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How the Irish made America Dance - Gene Kelly

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Sceala Irish Craic Forum Discussion:     How the Irish made America Dance - Gene Kelly

The Irish brought dance to America. Tap dance is essentially Irish, old style Irish hard shoe dance.

American tap was made in Ireland by the Irish.
If it was not for the ancient Irish culture of Irish dance, there would be no singing in the rain.

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Singing in the rain is an emblem of American dance, a descendant of Irish dance.
Eugene Curran Kelly (Gene Kelly) the descendant of Irish tap dancers.
Patricia spoke warmly of Gene’s pride in his Irish heritage:

"He (Gene Kelly) was very proud of being Irish and I think he felt a real identity with Ireland,” reveals. At one point he said to me that he really felt his Irish roots were at the core of his being".

"I remember the day that the Irish passport arrived and the new certificate was in Gaelic and Gene was just tickled, he was like a little kid with it."

When asked about the success of her husband’s famous film, Patricia said that her husband Gene Kelly and MGM did not intentionally make “Singing’ in the Ran” for posterity, saying:

"They never dreamed that we would be sitting here in Dublin 60 years later with this turnout crowd watching this movie.

"That would be astounding to him and I think he would extremely proud of that."

The 1952 musical film starred Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds and was choreographed by Gene Kelly. It is now classed as one of the best American films of all time.

Irish dancers today in America show some of a hybrid of the older style of Irish hard shoe dance, which came to be known as tap dancing.

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Irish dance of the older style.

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That is how the Americans learned how to tap dance, especially from the Irish emigrants of 19th Century Ireland.

The Irish before then had given dance to other parts of America and other parts of the world.
The British navy hornpipe and sea shanty are also of Irish origin.

More on Gene Kelly
"It came from my father and the joy he had in being Irish."

James Patrick Joseph Kelly, or JPJK, as he was known, hailed from Peterborough, Ontario, and the stories he told his middle son "always had an upbeat ending". He bounced Gene on his knee, sang songs in Gaelic and often danced a little jig.

He was Irish through and through, it seemed, but we didn't have the documents to prove it.

Eventually, we were able to establish the necessary connection using a copy of a Pennsylvania census from 1900, stating that Gene's maternal grandfather, William Curran (incorrectly listed as 'Curn'), had been born in Ireland in May 1852 and that both of his parents had been born in Ireland as well.

The census also described William Curran's profession as 'Saloonkeeper'.

When his burgundy-covered Irish passport finally arrived, with Republic Of Ireland stamped in gold on the front, along with his foreign birth certificate printed in Gaelic and English, Gene was deeply proud. We had, at last, formally connected him to his Irish past.

In my near-daily recording of Gene's words over our decade together, I came to realise that Ireland, for Gene, was much more than genealogy. It was the core of his being.

The basis of this emerged one day as he told me a story about an afternoon he spent sharing a bottle of Paddy's Irish whiskey with Samuel Beckett in the playwright's "little spare sitting room" at the Hyde Park Hotel in London.

When I asked what transpired between the two men, he said: "We sat and talked. He'd pour me a glass, pour himself a glass and put the bottle down, and we sipped. It was a good sipping whiskey. We just talked. That's all we did."

The two spoke of mysticism and metaphysics, and of how a little country, "smaller in population than the city of Philadelphia, could have turned out the greatest writers".

"I have an awe and wonderment in my very soul..." Gene told me, reflecting on his conversation with Beckett, "having a lot of the Celtic and Irish mystery and metaphysics embedded in me."

Gene often listed his favourite book as 'The Crock of Gold' by James Stephens, but he also devoured the work of many other Irish writers, including Goldsmith, Swift, O'Casey, Shaw, Joyce, Synge and, of course, Yeats.

When I first met Gene – and, remarkably, before I knew he was famous – we came together in our shared love of words and poetry and, particularly, the poems of WB Yeats. Early on, Gene said to me, "I bet you don't know the opening lines of Yeats's poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'." To his surprise, I did, and that was the beginning of the romance that was to come.

Over the years, we frequently recalled passages together, quoting one phrase or another as it came to mind. I can still hear him saying to me, "When you are old and grey and full of sleep, take down this book".

He relished the sound of the words and the inimitable image of Love hiding "his face amid a crowd of stars".

Much of Gene's fondness for Ireland was rooted in the stories and songs that his father shared with him when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. It was James Patrick Joseph Kelly who taught Gene the Irish rebel songs, such as 'The Wearing of the Green', which Gene eventually sang with his friend, President John F Kennedy, in the private quarters of the White House, and 'The Minstrel Boy', the one that always made Gene cry.

When Gene studied dance in Chicago in the 1930s, he helped defray his expenses by singing in little joints around town that the writer John O'Hara would later coin "cloops".

Gene delighted the mostly Irish patrons by singing an upbeat version of 'It's the Irish in Me', belting out the lines "Knock me down and I'll get up again", and throwing his fist into the air at the end.

It was the song he used to audition for songwriter Richard Rodgers and producer George Abbott for the play 'Pal Joey', which opened on Broadway on Christmas night 1940 and made Gene Kelly a star.

Gene visited Ireland several times and loved it. He rented a small cottage in Puckane (Co Tipperary) with a peat fireplace and a little kitchen, and said he felt "a great aloneness there" – an elusive luxury given his fame.

He drank Guinness at Kennedy's Bar and listened to the fairy stories of JP Kennedy that reminded him of Yeats and of his father's tales growing up. He fished for salmon, trout and pike in Lough Derg.

Gene's close friend, the set designer Sean Kenny, of 'Oliver!' and 'Stop the World' fame, brought the 'Irish crowd' to California, including the great Beckett actor Jack MacGowran and the Shavian talent Siobhan McKenna.

"We would admittedly do a lot of Irish whiskey drinking all night and jump in the pool," said Gene, "and get up and go to work the next day."

MacGowran died unexpectedly on January 31, 1973, and Sean Kenny followed just six months later at the young age of 43.

Soon after, Gene made a special trip to Portroe to see Sean Kenny's mother and visit Sean's grave. It was, for Gene, an important pilgrimage, a way of honouring his friend.

Years later, as Gene sat on the couch next to me one night, I noticed tears slipping down his cheek. "I was just getting sad about Sean," he said, and I knew then how deep their friendship was.

In a speech Gene gave on March 17, 1989, when he received the annual award from The Friendly Sons of St Patrick, he spoke of the Irish character, saying it was difficult for those who are not Irish to understand.

"It appears to them to be full of contradictions," he explained, "but what they often mistake for contraries may in fact be complexities."

Ultimately, this is what I discovered in Gene – a man of many layers, woven of strands light and dark, of sadness and of joy.

On St Patrick's Day this year, my Dublin friend John Doyle posted a photograph of the beautiful National Concert Hall bathed in green light. When I re-posted it, he sent me a note saying, "It won't be green by then", referring to the upcoming RTE Concert Orchestra performance of 'Singin' in the Rain'.

"Yes," I said, "but with Gene smiling with that twinkle in his eye on the big screen inside, there will still be a hint of the green."

Gene once said: "With my good Irish name, I feel at home in the old country. I'm accepted there." On April 27 at the National Concert Hall, Eoghanin O Currain Ui Chellaigh will, indeed, be home.

How the Irish made American dance series.

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