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Cootehill: Irish Barn Dance

24 January 2021

Cootehill and Roots

We all sat together around the cottage table in the tiny kitchen over a sparse meal of mostly finger foods pilfered from the nearest market. For a beat, there was a pause in the conversation, and everyone looked at WillyJohn.

“It’s a barn dance. It will be all family of the Andersons,” he said, appealing to our group’s deep reverence for anything family. We were there, in County Cavan, Ireland, for a reason: to dig into our ancestral roots and visit Grandma’s birthplace. His was a convincing appeal.

The middle generation members of our trip all looked at each other expectantly: Mom, Jackie, Aunt Ann, Aunt Pam, and Aunt Phyllis – would anyone be willing to go?

“Oh I think it sounds wonderful!” chimed Grandma, with a clap of her hands, always ready for adventure. “I would love to join you, WillyJohn.” Her eyes beamed with hope and expectation.

Now the middle members glanced around more skittishly; if Grandma wanted to go, did that mean they would have to go – as escorts? She was nearly 90, after all, and although WillyJohn seemed nice and claimed to be a distant cousin, none of us knew him terribly well yet; we certainly could not trust him alone with our family’s matriarch.

“Well, it’s quite late and we’ve had a long day of visiting family. I’m still jetlagged. It’s best I turn in,” said Aunt Pam, the naturally early-to-bed and early riser of the group.

Mom looked at Jackie, “Not me! Sorry, Mother.” She raised her palms and eyebrows and shook her head. Jackie wouldn’t go without mom; her eyes met mine across the table, and I understood.

It was Aunt Ann’s and Aunt Phyllis’s turn: “Nope – sorry, too tired.” They shook their heads.

“Grandma, I’ll go with you! I’d love to see a traditional barn dance and meet more family!” I really was intrigued.

“Great!” said WillyJohn. “I can drive.”

Less than an hour later, as the last light faded, under my mom’s supervision, WillyJohn and I gently piloted Grandma into the front seat of his tiny, musty-smelling car. Grandma safely stowed, we hopped in and WillyJohn ambled us out of the Pond View rental home’s driveway and into the narrow, tree-lined fairytale lane. In the deep dark of Irish farm country, the headlights did not penetrate far; the roads had no markings, so all that could be seen, from my vantage point in the back seat, were flashes of green ivy and bramble covering roughly stacked stone walls closely lining the motorway. Sometimes, threads of fog slunk before the beams, sending light back at us inside our tiny, dark car cavern. In places where there were straightaways, the car would speed up, and then slow down again for sharp turns and winding curves. Nothing could be seen out my side window except the heavy, obscure night.

We drove this way for half an hour, at which point it became abundantly clear: WillyJohn was lost. He hunched forward over the steering wheel, peering out the windshield, hunting for side streets or road signs – anything that would give direction.

“It should be here, but I don’t see it. Let’s keep on for a bit,” he said.

“Okay,” Grandma said with ease, content just to be along for a ride.

My blood pressure began to spike. We hardly knew WillyJohn. Although he seemed harmless and helpful, he was a bit strange. Somewhere in his sixties, mid-height and lanky like an underfed vegetarian, scraggly hair sometimes topped with a flat cap, mis-matched clothing, and hazy glasses – WillyJohn’s appearance was unsettling. Even his mannerisms were socially awkward. My misgivings about his appearance and temperament were generally overshadowed by his energy, warmth, and kindness – and his bald reverence for Grandma. Still, I did not trust WillyJohn 100%. Suddenly, macabre thoughts pummeled themselves around inside my skull. What if this was all some elaborate ruse to get me and Grandma out in the middle of nowhere to – to – to what, Meg? To leave you there? To kill you? To rape you? This made no sense. WillyJohn was innocuous. I heaved a deep breath in an attempt to recapture control over my pulse.

“No, we have definitely gone too far,” WillyJohn k-turned the car and went back. Blood thrummed in my ears and my eyes widened. Ten more minutes, and I would suggest he take us back to Pond View…

“Ah! Here we go,” he said, finally, as the car veered left into a nearly invisible, impossibly narrow driveway. The tires bumped wildly over rocks and divots on this narrow path as we approached a large building surrounded by a sea of tiny cars and a handful of muddy pickup trucks. How would anyone even know this was here? It was completely hidden and in the middle of nowhere – there were no streetlights, no parking lot lights, no exterior lights at all! In fact, the only lights to be seen were WillyJohn’s dim headlamps and a sliver of light emanating from a barn door left ajar, falling in a straight line across the damp dirt and patchy grass.

WillyJohn parked, then he and I came around to Grandma’s door to escort her out of her seat. My hand supported Grandma’s elbow, gently but steadily, as we approached the slit of blinding light and the thrumming barn, WillyJohn in the lead.

Inside, the barn was not so terribly bright once our eyes adjusted. Blinking, my eyes swept the space, ready to receive; it was large, open, airy, rimmed with picnic tables and benches, and thronging with cheerful people of all ages. To the left, along the front of the barn, a stage supported a handful of musicians playing fiddles, a small accordion, a guitar, and a piano. The music emanating from these instruments was upbeat, light, rhythmic, and repetitive in a way that bore comfort in its predictability. It has a twang and thump like American Bluegrass, but older – more traditional – purer. The corner of my mouth twitched upward as I recollected my last experience at a Bluegrass Festival in Rapid City, SD: mile-high skies, fragrant conifers, a sloping grassy amphitheater, baby Keira strapped to my chest and my love sitting – crisscross applesauce – next to me on a blanket. Beer and pretzels. Light, love, music, and joy.

