceili music all night.

>>Shannon:  Fiddle player Brendan Tonra was one of those ceili musicians. This is one of his compositions called “The Ennis Encounter.”

[ Music: Ennis Encounter (Jig) from Living Room session
Composer: Brendan Tonra
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>>Sue:  Brendan Tonra—I love to quote him on this—he said:  “The real Irish were downstairs with the ceilis, and the bigshots were upstairs with the foxtrots.”

>>Shannon:  Hahahaha!

>>Sue:  Johnny Powell, though, was sort of this loose confederation of musicians.  He would put together, groups and subgroups for a variety of weddings, because weddings became the thing after a few years, because the dance halls were so successful in their matchmaking function. People are getting married, and they’re having kids. And as the years passed on, you’re started getting into the 50’s and 60’s, they’re starting to bring their kids.

[ Music: “After Hours Theme,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

There are lots of folks who are out there playing music now who remember being a young kid and dancing, like, you know, rug rats running around the railings; up and down the railings while the parents are dancing.

>>Shannon:  Flute player Joanie Madden was one of those rug rats—going to the dances in New York with her dad—not to dance, but to play.

I went to visit Joanie, to ask what it was like to play in her dad’s band. We looked at photos of the old groups and we talked about the New York scene back then.

>>Shannon:  All right, Joanie Madden. Thanks for talking to me.

>>Joanie Madden:  Nice to talk to you, Shannon, all the way down from the big smoke of Boston!

>>Shannon:  (Laughing) – OK, so let’s go back in time. You were brought up in a musical family?

>>Joanie:  Yeah, I was brought up in the Bronx. My parents emigrated from Clare and Galway. And my dad was a great musician—had a band in New York for, ah, many, many years. He started out playing with Paddy Killoran, was who he started playing with. And of course, Paddy is one of the incredible fiddle players from Sligo. 

[ Music: “Rambling Man” (reel) from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Paddy Killoran heard about him, that he was in town, and called him up. And my father said NO I couldn’t play that kind of music. 

>>Shannon:  And when he said he didn’t want to do those gigs; meaning he didn’t want to play non trad music?

>>Joanie:  Yeah, yeah he was gonna play his music. He worked hard all week—he was a master carpenter. But he would, uh, he’d prefer to have a session and play lovely tunes the way we’d all like to. And it wasn’t ‘til three days later, he got a letter from home from his mother saying that his father had had a massive heart attack, and they were broke, and they had no money, and times were very tough in Ireland, as you know at that time (that’s why they were here). So, my father called back Paddy Killoran and he said did you give those gigs away? And he says I was hoping you’d call me back, Joey. So anyway, my father did the gig and, ah, …

>>Shannon:  So, he learned One Two Three O’Clock, Four O’clock Rock… 

>>Joanie:  He learned it all. He played Doctor Zhivago on the accordion and it was beautiful, you know! (Laughing) But you know, he played his tunes, and, uh you know, he did what he had to do. It wound up, I think 27 shows, and he sent all that money home. As there was in every, every letter going back to Ireland back them days, you couldn’t imagine the amount of money that came back from America that really stabilized the economy in the west of Ireland. The rural west where so many was really hit hard.

>>Shannon:  This is like El Salvador today. 20% of its GDP comes from nationals living abroad.

>>Joanie:  Good God, New York was full of Irish people. And, and that was, you know, they all worked hard. And then they played hard on the weekends. But they’d all get dressed up and go to the dances.

They would do, you know, the Irish waltzes and the Irish foxtrots, “Cliffs of Duneen”, and, you know uh, “Galway Shawl” and all those kinds of things. But then they also wanted to hear, you know “At the Hop”, and, you know “One O’clock, Two O’clock, Three O’clock Rock.” They had to mix it up. You had to play all kinds of music…

>>Shannon:  Yeah.

>>Joanie:  …to satisfy everybody’s tastes. 

>>Shannon:  Yeah.

>>Joanie:  Because even though they were Irish, they were reaching out for all the American music as well. So, that’s why you had to have all those different instruments to be able to cover the vast array that people expected to hear at these events. So, uh, it was kind of a natural progression when I did start playing.  I was, I knew two tunes and I was in my father’s band and we were playing for all the dances. All throughout my high school years I played with my dad, playing for the dances—and playing for waltzing, and jiving and foxtrotting. But my father, it was always a big part of him, was to make sure the trad was very well represented, and it was always—even if they didn’t want to hear it, it was shoved down their throat. 

