Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A brief Autobiography: How Irish dancing went from being a hobby into a passion into an obsession (Part One).

A brief Autobiography: How Irish dancing went from being a hobby into a passion into an obsession (Part One, two & three).

N.B Sorry for any grammatical errors in this post - I wrote this very quickly and didn't have anyone proof read it.

I was born 15/10/1990 in the Royal Victoria Hospital ,Belfast, I was a big baby and two weeks late - this probably explains why my punctuality is terrible. My mum is Mixed Race, her dad was Chinese Malaysian and went to Boarding school originally in England but ran away then went to Friends in Lisburn and preferred it. He then met my granny whilst studying medicine at Queens. Her mum was a working class protestant from the Lisburn Road. My dad is from South Armagh and was from a farming and a strong Catholic background. They met at Queens whilst studying medicine. This was during the troubles and the only reason they were allowed to get married was because my Mum was Miss Northern Ireland at the time. At this time I had one older sister (Jade). I was the first grandson on the Tan side and youngest on the Magee side.

I first lived on the Castle Hill Road, in East Belfast near Stormont, we were the only Catholics on the street and you could tell by the RTE ariel. We then moved to Skibbereen, which is a small town in West Cork (Skibbereen) for my dad's work. My dad was a GP but became frustrated by orthodox medical practices and he wished to broaden his knowledge on various other types of medicines thus we moved to China and Lived in Shanghai for a few months whilst my dad studied chinese medicine. This was just after communist China and before it became westernized. My mum had a horrible time there due to this, people were so shocked to see she had two children and was visibly pregnant and nobody spoke English there, and although we were mixed race for most people we were the first white people they had seen. So she was very lonely.  she came back a few months before my dad did and we lived with her parents then.

When my dad returned, my younger sister was born (Zoe), and then we moved to Guernsey, channel islands for my dads work for a short period. We then returned and lived in Derryvolgie avenue, on the Lisburn Road/Malone Road. We started to attend St. Brides primary school on the same street as us. I was Joseph in Primary One in the Nativity Play there, I complained that I wasn't Jesus - obviously, he was just a doll, but I knew who the star was.

My dad wanted to start to see patients privately from home at this point. Thus their next move was to buy a house on North Parade near Ormeau Park, which is Southeast Belfast. The business was expanding and my mum was helping with the administrative side as well as fitness instructing and raising three children thus we had our first childminder/aux pair/nanny - Julie. My youngest sister (Tulla) was born four years after Zoe was born.

Due to the business expanding we had to relocate to a bigger house where they could run the clinic from home as well. We moved to Knockdarragh house it was near Stormont, Belmont Park and Campbill college and was the best house ever - it was huge. It was built by one of the Shipyard owners hence the tower so they could see over to the ship yard. It was then when I started Ballet lessons.

My mum and her sister were both ballet dancers and did quite well in grades as well as competitively, however they were forced to retire early due to their older brothers rugby lessons clashing. Naturally like a lot of “dance mums” my mum wanted to get her daughters dancing as soon as possible. My dad did not want his son to do ballet, but he didn’t spend much time with me either, he was working or his playing the guitar or at the pub, we never formed a good bond and he didn’t ever take me to football or rugby lessons. Some of my earliest memories is being at ballet displays and festivals with my sisters, even though I wasn’t dancing myself. I can remember distinctly running around Portadown town hall every year - with for example the Gass's who danced for Donna Whitten - there was Victoria who was Jades age, Adele who was my age (and I use to fancy) and Shannon was was Zoe's age - I think they had other siblings also.

I was put straight into grade 1 because I had been copying my sisters and can remember my older female cousin collecting me. She was from my mum's side - she has an older brother (Michael) and a younger sister (Jenny). She was the second oldest on that side of the family, the same year in school as my big sister and was first child. I don’t remember everyone in my ballet class but I remember Nina Shafi - because she was really pretty and looked like Princess Jasmine - mixed race part Pakistan I think.

