We are a nation given to bans and boycotts. The latter expression, famously, has its origins in the Land War of the early 1880s. For many years the Gaelic Athletic Association maintained a ban on members playing soccer, rugby, hockey and cricket. During the so-called ‘Economic War’ of the 1930s we were encouraged to ‘burn everything English except their coal’ – a phrase that dates back to Jonathan Swift in the 1720s. But few campaigns can have been as bizarre as the hysterical antipathy towards jazz music in the 1920s and 30s.
The Great War, in which millions died, was, not unnaturally, followed by a period of anti-establishment moral and political lassitude. On the basis of what had gone on between 1914-18 many young European and American citizens chose to spend the next decade operating on the basis of the axiom ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’. The trenches and industrialised killing gave way to the Charleston, bobbed hair and shorter skirts. It was, to many older citizens who had spent the war in their clubs and drawing rooms, the collapse of civilization as they knew it. Critics of modern music and dance saw nothing particularly untoward in mass slaughter but were appalled at the excesses of the depraved Black Bottom and incendiary jazz music.
In Ireland post-war mass unemployment, abject poverty and wholesale emigration seemed to be of less significance to our legislators and the Roman Catholic hierarchy than stopping people listening and, far worse, dancing, to the devil’s music. The Cumann na nGaedhal government even set up a committee of investigation (the Carrigan Committee) which consulted expert witnesses on how the morality of Irish youth might be safeguarded against such corrupting foreign influences as Louis Armstrong and Glen Miller.
County Leitrim emerged as the last bastion of Gaelic civilisation when the parish priest of the village of Cloone, Father Peter Conferey lambasted jazz from the pulpit and urged people to sing Irish songs and wear home spun clothing only. A demonstration under the auspices of the Gaelic League was organized in Mohill. It was reported to have been attended by 3000 people, some of whom carried banners with slogans such as ‘Down with Jazz’ and ‘Out with paganism’. A supportive message was read at the meeting from the Catholic Primate of Ireland Cardinal McRory who described jazz dancing as ‘suggestive … demoralising [and] a fruitful source of scandal and of ruin.’ The Cardinal speculated that listening to such debauched music had been ‘the occasion of irreparable disgrace and life-long sorrow’ for many young Irish women. Given that jazz had been barely a decade in Ireland the ‘life long’ bit was probably something of a stretch
At the same meeting the Secretary of the Gaelic League, Sean Óg O’Ceallaigh, attacked no less a personage than the rather ascetic Fianna Fail Minister for Finance Sean McEntee. He was condemned for permitting Radio Eireann to play jazz music occasionally. O’Ceallaigh said, rather improbably, of the austere McEntee that ‘Our Minister for Finance has a soul buried in jazz and is selling the musical soul of the nation … He is jazzing every night of the week.’
In January 1934 the Leitrim Observer fulminated editorially against what it called ‘Saxon’ influences. ‘Let the pagan Saxon be told that we Irish Catholics do not want and will not have the dances and the music that he has borrowed from the savages of the islands of the Pacific.’ The racist theme was later taken up by Fr. Conefrey when he described jazz as being ‘borrowed from the language of the savages of Africa’ – so quite a geographical spread there. He then went on to attack the Gardai insisting that many members of the force were guilty of organizing depraved all night jazz dances. A far cry indeed from the Policeman’s Ball.
The campaign had the effect of forcing the introduction of the 1935 Dance Halls Act requiring all those who wished to organize such an event to apply for a licence. This, ironically, had the side-effect of making Irish traditional dances in rural homes illegal. Be careful what you wish for.
The Gaelic League decreed that anyone attending ‘foreign’ dances where jazz music was played, risked expulsion, 86 years ago, on this day
Below proof that some campaigns can, laced with irony, prove very useful