This was no different yet so different.

Grandma’s eyes danced behind her glasses; the music and ambiance immediately triggered pleasure. With her elbow still in my hand, I led her as we followed WillyJohn to a few empty seats at one of the tables along the wall to our right, where Grandma sat down in a trance. I settled myself across the table from her, where I could watch both her and the dancers beyond. WillyJohn sat next to her protectively.

At the center of the room, upon a vast dance floor, wheeled every family member from the youngest to the oldest; from the smallest to the largest; men and women, married and unmarried – dancing with their spouses, with others’ spouses, with friends, with babies, with anyone available. They spun in large circles, holding hands. Between them, some made bridges of their arms while others ran underneath in singles or pairs. During the next song, couples would break out of chorus, men leading women, spinning, stepping, bowing, turning – almost up-beat waltzing – across the floor without any seeming plan or premeditation. Sometimes couples would approach each other, quite close, nearly colliding, only to step out at the very last second to avoid impact. How did they do that? I marveled at their dexterity, their unity, their confidence.

Across the table, Grandma was transfixed, the corners of her eyes crinkled, her knee bounced to the rhythm, her hands clapped gently, quietly. She looked beautiful. Radiant. A younger man – younger than her by twenty-odd years – approached her with his hand out: would she dance?

“Ooh why yes, of course!” she beamed.

Gently, he led her to one side of the floor where fewer dancers circled: a more protected spot. Together, slowly, they spun and stepped as he carefully supported her back, her elbow, her hands, in turn. I melted as I watched; Grandma was so delighted. This man knew the joy he created in this moment – and the joy he brought Grandma was big enough and powerful enough to reflect in waves back upon himself. He was happy seeing her so happy. The waves crashed upon me, too, and I warmed with gladness.

After the song finished, this man led Grandma back to me at the table, re-installed her upon her seat, and then in a grand, chivalrous gesture, thanked her for the dance. Once he left, she turned to me with a sly smile and glimmering eyes – no words were needed for me to understand what she wanted to express.

Together we sat, transfixed, through another two reels, appreciating the easy, well-rehearsed synchronization. After this, another couples’ dance commenced. A tall, lean man, maybe 30 years old, with ear-length wavy dark hair, full brows, and a square jaw approached me. His jeans hung with ease about his hips – with no strain of beer-gut. A white button-down was casually tucked at his waist and then covered with a dark blue blazer: tidy. This man was breathtakingly beautiful – and my heart quailed. Oh dear god.

He approached, and just as that older man had with Grandma, he put out his hand for me – a silent question: “Will you dance?” Y’all. I don’t have two left feet. I have three. And all the toes on them are thumbs. And I’d been sitting, watching these dancers all night thinking, how? So, why in the world would I want to try to do this – with this man? Why couldn’t it be some old codger of 50+ years who asked?? Now, all that’s left for me is to make an utter fool of myself…

“Uh, I don’t know how to dance,” I apologized with a careless wave of my hand, fully intending to turn him down.

“It’s ok – just follow my lead. It’s easy!” He coaxed.

Nope. Nope. Nope. “Ok, I guess.” GAH.

My eyes met Grandma’s across the table, and she nodded: “Shoo, you!” She would be OK with WillieJohn here at the table. I looked back at this man and put out my hand, consenting. He grabbed on and led me – not to the side of the floor, like Grandma – but to the center of the floor. My worst nightmare was coming to fruition.

His left hand clasped my right, out to the side. With his right hand, he placed my left hand onto his shoulder and then slung his right hand under my arm to support my upper back. His face was kind and his smile genuine as he said, “Ok, just follow me.” I cannot fathom the look I must’ve given him in that moment – or how I appeared to him. But inside, I was a storm of raging terror.

Without hesitation, he led, and we took off, and it became instantaneously clear: I am horrible at following a lead. Left, right, forward, back; anytime we changed direction, my feet stumbled over his, my body slammed against his, or my feet tripped over themselves. What a poor study! Yet he forbore my trampling with kindness, never giving up. He laughed easily; I laughed in mortification. Still, he would not let me bail, and so we carried on.

By the second stanza, the music began to take hold of my soul, and the clumsiness of my body faded in my perception. My feet were no longer so insistent upon sticking where they were planted, and with that relinquished resistance, my partner was finally able to guide me. Smaller pulls and pushes resonated, telling me where to go and when, and the process started to become – enjoyable.

A smile inched its way, unexpectedly, across my face. My cheeks flushed. I was having fun! We twisted and moved together, not exactly gracefully, but at least not too ineptly. At moments, he would hold my hand fast, lift it above my head, and pull my left shoulder forcing me to spin. I looked up at him with deep gratitude after these moments that he did not let go of my hand, or I would have tumbled over my crossed ankles and stumbling toes.

Thankfully, the song was brief.

As soon as the couples’ dance finished, my dashing partner led me back toward our table, thanked me for the dance, and then went back across the floor to re-join his stylish, petite, beautiful brunette wife. Although I cannot claim to have avoided embarrassment, I glowed inside and out.

Grandma looked at me across the table, her face alight – eyebrows high, eyes wide, smile broad. Understanding. Shared joy. Our moment. Forever.

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