Due to moving house we then moved schools. We moved to St. Josephs Ballyhackamore at the beginning of Primary 4. Ballyhackmore then is not what it is now,  - which is upper-middle class. It wasn’t rough, but in comparison to my last school St. Brides the pupils, in general, were not from as privileged backgrounds - normally from a lower middle-class background, compared to St. Brides which was Upper-Middle class. Due to moving around a lot as a baby/child, attending St.Brides and Speech and Drama lessons, I was very well spoken in comparison to the other children in this school.

My mum had a number of nannies/aux-pairs. We had two  Aux-Pairs, firstly Leah, who was an 18 year old black, french lady - who was a bit of a bitch and we fired her and left her in Skibbereen that summer. Then we had Camilla who was bit older, a student and from Czech Republic, she was nice and we are still friends with her and went to her wedding in Prague. Kelly-Anne was another childminder who mainly looked after Tulla, she knew us from Ballet.

We use to go to Skibbereen at least once a year. One summer my dad and I went by ourselves and it was probably the best we ever got along. He use to know everyone and it was really annoying cause it took ages to walk somewhere without him bumping into someone - I remember once I got really angry and the person he was talking to was Jeremey Irons (who is a very famous actor).

When we were down there we discovered my uncle had been shot - his brother in law. My dad is a family of 8 and his big sister Una married a very charming and attractive man and they were very financially successful through a crane hire and transportation business and they were a very glamorous couple - she won Miss Newry and was very pretty, people actually thought my mum was one of my dads sisters cause they are all dark and attractive too. However they didn’t have a good marriage and there was a lot of drama in the family, they cut down a fairy tree whilst building their home in Ravensdale and people in Ireland believe that brings you bad luck - a baby drowned in their pond whilst being babysat, another brother took his own life and of the three sisters and one is already widowed. People in South Armagh thought she got him shot, but other theory is that he was having an affair with a drug baron's wife. You can read more about this here: http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/the-night-there-was-no-escape-26260605.html

A mum at that ballet school Carole Gwynne suggested we went to Irish dancing as well. We had known “The Gwynees” for a long time, my mum actually did Chinese Ballet with their mum and then my sisters and I danced with Stephanie and Deborah. Stephanie was a year older than my sister Jade and Deborah in between me and Jade. They went to an all girls Grammar school - Strathearn with Jade and Zoe as well. The class was originally taught by Mark Diver, it was held in Pernryn (strathearns prep school), Jade and I went, Zoe wouldn’t she was scared of Mark and I remember arriving and I recognized Marks nieces Dominique and Olivia - I had been to summer scheme with them, they were twins and very pretty. Mark moved to London after a few months and Ballnefeigh were meant to take over the class - comprising of Jane Ness, Gillian Armstrong, Minie and Christine McCambly - I think. The assistant teacher in the class was Denise Catney and Carole convince Denise to start teaching on her own.

Denise then opened up her class (Aisling school of dance) in Holywood. My mum didn’t want me or my sisters to compete for the first while, due to the ballet competitions going on all year. But as i did ballet, I was able to pick up the open/prizewinner light steps, after doing very well at the class feis my mum allowed us to start competing and I won up in my light shoes more or less straight away. I hadn’t even purchased heavy shoes at this point. Later my mum bought a second-hand pair off Deborah - showing how frugal my parents were/are.

The festival after this was Ballyclare which was a very big festival at that time, I remember Gillian Hodge being side stage and her wearing her wig (the first time I’d seen one) and my friend Lauren Greeves explaining to me it was one and being in shock. Dominic Graham adjudicated that day, and it was a very big entry just a single age group and there might have been nearly 100 in it, between the different grades. I remember in my single jig I forgot what I was doing and put my arms in the air at the end but Dominic still placed me third, and I was ecstatic.  

Later that week i discovered that the Gwynees were asked to leave Aisling. Stephanie came 4th in her championships and Deborah 2nd but Carole told Denise that Dominic made a comment insinuating that Stephanies reel steps were too simple. Dominic and Denise are very friendly so Denise asked Dominic who denied it and she asked them to leave because of this. I look back at that now and believe he did say that - but that will be discussed later.

