SEVERAL hundred people have their eyes glued to my daughter and two other 13-year-old girls as they stand nervously beneath the lights on the stage of Belfast’s plush Waterfront Hall.

The trio is sporting enough glossy make-up between them to keep a pantomime dame in action for an entire season and are plastered in so much fake tan it is as though they have spent the last fortnight on a beach in Barbados.

All three are wearing broad ear-to-ear smiles and glittering, intricately patterned outfits, while secretly trembling with anxiety beneath outrageous Harpo Marx style corkscrew wigs. A keyboard and fiddle strike up and suddenly they are leaping high into the air with such athleticism it almost defies gravity. They are making a hell of a racket too, bashing the boards with shoes of reinforced concrete – at least that’s what it sounds like. About 150 rows back my stomach is in knots. I am silently praying “don’t fall over, don’t fall over.” Clever girl – she stays on her feet! I quickly suppress a less than altruistic thought that if one of the others happens to take the tiniest of stumbles then so be it. It is the 2004 Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne – the World Irish Dancing Championships – and the competition is fierce. With its high-kicks, twirls and occasional tumbles, it makes for compelling viewing – even for those, who like me, can hardly tell a reel from a jig.

There is an impressively large Swindon contingent present for the week-long event, both in the audience and vying for honours at Belfast’s airy city centre arena. The Swindon girls are virtually all from the town’s McInerney School of Irish Dancing.

Later this month the “worlds” – as they are known to those involved in this singular form of rigorous cultural competition – take place in the Irish colony of Boston, Massachusetts.

Among the select group of adjudicators chosen to determine the planet’s top Irish dancers for 2013 is Michael McInerney, who grew up in Swindon and runs the aforementioned school. For more than two decades, Mike, 52, has taught hundreds of Swindon youngsters from the age of five the rudiments of step dancing through to the complexities of performing a world class standard hornpipe.

To be selected to judge at the worlds is a major accolade – a huge tribute to Mike’s skills, knowledge and standing in the global Irish dancing community. To my way of thinking, it is like being appointed a ref in the World Cup Finals.

Mike has judged Irish dancing competitions all over the globe – from Australia to Hawaii – and adjudicated at the world championships in Scotland five years ago.

His school is based at the Walcot Dome while he also takes classes in Reading, Newbury, Chippenham, Wells and – for the past eight years – Boston, MA.

And he owes it all to my mother-in-law! An All Ireland dancing champion in her native Waterford, Mary Lonergan – widely known as May – came to Swindon to join her fiancé Chris Kelly in 1954.

Her fame as the trophy winning Pride of Waterford became known in Swindon’s burgeoning Irish community and it was suggested she start her own school.

The Kelly School of Irish Dancing was up and kicking in 1967 and for next quarter of a century May instructed an estimated 700 local youngsters in the seemingly mind-boggling art of slip jigs, set dances, hornpipes and ceili dancing.

Mike joined the Kelly school when he was seven and swiftly took to dancing. As well as finding it a form of escapism, he learned the skills which would shape his life.

Father-of-two Mike, who lives in Gorse Hill, says today: “I loved going there – the Kelly school was like a second home to me. My sisters went too. It was a big part of our lives.

“May brought Irish dancing to Swindon. No-one had even seen an Irish dancing display here until May started teaching.”

When May – who sadly died nearly three years ago – hung up her dancing shoes at 65, Mike took over her school. May’s granddaughter Erin (my daughter) became one of his pupils. Which is why I am sinking a pint of Guinness in Belfast watching, with some amusement, assorted Sineads, Siobhans and Sorchas, all in their curly wigs and drag queen make-up, tearing around in noisy packs while exasperated mums try to hunt them down in time for their big appearance onstage. It has been a revelation to me, Irish dancing. Like most blokes I always assumed – to borrow a recent Paolo DeCanio phrase- it was “tippy tappy” stuff.

Not a bit of it. To attain a standard required to qualify for the worlds, you’ve got to be a tough – and a fit – little cookie. I’ve seen young girls in agony as their mums strap broken toes together so they can compete for three excruciating minutes.

Sprained ankles, swollen knees, ruptured tendons, assorted stress fractures, not to mention obligatory blisters; it is no wonder when they hit the boards with such bone-shaking vigour.

It’s a funny thing though, when you get together with the teachers, dancers and parents for a drink and a chinwag no-one talks too much about who finished where or who won what. It’s all about the craic! “We’ve had some great laughs,” says Mike. “People tend to let off a bit of steam after the day’s dancing.”

One time, at the 2003 worlds in Killarney, Swindon’s over-18s ceili team had several days to kill before competing. Girls being girls, they hit the town with commendable prowess. When it was time for their final rehearsal they were in less than great shape. Knowing Mike was about to turn into the grumpiest geezer in Ireland, they had planned ahead.

Cursing and red-faced with frustration at their shambling attempts to string a few half-sober steps together, a mighty guffaw suddenly replaced Mike’s thunderous scowl – the girls were all wearing Dracula fangs!


  • The worlds come to London next year and Mike hopes to form several Swindon ceili teams to compete, from under-13s to senior ladies – including former pupils of his.


    “It’s a great opportunity to participate in the world championships, both for relative newcomers and those with experience,” he said.

    He can be contacted at: 

Blood, sweat and blisters...


Erin Leighton, 23, spent 12 years as an Irish dancer, qualifying four times for the worlds.

She says: “The smell of blood, sweat and fake tan will stay with me forever. You had to wear the wig, the tan and look a bit like Lily Savage with all that make-up otherwise the judges wouldn’t notice you.
“The dresses weighed a tonne and the wig was uncomfortable, itchy and weighty.  By the time you were ready it felt like you were carrying an extra two stone.
“I was sick with nerves before going on. I used to drink about five Red Bulls and eat loads – my stomach was terrible but you needed every last ounce of energy.
“Most dancers would fall over onstage at some point; it certainly happened to me enough. You just have to get up and keep going.
“Irish dancing taught me a talent I will never forget or stop being able to do. It taught me to be competitive, it gave me confidence and, on occasions, helped me to cope with failure.
“It also gave me the strongest legs and bum ever!” 


Grand designs


For about 18 months during 2000/01 fellow instructor Gavin Doherty helped teach at Mike’s class in Swindon, while also trying his hand at costume design.

Today Gavin, having returned to his native Belfast, is the Giorgio Armani of Irish dancing garb.
“He’s built himself an empire,” says Mike. “His dresses are just outstanding. It all started in Swindon.”   
Every year during my daughter’s dancing career, she and my wife disappeared for Belfast at dawn before returning around midnight, several hundred quid lighter but with a Gavin original. The scramble was then on to sell the old dress to help pay for the new one.
It usually went like lightning.
Once, about 15 minutes before she was due to dance, 11 year-old Erin – with her flawless make-up, carefully affixed wig and tiara and perfectly-fitted costume – decided it would be great fun to roll down a dirt-caked embankment outside the venue.
I can’t recall my wife’s exact words upon seeing the resultant dishevelled and filthy mess, but it didn’t sound gaelic to me! - Barry Leighton