(Both laughing!)

>>Shannon:  I love this waltz track that Joanie and her dad put on their “Galway Afternoon” album.

[ Music: “Kevin Keegan’s,” from Galway Afternoon
Artists: Joe and Joanie Madden]

>>Shannon:  So, did you like going to those?

>>Joanie:  Oh, I had a ball. I mean, I got to meet an awful lot of people. I mean, I enjoyed it. I played, you know, I played a couple of tunes and I was in my father’s band. And I used to get paid $20 every night—and I don’t know how this $20—which was a lot of money back then for a kid. Um, but it would always come from the, the person who was organizing the dance would come over and give me 20 bucks. So, um, it wasn’t ‘til one day when I saw my father getting paid. And then I saw my father giving the guy back $20 to come give it to me, I guess it was a way of encouraging me—keeping me playing, you know. But, ah, so, it was great. Um, and that was Joe Madden’s Band. And then it was Joe and Joanie Madden’s band. I got my name on the thing. 

>>Shannon:  Talk about making America great. Immigrants bringing art and music and intellect to America and then handing down skills to their kids and to other American apprentices. And then those Americans making lives around those skills. Maybe the tradition bearer is a timeless construct: and there’s always room for tradition alongside innovation and modernity.

>>Shannon:  And so, it’s funny—what was the vibe like in these dances?

>>Joanie:  Oh, I mean, that’s where everybody went to meet people. That’s where they went to pick up their husbands and their, and their wives. And uh, it was a community outlet for everybody. It was a social gathering, and you went to meet and hear tales from home and stop the lonesomeness.

>>Shannon:  Here’s Boston producer Brian O’Donovan.

[ Music: “After Hours Theme,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>>Brian O’Donovan:  The music of Ireland that the Irish brought with them really was a balm. It was a salve, if you will, a balm on the wound of leaving a country that they felt so strongly about. It was miserable living conditions that many of those times. But when they came here, they brought memories that suddenly transferred it into kind of halcyon days. Somewhat, somewhat distorted at times but, but they remembered the joy that the music and the people that gathered around musical gatherings. Uh, the joy that they know sorely missed—and they used music as a kind of trigger of memories of what, of what they perceived as wonderful times. And they, they really celebrated the humor, and they celebrated the nostalgia, and they celebrated the sheer joie de vivre of getting together with other musicians dancing at the Dance Hall Scene. Everything about it–music was, was about being Irish. 

>>Shannon:  Well, I’m imagining leaving a very tough situation in Ireland and coming here into an equally tough—if different—situation. That would be a bit disappointing. And maybe nostalgia would be a way through it. 

>>Brian:  To deal with it. Absolutely. To deal with it.

>>Shannon:  It’s how Joanie Madden’s mom dealt with it.

>>Joanie:  That’s where she met up with all her people from, you know, from home. When she arrived in New York she was very lonesome and lonely, and, ah, found out about the, the Jagerhouse and City Center and all these places, and they would go and dance. And that’s—she met my father. He was playing for one of the events. They met and got married shortly after. 

>>Shannon:  So, Joe Madden was leading a band and he was playing for dances.

>>Joanie:  Uh huh.

>>Shannon:  People were meeting at these dances they were going to meet. 

>>Joanie:  Uh huh.

>>Shannon:  And then they were married, and he was playing for the weddings.

>>Joanie:  So that’s where he would go play a wedding. He said he never played for a wedding where he didn’t get two! (Laughing) Because that’s what he was, you know. 

>>Shannon:  Yeah, what was the makeup of the band?

>>Joanie:  Well, he never like—he would always have himself, and it was funny, you know. I’m, I’m showing you a picture here of my father. He has a, I think a (counting—one, two…) a 13-piece band.

>>Shannon:  OK.

>>Joanie:  Where he’s got ah…

>>Shannon:  So, he’s standing here with the accordion. 

>>Joanie:  He’s standing here with the accordion. And Joe Madden’s Orchestra. You have two little amps—look at the size of the amps! 