I continued to be friendly with the Gwynnes - we did team dances together for Ballet competitions. One year I remember at Portadown festival the team dance Beautrix Potter got the highest overall ballet team, Deborah and I got the highest duet for “Over the Hills and far away” and I won the overall boy award as well. So I won all three overall awards for solo, duet and team and was pretty pleased. I remember Deborah won her Character for “The worst witch” that year and we tied in the classical 2nd. The adjudicator did not like Stephanies character solo and she didn’t get anything, I remember vividly in the changing rooms she opened up her mark sheet read out the comments in a sarcastic tone and tore it up and stamped on it. I thought it was very funny, perhaps the reasons why the adjudicator did not lie it was because the dance was a ballet about a lady of the lake who seduced men and then drowned them - which is very sexual for a 12 year old to do.

At the start, with Heavy shoes, neither me or my big sister could treble at all. I remember being taken to the side by Denise and being shouted at about it. But eventually I got better at them and I won my heavies in Holywood festival a year later. It was the rules you could enter the championship, if you were a prizewinner in lights or heavies, so that day i also did the championships which was massive about 50 dancers, a double age group 9-11 years. I got 6th and was delighted. I remember Sharon McConville Won and Gillian Hodge was second. There was quite a few from royal tara there, Kerrie McKay didn’t get placed and neither did Suzanne Gray (current Ulster champion in the younger age group). This was the first day I started to noticed tricks which I really liked - I noticed them doing swivels, spins and toe blocks (en pointe like ballet) and I loved them. I remember the adjudicator kept on saying to Charlotte Higgins (who was then dancing for Ollar) that she loved her dress . Lauren Greeves and eventually her sister moved to Royal Tara, and this was the first festival Lauren danced for them - she didn’t get placed in the championship. I also recieved an overal award for most promising that I was delighted with.

The next festival was Newtownards festival and this was the same day as my 11 plus exam. This was the first day I ever encountered Conor Smyth - it was his school St. Patricks festival. I remember I did quite well in the solos - I got 2nd in the single jig and that qualified me for the Northern Irelands but in the championship, my roving pedlar was speed 96 and they called it out as 66 and I came off the stage crying. Naomi Dunn (who danced for Kathy O’Connor) also had her 11 plus that day and she forgot her hornpipe and was crying too, I remember us both on our mom's knees crying. We both got As though - She went on to Strathearn also. I think Ashleigh O'Neil won the championship that day (who was the current Ulster and Northern Ireland champion in my age group) and she danced for Ballynefeigh.

It was after this when things started getting complicated...

(Part Two - the decision to quit ballet).

When I got back from these festivals I showed Denise the movements I saw the Royal Tara dancers do. Due to being a ballet dancer I was naturally quite good at them. I was good at enranterchas in Ballet and they are similar to Butterflies in irish dancing. I was a spinner in Ballet as well, my competition pieces had lots of pose turns and pirouettes in them- so i could spin very easily in irish dancing. And I could do toe-walks because I copied my sister in ballet doing En Pointe work. Denise was horrified at this, she didn’t say much of it at the time but basically explained that this was “feis dancing” or that they were “FDTA”  and that was feisly influenced and not proper festival. And I was informed i wasn’t allowed to do any of these movements in my dancing. She kind of painted a picture of “feis” as being evil and that “wigs” were really bad and she was better than them etc.

The next festival was Ballyclaire - the age group was 11-13 but they split the championship. It was massive about 130 and it was a school canteen. I think Maree Houston adjudicated. I didn’t do very well in my solos that day, but none of my age group were - Gillian only got something in her hornpipe I think. Michelle Johnston (also from Royal Tara) won the reel, and she wore a sleeveless costume - I think she is a Highland Scottish dancer now,  and then Holly Thompson from seven towers won the Slip Jig. Kyle Jordan who is one of Kirsty Jordans big brothers did quite well that day. This was the first day i encountered Jason Donnelly, who also did well that day - I think he won the single jig. Jason who a teacher's nephew but his aunt died of cancer - he is in some shows now.

