Leap year dances in Ireland 100 years ago

Leap year dances and balls were very popular in late 19th and early 20th-century Ireland.
Leap year dances and balls were very popular in late 19th and early 20th-century Ireland.

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During a leap year, custom dictates a shift in traditional gender roles, with women taking the lead in matters of romance. A hundred years ago, Ireland saw a surge in leap year balls and today, we revisit the lively leap year dance held in Skibbereen in 1924.

As we all know, this year, being a leap year, ‌has ‌29‌ ‌days‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌month‌ ‌of‌ ‌February‌ ‌instead of the usual 28.‌ ‌Most Leap Day lore revolves around marriage proposals performed by women. In the oral tradition, there is a story about St Brigid cajoling St Patrick into allowing women to propose to men once every four years on Leap Day, 29 February.

Legend has it that if a man declined a marriage proposal on Leap Day, custom dictated that he must buy his suitor either a silk dress or a pair of silk gloves – an extremely lavish expensive in the past!

In late 19th and early 20th-century Ireland, leap year dances and balls had gained considerable popularity. They were not usually held on 29 February (especially as it fell during the Lenten season) but generally took place later in the leap year.

These events featured live music, sometimes fancy-dress costumes and typically saw a reversal of traditional gender roles, with women asking men to dance. Marriage proposals during these occasions, however, were reportedly few and far between. Below is an account of a leap year dance held in Skibbereen, in West Cork, 100 years ago and printed in the local newspaper, The Southern Star.

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Leap Year dance in Skibbereen (Southern Star, 17 May 1924)

Christmas comes but once a year and Leap Year comes but once in four, and when it comes the female folk hold sway. Their decrees are as inflexible as the laws of the Medes and Persians. They organize dances, they fix the dates, they arrange the programmes, they do the catering.

The ladies of Skibbereen decided in solemn conclave to hold a dance in Skibbereen on Wednesday night, and there was no gainsaying their decision. The dance was duly held and was a tremendous success.

The attendance was large: many came long distances to be present and the ladies danced rings around the eligibles. Everybody was pleased, dancing was kept up to the early morning, and the style was stunning.

The programme was varied and attractive, and included such mysterious items as “Moonlight Flitts” and the “Blues”, though it often happens that the blues are reserved for the days after a dance. The music, which satisfied the most captious critics, was under the direction of Mr J Daly, N.T. and Mr John Willie Magrath, as is his wont, was a very admirable and accomplished floor-master. Even the organizers had to yield to his seductive but imperious orders. During the night, songs were contributed by Miss J. Cantillon, Miss Rita Bohane, Lieut. Murphy, Volunteer Cotter, etc.

The function may be described as a pronounced success. Whether it has resulted, or will result, in proposals is another matter.

>>> READ MORE: Understanding marriage settlements for Irish family history research

In the morning, the ladies met to decide who was to be declared the beau of the ball. Unanimity did not prevail and so far, the result has not been announced. Some people say that an eligible young man engineered himself into the coveted honour, others declare that military strategy carried off the prize, while others wager that an old dog on the road outmanoeuvred all rivals. We have whispered information direct from the stables that the choice fell on a very quiet, retiring individual. Time alone will solve the problem.

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The “Man Around the Town” writes:

A meeting of the ladies was held in the wee small hours to decide on whom to confer the prized title of “Beau of the Ball”. I forced an entrance, but I was promptly ejected.

The meeting arose
And tore off my clothes,
And danced on my elegant hat.
I was bundled out,
With a jeer and a shout,
And I was lucky to get off with that.

However, I procured a listening-in set. The proceedings, to put it mildly, were lively and vigorous. A suffragette gathering would be in the penny place compared with it. The soft, low voices, rising in rapid crescendos, were like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh. The chairwoman vigorously used the gavel, but in vain.

The sound waves got jammed and bothered, and though I could distinguish the names of the candidates proposed, I could not catch the stinging criticisms to which they were subjected. Their clothes, character and deportment were dissected minutely. I folded up my listening-in set and retired, beaten and discomfited…

Letter to the editor (Southern Star, 17 May 1924)

In a letter to the editor of the Southern Star, in the same edition of the paper, an unidentified writer refuted the rumour of his nomination as a candidate for the “Beau of the Leap Year Ball”. He emphatically stated that he was not “a Beau Brummel or a Beau Nash” nor “a swank or a snob”. “I am a plain, blunt man”, he protested.

The identity of the man awarded the “beau” of the Skibbereen leap year dance in 1924 remains shrouded in secrecy. If you can solve this mystery, we’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

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