>>Shannon:  Hahaha!

>>Joanie:  It’s not like—oh no, there’s three. It’s not like today where you have massive speakers pumping out the room. You need the players to make the sound to fill a room. Because they didn’t have the PA capabilities. Like my father had four horns here, um, two fiddles, a flute, uh, drums, a guitar player, bass player, and another percussion guy. So that was ah, and of course a singer. And this is my godfather, the singer was my godfather.

[ Music: “‘Neath Her Shawl of Galway Grey
Artist: Connie Foley, with Mickey Carton’s Orchestra ]

>>Shannon:  That was Connie Foley with Mickey Carton’s Orchestra up at Boston. Like Joe’s group, they backed songs with accordion, saxophone and all the other instruments the guys played. The Guys. They were all guys. Well mostly. Joanie was an exception. But her mom was part of it, too. Behind the scenes.

>>Joanie:  Back then you had to be in the music Union—it was very, very strict. You could not just go, I mean, you had to file papers and file and pay, pay dues for every member of your band. And you could not—and the union, music union 802 would show up, and if you didn’t have your papers, they would close you down.

>>Shannon:  Oh!

>>Joanie:  So, it was very, very—he had to—my mother used to have to fill out the paperwork. Because she did the secretarial work for it. And it was a mountain of work for her. 

>>Shannon:  Secretarial work. Domestic work. And dancing on the weekend. That was the game for women. But playing music after hours and congregating with musicians at the bar (where the gigs got handed out), this was mostly dudes. Things have changed. But there’s more change on the horizon for women—and gay and trans musicians and dancers. And fulltime dads and that’s another episode, in the works.

But in the Irish 50’s and 60’s, bars weren’t acceptable for women. Evening house parties were. Here’s Sue Lindsay again:

>>Sue:  There was lots of music happening after hours. There was private parties, there was christenings, there was, um you know, weddings, and house parties. In, in ah, Boston they were called the Kitchen Racket. You know, a house party—these were all like little—what they call three-deckers in Boston. Three-story wooden apartments, one after another. Houses one after another that still characterize Boston look and, and vibe in some of its neighborhoods. And so, the Irish would live in these apartments, they would have a tiny little kitchen. They’d push back the tables and roll back the rugs and have dances, you know. And there are great stories of musicians sitting on the counter playing, so people would have room to dance in the kitchen, because these were not big kitchens. 

[ Music: “Tom Ashe’s March, Black Haired Lass, Spike Island Lasses,” from Kitchen session
Artist: Dan Gurney (accordion), Shannon Heaton (flute), Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

>>Shannon:  Dancer Kevin Doyle remembers those kitchen and parlor rackets.

>>Kevin:  We had a great house for music because we had an upright piano in the hall. And you had this big hall when you walked in the house, and that was where we’d roll back the rug and the piano—the upright was right there.  My father of course, he’d always invite everybody back. My mother used to get upset. He’d invite everybody back to the Doyle household. He’d start cooking bacon and eggs at all hours of the morning, you know. Scotch ham and everything else at that time.

>>Shannon:  And you guys were kids? 

>>Kevin:  And we were kids, yeah. 

>>Shannon:  And they were just all coming in. 

>>Kevin:  (Laughing)

>>Shannon:  And Kevin remembers going to the dance halls in Providence, when he and his sister were both pretty small.

>>Kevin:  Providence had a lot of Irish history—a lot of, lot of Irish history. People forget about that. They think about New York, they think about Boston, and little Rhode Island in the middle there had such a strong Irish presence. All on the East Side; Fox Point where I was born; it was just full of Irish. And um, then South Providence—yeah, there was just—the Irish went everywhere.

>>Shannon:  The Ceili Club was, it just celebrated 60 years. And um, it, that was one of the big halls where they would have the ceilis and they would have the big gatherings of the Irish in all the community, you know. And uh, there was another place in Providence which was held at the Lithuanian Club where they would have these big dances. And all the Irish would gather there, because like my mother who worked as a domestic when she came over for the rich people on the East Side of Providence, they all had their meeting places, you know. And so, these dances were a place where they’d all reconnect. And they’d always have these big ceilis and hoolies and, um, bands would come in. And it was just a gathering and a social, a social dance. 