In the championship it was the first time I danced King of the Fairies speed 50. It was made up for me and Amy Brown learnt it also - she was one of my first sort of girlfriends we use to send each other love letters. we use to send each other love letters and stuff. Aisling school still do this set dance - Niamh Murphy (I helped teach it to her) and her sister Laoise both did it - its stange because everyone who dances it, dances it abit like me, probably becasue of this. I slipped in my set but continued. I got 5th that day, Natalie McAlister - who danced for Shima won, she did King of the fairies also. I think Nicola Mitchell (from Royal Tara) got second, Charlotte Higgins got something and I can remember two other dancers from Royal Tara got 6th (I think) - Jacqueline Jones and Nicole Ogilby


The next festival was Portadown and Dominic Graham was adjudicating that day. It was also a very big festival, Laura Norris (also from Royal Tara) won most of the solos then Deborah Gwynee won the championship with her Celtic Rose. The Gwynnes had moved to Royal Tara at this point, after being asked to leave Aisling. I remember I fell over in the reel, Chloe Fraser from Bangor was on stage with me and kind of kicked me, Dominic didn’t ring the bell and I continued dancing. Dominic did something kind of strange to me that day - he talked about me in the championship then didn’t place me. Though he gave me an overall award at the end of the festival for most promising boy. That was the first time I was angry or upset; I remember as I was leaving the old ladies in the back row all cheered for me and I almost started crying. I was winging on the way home and my mum told me off and my sister Jade when i got home was really angry with me - because she didn’t do as well as me in Irish or Ballet in the competition and couldn’t believe how spoilt I was being.

The next festival was the Northern Irelands. They were meant to separate the Boys and Girls and literally they amalgamated the night before. There were at least 50 dancers qualified. I probably would've won if they hadn't, Kyle Jordan would have been my main competition but his set dance didn’t go to plan, I don’t know whether they slowed down the music for him (something I will come back to later). I didn’t get a recall that day - but none of the boys did and I think if they had kept them separate I would have won.

I remember Gillian and Ashleigh both did Aoibhell the Fairy woman (written by Francis Ward - he is one of the Ui Rauirc teachers - Zoe Griffin's teacher and wrote the vanishing lake) and they danced it to tape. I remember Gillian did Deirdre's Lament as her recall and it was amazing. To me anyway - she was out in front by a good country mile. But when the grids came out, out of the three adjudicators. She got 1 first then one of them didn’t place her and the other two gave to Ashleigh. So Ashleigh won, Gillian Second, Rachel Smyth (Ollar) third, Natalie McAlister (4th) then after that I think Robyn Friel & Victoria McNamee (both Dominic Graham), Chloe Fraser and Laura Norris got a recall. I remember Sharon McConville didn’t and neither did Deborah Gwynne, so I wasn’t that annoyed. I also remember Sarah Lavery (Gary Lavery little sister) from McDowell set dance was played wrong but she was asked to leave the competition for some reason.

This was the first year I went to Bangor open - I missed it the year previously because I was on holiday I think. Gertie Mulligan was adjudicating and I won the treble jig. I remember being quite surprised. I remember watching the other dancers in the step down the line recall and thinking they were really good. There were a  couple girls from Mckenna who use to do well in the age group above me - Siobhan Finnegan and Linda Flynn and they use to put quite a lot into their steps and they were doing well that day. That was the first day I ever saw a dancer with an injury - Linda had fallen out of a window and the injury came back to haunt her in their team dance. I didn’t get placed in the championship and was a bit upset by this - but I won an overall award for Most Entertaining Performance. I think Sharon McConville won but something said later has made me think it might have been Chloe Fraser - they were quite similar both tiny and neat and tidy dancers.

