Strong Men of Cappoquin District in Days Gone By

Saturday September 30th, 1939.

By Willie O’Donnell

2.- John O’Donnell, Monolour, Cappoquin

The main object of these articles is to enlighten the people of the area mentioned, on the events of past history. Also to give to the people already acquainted with the fact, a written account of what they heard from their fathers and grandparents.
It may be, that the memory of these famous men of the district, trembles on the brink of forgetfulness. If such is the case then let the articles prevent the memory of such worthy men, from fading into obscurity.
The athletes of long ago, were by far superior to those of the present day in so far that they lived under poorer conditions, with less training and with their methods uncouth and difficult. They were the history-makers, the fore-runners of the present athletics.-W.O’D

Situated in the vicinity of Mt.Mellaray Abbey, about six miles from Cappoquin stand the ruin of a farm house. The walls are crumpling and ivy-covered, the roof has long since fallen in, and the grim mark of age is visible on what was one time a simple farm dwelling, but yet the home of four strong men – the home of John O’Donnell (Sean Garbh) the man who brought Irish stepdancing in America to the zenith of its aspirations.
The four leaning walls are the only monument that recalls the memory of John the Dancer, who in his day brought cheers from thousands of spectators in the halls of far New York, Boston and Chicago – the man to whom step-dancing was more dear than anything on earth. To him it was the only joy in this dreary life, the very life-blood of his composition.

It is said that he was dancing mad, that his whole life was dedicated to this manly Irish art. Some aver that having being reared in a district where dancing was the sole recreation, it so impressed on him that afterwards he could not live without in.  Such are the opinions of people who knew O’Donnell before he emigrated to America.  To-day his name is often mentioned in Co.Waterford and Tipperary in connection with Irish stepdancing. If those old walls in Monolour could speak what tales they could narrate of ceilidhes and dance-schools what deeds of strong men they could unfold, what glorious history they could repeat.

The wheel of time revolves and the walls now ivy-covered are old, seem reluctant to fall lest perhaps the memory of its inhabitants.

Inside these walls was born John O’Donnell (Sean Garbh O’Domhnaill) in or around 1845. His father Larr O’Donnell was a resident of Melleray district and in his time a famous strong man – his mother was a member of the Foley family in Gleannafalla who were evicted in the landlord days. The O’Donnell family comprised five brothers and five sisters. Three of the brothers emigrated to America early in life, yet before they were away they were another in their own district as men of strength and ability.
In those days step-dancing was taught in the locality by a dancing master who would travel from house to house imparting his knowledge of dancing to the occupants, for a meagre fee.

The home of Sean Garbh was the principal dance school in Monolour and the class consisted of about twenty young men all eager to learn thoroughly the rudiments of Irish step-dancing. From the start John showed that he had an ardent desire to learn. He was always keenly interested in everything relating to dancing, and as time went by he began to pick up the art with an ease that was astonishing. He used to add steps of his own to the ones learned and at all times would try the new steps and if anyone questioned him he would remark that he was merely warming himself. In school the master used often say instead of being interested in the lesson he was always shuffling his feet.

It happened that a dance was held in a farmer’s house in the area and during the night the dancing master was asked to dance a hornpipe. The fiddler struck up an Irish air and the man rose to dance. Whilst he was dancing a hammering was heard in the pavement outside the door and one of the men going out discovered Sean dancing to the tune of the violin. He was brought inside and then he danced a hornpipe that astounded all who were present even the man who was teaching him. With steps of his own added and with surprising agility he danced for about half an hour and received thunderous applause. A pupil of seventeen years had beaten his own master.

His name soon spread in the district, and he was sent for on many occasions to dance at parties, raffles, etc. By all who saw him dance he was considered marvellous, old people nodded their heads and said that he was a wonder. He could rise in the air and hit his two heels to sound a note, turn completely around on one leg whilst dancing to time with the other.

As he grew older he developed into a man of six feet two inches, square shouldered, long limber, narrowing towards the hips, and possessed of a steel frame. He was famous as a strong man throwing weights, as a good long jumper and as an excellent footballer. He danced at concerts, feisheannas, etc., and always was regarded as a champion of Irish step-dancing.

His brother Pat was equally famous as a high jumper in the old days. Pat jumped over Mr.Stanley of Cappoquin on a penny-farthing bicycle. Many old people of Cappoquin will bear evidence of this, as it is often spoken about even in the present day. Mr Stanley (one of the pioneers of the rowing club) was coming down Melleray road on an old time bicycle when Pat O’Donnell threw off his coat and jumped clear over him. Larr, another brother was the strongest man of the family but he died very young.
John, the dancer, emigrated to America when he was a young man and it was in that country that he reached the zenith of his fame.