You’d meet some beautiful people there; you know what I mean? And, and um you came over with your girlfriends and you might have come over a few years earlier than your girlfriend, and something like that, from the old country. And then they’d all find their way to these dances, because it was word of mouth, and ah, telephone, you know…

>>Shannon: Yeah.

>>Kevin:  …that would say we’re having a dance at this hall, or a dance at this hall there. And they’d all show up, you know. So, my dad met my mother so, um, so… 

>>Shannon:  Kevin’s mother taught him, and his sister dance steps during the day. And at night they went to the Ceili Club.

>>Kevin:  The Ceili Club, was um, a great—that was the first place that my sister Maureen and I performed. I was eight and Maureen was six.

>>Shannon:  Haha! So, what was the vibe like, were they on the weekends?

>>Kevin:  Yeah, they were on the weekend.

>>Shannon:  And you remember going?

>>Kevin:  Very exciting. Very exciting! I mean, I’ll never forget that sometimes there’d be football games in Boston, and stuff like that. And sometimes the rival football teams would be all coming down and, ah, they’d all meet at the dance and everything like that. And sometimes there’d be some chaos, or somebody would step on somebody’s toe, I guess, whatever like that. And I remember my sister Maureen and myself. “Hurry up and get the kids in the kitchen and put them under the sink!” Because all hell would break loose. And then, then, you know, then…

>>Shannon:  Chaos, like fights?

[ Music; Rambling Man reprise ]

>>Kevin:  Yeah! (laughing) Very competitive. (Laughing) Long before competitive dance, but um, and you know—there was always some thickheaded lads that maybe didn’t like the way that the sport ended up that day, you know what I mean. So, yeah, it was very interesting. We were very young, and like I saw, I didn’t know what the heck was going on. But, you know, I did learn as I got older, and stuff, that it was a very competitive and brutal, ah, sport—that hurling and, um, the Irish footballers, they could be a rough bunch of fellows, you know?

>>Shannon:  And yet they’d come to the dance halls at the end of the night.

>>Kevin:  Oh sure, well there was a lot of Irish girls there.

(Both Laughing)

>>Kevin:  Pretty Irish girls.

>>Shannon:  So, these aren’t all the stores I’ve always heard about those dance halls! It seemed like, sort of, this lovely parochial thing, people are streaming in and dancing…

>>Kevin:  Of well…

>>Shannon: …and there’s music and there are couples…

>>Kevin:  Yeah.

>>Shannon:  But yeah, to hear a little bit of the other things, the human things.

>>Kevin:  There are two sides to it as well, you know what I mean? There was always sometimes, you know when alcohol was there, you know what I mean? Sometimes people would overindulge in it and um, sometimes things would turn a little different, you know. But um, on the whole it was just a great meeting place for people. 

>>Shannon:  It was a great meeting place for the Irish. And for other groups who’d sometimes intersect with the Irish scene. Back on Dudley Street, the Canadians were dancing next door.

>>Sue: The Cape Bretoners asp had their own dance hall. 

>>Shannon:  I talked to Boston piano player Helen Kisiel about the Canadian dances she went to as a kid. Though she was the daughter of a Polish fiddle player, she’d gotten the Canadian and eventually Irish music bug after visiting Prince Edward Island.

>> Helen Kisiel:  When I was 16, I’d go for three summers to PEI with my girlfriend neighbor whose mother was from PEI—and her whole family. So, we’d go down there.  The mother would rent a farmhouse for $20 for the summer and you know, no electricity, no water, no indoor plumbing. 

But we didn’t care. It was a great house; it had a wood stove—the mother knew how to cook on it. Pumped the water out with a pump in the backyard and kerosene lanterns inside. 

>>Shannon:  Wow!

>>Helen:  And the grandfather came and stayed with us for the summer, and we all learned to play cribbage with him.

>>Shannon:  (Laughing)

>>Helen:  It was dances. It was Bingo. And, oh, suppers, you know, church suppers—lobster suppers. It was through Prince Edward Island that I heard anything Celtic, and I loved it. So, that family, she’s the one who took me to Dudley Street. 

>>Shannon:  So back in Boston, Helen’s friend and her mom headed to the Dudley Street dances.