I didn’t go to Belfast Open (Lagan) that year because Denise didn’t let us go due to there being a feis adjudicator. But I went to the other Belfast (Kathy O’Connor/ Mulholland). I think it was Sylvia Rice adjudicating in Belfast, it was a double age group and it was in a hall near Fresh Garbage in Belfast - it is one of these hippy shops you go into when you a younger and buy incense and wonder what those strange pipes are used for. I did quite well in solos but didn’t win any of them - Siobhan Finegan I think was winning. Then they split they boys and girls in the championships and I won the boys and Pamela Moore (Kathy O’Connor) won the girls.


Within this time period I had become very good at ballet however I was a bit bored of it. I didn’t enjoy the grade work in Ballet - especially the bar work. I wanted to go to Ballet school at one stage, I had watched Billy Elliot and I remember there were two sisters , who use to dance with my sisters, but then moved because they had an argument with Jacqui had gone to Ballet school - but my mum didn’t want me to go and my dad didn’t like me doing ballet. I was also bullied for it - there's hardly any male ballet dancers in Northern  but a lot of boys, especially Catholics, will give irish dancing a go at one stage. They tend to only continue if they have a natural flair for it because they get bullied for it as well.

A couple of more things made me decide to quit ballet. I wanted to do my grade 4 - but none of the other girls were ready to move forward. I was already a grade or two ahead of some of the girls I had started with. Nina and the other girls that group, were half a grade above me and a year or two older than me and if i did that grade I would be over taking them as well. I think this might of caused a bit of problems for Jacqui - maybe mums complained and it’s difficult for a dance teacher to explain that their child just isn’t as good as theirs. The other problem was Jaqui didn’t enter than many dances into competitions - the ballet school was massive but I was the only one in my class allowed to go to competitions and I think the other girls were starting to get envious of me. Another reason that made me angry was Stephanie Qwynne was able to do her grade by herself. A further reason was learning that boys did not get to do en pointe work in ballet - no traditionall anyway and i was annoyed about this also.

I use to be really good a peuriottes in Ballet - it wasn’t normal for 9/10 year old to do them in general - but I couldn’t just do one - I go around 3, o 4 sometimes 5 times. So Jacqui put a lot of them in my new competition pieces. My classical piece changed from happy piece of music into quite a dramatic one and my character - changed from “Cat Burglar” to “Puck” - from Midsummer nights dream. I remember at Newry festival I did my ballet and the stage and I tripped during one of my pirouettes. And when i adjudicator was doing the awards she said - there was no need to do triple pirouettes at this age, once was enough - and that had trip stopped me from placing in the top 3.

I was angry with this - because I had tripped due to the stage, not due to my technique -it had a slant on it and it was sticky. When i came back the next day for my character even though my teacher told me to just stick to a single pirouette. I kept the triples in and I mad sure I nailed even one - I remember in “Puck” I was in my bare feet and i put loads of talcum powder on them  so it was easy to spin.  Jacqui was angry at me for this and explained she won’t give you first now. I didn’t understand because I didn’t slip this time. I was already quite the Diva. There was a national competition - you had to do a dance from another nationality and I remember I won against Deborah Gwynne - we both did our set dance

So due to a mixture between not wanting to get bullied in school and having irish dancing to replace it, I quit ballet. I sometimes really regret this and think it might of been my destiny because if I had gone to ballet school I might of been a lot more happier and the events that were about to enfold would not have happened.

Part Three - the start of being bullied and being forced into joining a heinous, brutal and traumatizing activity named "scouts".

I am naturally academic and achieved an A (the highest grade) in my transfer exam without a tutor. Nearly everyone in my primary school had one for that exam - due to this the practice tests results were skewed as they had sat that test beforehand with their tutor. Despite this, however, I did not get into my first choice of school Sullivan Upper, I got into my second Our and St. Patrick's College Knock. I did not wish to put St Pats as one of my choices whatsoever I remember going to the open day and realizing that it wasn’t right for me, despite being a good school academically,  it wasn’t exactly palatial; it wasn’t exactly fit for little lord Fauntleroy . I probably should've gone to either Campbell College - it was close proximity literally across the street from me but my father did not wish me to go there due to  there being a Union Jack outside the school or Methody - I think I would of fitted in better in either of these schools.

