This post was most recently updated on October 15th, 2019
One of the highlights of my recent visit to Ireland was a celebration of Irish dance, music, and song at the Siamsa Tíre theatre in Tralee, performed by the National Folk Theatre of Ireland. While Siamsa Tíre is a theatre and arts center with many performance options, I was particularly anxious to experience a performance of Irish dance and music — two great loves of mine!
I have some Irish heritage in my family history, and it thrilled me to watch a performance with the focus of preserving, and sharing the unique musical and dance culture of Ireland. And specifically the version of step dancing that is unique to North County Kerry.
My visit timed perfectly with the Rose of Tralee International Festival, creating a sold-out theatre with a very appreciative audience. As such, there was nearly as much energy coming from the audience as was reflected by the amazing musicians and dancers who performed for us. Keep reading to learn why this performance is such a crowd-pleaser…
Siamsa Tíre Theatre
Siamsa Tíre Theatre is home to the National Folklore Theatre of Ireland company and presents five months of folk theatre productions between May and September, called the Festival of Folk. They also train young people in the traditional arts, produce new work and tour internationally the rest of the year.
Siamsa, pronounced “Shee-am-sa”, comes from the Irish language. The word itself expresses mirth and music; Tíre means ‘of the land’. Siamsa Tíre Theatre was built 28 years ago and was designed to replicate the iconic ring forts found on the coast of Kerry. The National Folk Theatre company also hosts a wide variety of events throughout the year, including contemporary drama, dance, classical music, comedy and literary events as well as a visual arts gallery.
During the season, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland performs many shows. The night I was in Tralee, the scheduled performance was Turas — an Old Irish word meaning journey or pilgrimage. This show highlights dancers and musicians who are usually in the background for the company’s other performances. While the company performers take a break on the weekends, the musicians get to take front and center for the Turas performances. (But there’s nothing second-fiddle about them!)
It’s always been a dream of mine to attend an authentic Irish Step performance in Ireland. Turas definitely fit the bill, but in a way I could not have imagined. This was a much more intimate group of performers: five musicians and three dancers plus one vocalist. Instead of feeling like spectators, the audience was pulled right into the edge-of-the-stage numbers with lots of hand-clapping and toe-tapping. Dancers vied for our applause with ‘battle of the best’ dance moves and musicians lured us in with their captivating melodies and musicality. The energy was contagious, and the entire audience was enraptured! And honestly when it was over, we all wanted more.
County Kerry North step dancing and music
I’ll admit I don’t know a lot about Irish step dancing. Watching Riverdance on TV is probably what got me hooked. But after viewing the Turas performance, I realized that not all step dancing is the same. Different areas of Ireland have their own unique styles. What the National Folk Theatre of Ireland focuses on is the Jerry Munnix style of step dancing — a looser, more relaxed style with a little more arm movement. (Actually I’m not sure you could call it more relaxed, as it is certainly still fast, precise and high-energy!)
You won’t see stiff arms at the sides of the body like you see in Riverdance performances. I rather liked the Jerry Munnix style, named after Jeremiah Molyneaux. It seemed a bit more natural to me. A motivation for the National Folk Theatre company is to preserve some of the traditions in music, song and dance in North Kerry that were in danger of disappearing, including the Jerry Munnix style of step dancing. Watch this short video to see how Munnix dancing has been preserved but also modernized.
You will also see instruments you may not have seen before or associated with Irish music. The Turas performance included these instruments: fiddle, guitar, piano, tin flute, accordion, drums, a beat box, and even a banjo! I would not have thought a banjo could sound Irish! Everything was reminiscent of well-known Irish melodies, but often with a modern twist. I loved the mixture of traditional and contemporary!
What else does the National Folk Theatre of Ireland perform?
As I mentioned above, there are several shows performed at the Siamsa Tíre theatre each season. This year’s shows included An Ghaoth Aniar, Fadó Fadó, Anam, Oileán and Turas. I’ve included highlights from the Fadó Fadó show so you can see a sample.
These shows demonstrate and teach a lot about Irish culture: everyday life, struggles and triumphs, patriotism, heartaches, love, and family, all while telling a story. In fact, watching a National Folk Theatre performance is a fantastic introduction to Ireland, and may end up being a highlight of your Irish experience, as it was for me.
What to expect at a National Folk Theatre show?
Answering this question is the easy part! You’ll experience…
- A beautiful theatre in a park setting near the center of Tralee
- Lobby with refreshment counter where you can purchase drinks before the show and during intermission
- Gallery exhibits in the lobby
- Excellent theatre seating where all seats have a great view of the stage
- Explosive dancing energy, skilled musicians, haunting fiddle solos, soul-stirring ballads, authentic costumes, and so much more!
Tips for attending
Be sure to book tickets ahead of time as shows can and do sell out! You can book your tickets online, or call 066 712 3055.
If you’d like to eat dinner before the show, my husband and I really enjoyed the hospitality and warm welcome we received at the Abbey Inn Bar & Restaurant. It’s a cozy pub-style restaurant where we were treated to homemade bread with Irish butter, curry chicken, and a delicious seafood chowder. It’s also within easy walking distance of the center of town and the theatre.
Looking for accommodations near the theatre? We chose Tralee Holiday Lodge because of its proximity to the theatre and great prices. The staff was very friendly and even helped us find free parking. I would not, however, stay here again during the Rose of Tralee Festival, as it was at the center of the carnival area. The lodge was a comfortable place to stay, just not as quiet as we needed for a good night’s sleep!
As is common in the travel industry, I was invited to attend the Turas performance as a guest, so I might share my experience with you. I would like to extend my most gracious thanks to Tom Hanafin for welcoming me, giving me a tour of the theatre, and arranging for a photo of the cast afterwards. It was a wonderful evening I will never forget!
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