>>Helen:  Myself and my girlfriend were 16. She said come on, I’m gonna take you to Dudley Street. So, we’d go in there, and we’d dance all night. The band was called Jerry Tuomey and his Hayshakers and they were fantastic. And I loved it. I could go up and ask them to play a certain thing. And they’d always say yes. And they’d play. And I thought to myself about two years ago, I said, “I wonder if that band, that Jerry’s Hayshakers, I used to think they were wonderful. I wonder if they were really all that wonderful.” So, I went online, and they did have five or six discs that you could click on and play. They were fantastic!

[ Music: “Cape Breton Breakdown”
Artist: Jerry’s Hayshakers ]

They played very fast; I have to say. And all the young guys, they were great step dancers. And they really could, the really went—and I’d never seen anybody do this before so I was very impressed, by, and they all seemed to be having a great time, that I had a great time, too.

>>Shannon:  So, what was it like, walking in to this place?

>>Helen:  It was three floors up. So, you look up. And the top seemed to disappear in the mist, it was so high, you know. And then on the top of the stairs was a check in lady, and a place to hang, leave your coat and all that stuff. When I first went, I was very shy, I was very intimidated because everybody seemed to know each other—it was a whole new scene for me. But once I went a few times then I loved it. It was exciting and you hear the music and, and people used to come there who weren’t Irish—people like college students that liked folk dancing. But I found all the Canadians, they’re wonderful dancers. I mean they could waltz, like they would go 80 miles an hour around the hall. It was amazing to me. 

>>Shannon:  Dudley Street was a meeting place for Canadians. For Irish. For Irish-Americans. For college students who thought folk dancing and ballroom dancing was cool. It was a social outlet. A dating pool. A place where people sometimes fought and got hurt. A place where some opportunities weren’t open to women. A place that comforted lonesome immigrants. A community that went out to the halls and danced, until they didn’t.

Until immigration laws changed and put an end to big, easy waves of Irish immigration.

Until Black families moved into Irish neighborhoods and demanded social justice, and many Irish families migrated to other neighborhoods.

Until most people had washing machines, and women spent less time doing laundry and looking for husbands, and more time getting jobs.

[ Music: “Travel Theme,” 

Until more people had TVs and stopped going out so much. 

Until society changed, as it does.

Until June 3, 1967 when race riots hit Roxbury. According to Sue’s book, a bunch of guys went in to one of the halls late one night. There was a dance going, and they told the band that everybody had 15 minutes to leave. After that they’d rip the place apart. 

A Scottish cop got shot, and accordion player Mickey Connolly and fiddle player Brendan Tonra carried him to the Irish House bar and waited for an ambulance. No one else was hurt. But that was the end of the Dudley Street Dances. End of an era.

And the beginning of a new one. Folk songs and singing about social justice got hip. Sessions started up in pubs. Musicians and dancers evolved, and they continued to find each other—at places like the Village Coachhouse in Brookline Village, where Helen started playing piano.

>>Shannon:  The dances as a thing for people to do sort of petered out and then the Village Coachhouse…

>>Helen:  The Coachhouse. That was the only place in Boston to have a session at that time.

>>Shannon:  And it sounds like it was a real gathering spot.

>>Helen:  Oh, it was! It was. There were so many people. I mean, it was a real traveling, ah, caravan of people. (Laughing) I mean it was fantastic, actually.

[ Music: “Quinn of Armagh,” from Banks of the Shannon

Composer: Ed Reavy
Artist: Seamus Connolly ]

>>Shannon:  From Dudley Street to the Village Coachhouse. The tradition weathered the change, because as Brian O’Donovan said:

>>Brian:  This is a living tradition that continues to exist with people communing around it.

>>Shannon:  In fact, Helen told me that Brian used to go to the Village Coachhouse.

>>Helen:  And Brian O’Donovan, I mean, when he told this story about going to the Coachhouse. He went in there and he met his wife Lindsay and they were married three days later! (Laughing) I couldn’t believe it!

And then it got to be playing for St Patrick’s day in a big band. We played at a Sacred Heart church in Roslindale on St. Patrick’s Night. And Rita O’Shea dancers were there, and they constructed all these cottages, and they did a little dance skit of the evictions, or whatever it was.

>>Shannon:  Wow, so a real theatrical production.