He went to Lismore to board the train that was to take him to Cobh, arriving at the station he beheld all his old friends present, waiting to bid him a last farewell. A vagrant fiddler who was present struck up a hornpipe and John leaving aside his belongings proceeded to dance. With the agility of a cat and the gait of Venus, he danced for the last time in Ireland. With a hurried “Bennacht De Oraibh” he stepped into the train and was borne away. The crowd who had assembled turned away sorrowful, friends were seen to weep and wearily walk back home. An old man who was an eye-witness described the scene afterwards as a “funeral without a corpse.” John the Dancer had departed from his native land.

Of his fame in America we know but little, the sources of information being from three letters he wrote home himself, from accounts of a sister resident in Boston (now dead), and from the evidence of returned exiles. After a few years in America he seems to have forgotten the land of his birth. In one letter written by him years ago he described how he was passing a hall in New York when he heard the strains of Irish music. He entered at the side, and great was his surprise when he saw an Irish step-dancer on the stage. He was caught by an attendant and told “clear out.” This he would not do, and the attendant using vile language proceeded to grapple with him. John swung him off his feet in a second, and then someone higher in authority came on the scene. John pleaded to be given permission to dance.

At first they laughed at him but when the dancer on the stage had finished, he brought him into a side room and John was given a trial. He over-awed those who were present and then he was rushed on to the stage. He faced the audience very shy and very nervous at first. He gradually got into his stride and before he completed he danced just like he would in his own home in the mountains of far-away Melleray. He received terrific applause from all who were present.

At last he had leaped into the limelight of fame. As time went by he danced in all the halls of Chicago and everywhere he was the idol of the crowd. Tall and muscular he presented a dashing figure, when-ever he appeared on the stage dressed in Irish green.
From a letter from his sister in 1880, still extant, we learn that he won a valuable gold cup presented for Irish step-dancing by a prosperous Irishman in Boston. He steadily climbed the ladder of fame and within a few years he attained the top most rung in Chicago.

He revelled in his life of dancing and whenever he appeared in a competition or merely by request, the aftermath was parties until morning, society dances and the effects proved detrimental to his health. He ran the pace that kills, and eventually kill him it did, but not before his name had become a byword for Irish step-dancing. Even yet he had not reached the zenith of his fame, but night-parties and the accompaniments all helped to slowly lessen the virility of his strong frame.

An exile who returned to Cappoquin (the late Mr. Matt Coffey) said that he saw John O’Donnell of Monolour with the championship of the world in a hornpipe in Chicago. O’Donnell, he said, was only a young man and he beat a man called Patrick Branigan of Limerick in the final. Mr. Coffey, who died about eleven years ago, held that O’Donnell was able to perform wonders with his feet and that he never had an equal.
Many other exiles bore evidence of this fact and so we learn that this son of the mountain whose early life was given to the practice of Irish step-dancing had realized the dreams of his boyhood. The pupil of a rustic, unlettered dancing master had become a world champion.

Two other brothers, Pat and Larr, emigrated to America about this time. Larr, who is yet spoken of around Melleray and in parts of Co.Tipperary married shortly after his arrival and three of his sons are yet alive. This strong man died when he was very young, his death is believed to have been caused by over-strain in performing some feat of strength.

Pat died about ten years ago at a very ripe old age, whilst another brother also a strong man and jumper in his day but by for the youngest of the family still lives.

It is known for certain that John O’Donnell returned home from America in or around 1889. The life of parties, balls and other offsprings of fame had left their indelible mark on the man who went away active, wiry and strong, but who returned weak, decrepit and with his nerves shattered. His feet that had carried him to fame and fortune were now practically unable to bear the weight of his body. And yet, he was not very old, but gone was his virility and versatility as a dancer, leaving in its place the infirmities of premature old age. His indomitable spirit could not however, be conquered, and even then it is stated as fact that he used to try and dance a hornpipe but alas, how different from the hornpipe that held the audience of America halls spellbound with admiration for his ability with his feet.

He remained at home for two years and then returned to America. He lived to see the age of 70 then he died, after having been seven years confined to his bed with his feet paralysed, his nerves broken and his whole frame shaken.

Were it not that he was one time possessed of an abnormally strong body death would have laid its icy cold hand on him long ago. He rose to fame as a step-dancer in a foreign land and yet the dancing, that was to him more than anything in the world, was responsible for his years of suffering and sub consciousness. He had not the full use of his sense before he died and for seven years in bed was just a simple old man.

To-day the dust of his once active bones lie in some lonely grave across the ocean, but his name still lives on in Monolour and will forever. It is mentioned by old people to their sons, and so by tradition his immortality is assured.

Seven years ago I gazed at the four crumpling walls in Monolour, deep in reverie of this famous dancer about whom I had heard so much, and as I gazed I heard a footstep behind me and on looking around I discovered an old man. He opened the conversation by saying “Young man, inside the walls at which you stand was born Sean Garbh O’Domhanaill, the best step-dancer that ever lived.”

Printed by the Reps. Of the late J.A. Lynch and published at the “Observer” Office, Bridge Street, Dungarven

©2013 The estate of William O’Donnell (Chiswick)

Original cuttings can be found in the images below.

Strong Men 001Strong Men 3 001