I had been bullied in St. Joseph's for a number of reasons. Firstly I was well spoken in comparison to the pupils and they made fun of the way i spoke etc because of that. They also made fun of the fact I only ate Organic food - this was before it became trendy. Another reason was envy - I was always in the school play etc actually at one point me and my now cousin's wife were basically banned from being in it because we were in too many things. I don’t mind now looking back at it, that year the school play was “The Grumpy Sheep”  - Peter Conlan got to be the Grumpy Sheep instead, which is hilarious because he was a big tough guy - he went to St Pat's also. I was a very good singer - I was musical the only sibling to be selected to play a musical instrument and have solos in the choir/school play and due to dancing and speech and drama this helped also.  They also hated the fact I use to bring in all my cups and medals and have them presented to me in assembly each week.

Some of the teachers grew to hate me as well, when organizing the Irish dancing for the school leavers play, I was asked by a P2 to be in it despite not doing Irish dancing and I told her no due to this. I was later shouted at for this and my words were twisted into “they weren't good enough” when in fact she hadn’t had single lesson and Ms. O’Hare called me a big bully - she also tried to stop me from having the male lead in the leavers play. What happened instead was I got the second largest male role and my solo was extended the leads shortened down.  I was a bit pompous, precocious and pretentious in comparison to my fellow classmates - i can understand now why some of them hated me -  they were green with envy that I was the smartest, best-looking and multi-talented pupil in that school.

I knew that many pupils in St. Joseph's providing they get a good grade in their 11 plus - an A or a B - proceeded to St. Pats thus I knew also by this I would hate it. As mentioned in the previous post, I thought by quitting ballet this bullying would stop, but due to this I was wrong. The bullying continued and became worse.

My parents for a while sent me to this horrifying thing called “Scouts” to toughen me up, as did my friend Kiera's parents. I would describe this activity as heinous and traumatic. I couldn’t understand why i was made to stay in a tent, when there was a perfectly good hotel close by; I didn’t understand why i had to cook when I had  an aux pair to do that; I had no common sense or practical skills and due to being on a lactose and gluten free diet I had to have special food especially for me. I also hated mud - I remember Catherine Brown - one of the leaders of this family of square lashing psychopaths, known as "The Browns" shouted at me for having too many showers in one week - you had a shower yesterday adam, do something else with your free time. In terms of Kiera - if you know who she is, it’s perfectly self-explanatory. We were probably the worst scouts in history.

Scouts was held in the same parish as St. Josephs thus lots of the pupils from there went to it and St. Pats also, thus I couldn’t escape the bullying I was enduring. However I, couldn’t complain about this to my father as my father agreed with them and use to make fun of me for it. I use to throw up a huge protest  before going to scouts each Friday. The Roddys (Owen Senior, Junior and Aaron) use to come collect me and my sisters (Jade and Zoe - who were good at scouts because they can be quite butch, Tulla like me didn’t like it so much) beforehand and once I locked myself in the bathroom and my dad kicked down the door and made me go - despite having an awareness of the bullying I was enduring and how distressed I was by it. I sometimes wonder if my parents didn’t put down Sullivan Upper at all and put down St. Pats instead. My dad was unhappy with the son he saw before his eyes and wanted me to be more like himself. What he and my mother was not aware was the extent of the bullying I was about to endure for the next seven years.  


  1. Your total lack of self-awareness is hilarious. This is almost beyond parody. Please keep writing.

    1. I write with sarcasm... sometimes some people are unable to understand people's tones.

  2. gary lavertys sister is kerry not sarah?! there was a sasha laverty that danced for the claire mcdowell school but never a sarah!

    1. Maybe I got their names mixed up. I remember sacha because she danced against zoe sometimes. Thanks for the correction.


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