>>Helen:  Yeah, it was a theatrical, and they gave a big banquet. And I loved it. It was so much fun and Cardinal Maderas was there. He was from Portugal, I think, but he was trying to show that he knew something and he came up and asked Brendan to play “Shoot the Donkey”…

>>Shannon:  Instead of the “Shoe the Donkey?” (Both laughing) So even Cardinal Maderas was an Irish music fan.

>>Helen:  He was, well for that night anyway, yeah. So anyway, we played “Shoot The Donkey.” (Both Laughing)

[ Music: “Shoe the Donkey,” from Kitchen session
Artist: Matt Heaton (banjo) ]

>>Shannon:  When the dance halls closed, people went to the Coachhouse. And to the St. Pat’s banquets. Some of those dance hall babies like Kevin Doyle and Joanie Madden grew up and they made their own lives around Irish music and dance. Kevin went on to become a National Heritage Fellow, and he’s performed on stages around the world. Joanie’s band Cherish the Ladies is one of the classic beloved trad bands for Irish Music fans. And Irish America Magazine named Joanie one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Irish Women in the world.

Joanie learned her music—and how to make it accessible to lots of people, and how to work really hard—from her immigrant parents.

>>Joanie:  The key to success to me is tenacity and don’t give up on your dreams, and you know ah…

>>Shannon:  Yeah, tenacity and great musicianship and also a lot of variety on stage, right. And you’re an entrepreneurial spirit and it sounds like you’ve learned from your dad about how to make the music that people want to hear.

[ Music: “Cat’s Meow,” from An Irish Homecoming
Composer: Joanie Madden
Artist: Cherish the Ladies ]

>>Joanie:  My father said, “No, I couldn’t learn that kind of music.” And he learned it all on the accordion and it was beautiful, you know!

>>Shannon:  Life can be tough. But there can be so, so much joy.

And to make a great, sustainable soundtrack together takes tenacity. And humor. And teamwork.

We get through by sharing stories. And by sharing the stage.

Like Joanie does when she lifts up her bandmates and her audiences.

Like Kevin does when he talks about dancing—and hiding under the sink—with his sister.

Like Helen does when she describes that 3rd floor ballroom. And a certain Cardinal from Portugal.

Like Sue does when she writes about the rise and fall of the Roxbury Halls.

We get through it. And life marches on.

There were struggles in the good old days. There are struggles today.

So. Could we go back? Would we? Going back might mean less multi-tasking. More starched, collared shirts.

But it would also mean undoing great innovation. And convenience. And empowerment. 

Come on. There’s no going back. It’s only forward, and out. Out to a session. Out to a dance. Out to a concert. Of Irish music. Of salsa. Of jazz. Of rich culture that has come to America and that is part of our history.

And part of our future.

Folks, thanks for listening. This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton, with anecdotes from Sue Lindsay’s book “See You at the Hall.”

Thanks to Sue, and to Joanie Madden, Kevin Doyle, Helen Kisiel, and Brian O’Donovan for the great conversations. Thank you to Matt for script editing and underscore. Thank you, Nigel, for naming this month’s supporters. And thanks again to Michele Sims, John Mullen, Kerstin Otten, Brian Benscoter, William Dodd, Jack McCreless, and Mark Johnson for underwriting this episode.

If you can kick in with a show of support, just visit and click the donate button. I’ve also got playlists and links to videos there. You can also help by rating the show in iTunes, or by sharing this episode with a friend. Thank you.

Next month’s show about the HEARTBEAT of IRISH MUSIC will air on Tuesday April 10th. I hope you’ll tune in. Thanks again for listening, everybody!


>>Helen:  Shoot the Donkey.  POW!

>>Shannon:  Hahaha!

Bonus Content

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Rhode Island-born dancer and 2014 National Heritage Fellow who performs old style traditional Irish step and American tap

Susan Gedutis Lindsay


Massachusetts-based flute/sax player, writer, and educator

Joanie Madden


Bronx-based Irish flute and whistle player and composer who founded internationally acclaimed band Cherish the Ladies

Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production

Helen Kisiel


Watertown Massachusetts-based piano player who played with many great Boston legends, including fiddle player Seamus Connolly and her musical companion for over three decades, Brendan Tonra

The Heaton List