"Degenerate Spaces and Giddy Girls": Women, Dancing, and National Identity in the Irish Free State

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Julia Palmerino, College of the Holy Cross
This project explores how Irish dance halls, public spaces where young Irish men and women met to socialize and dance in the 1920s and 1930s, became sites of moral regulation and gendered control by Church and State. The halls were initially sites not only of music, dance, and entertainment--they were sites where youth culture mingled with modernity and Irish nationalism, the consequences of which fostered fear and anxiety among political and clerical leaders. Having won its independence from Great Britain after years of violent revolution and a divisive civil war, the 1920s and 30s served as formative years for the Irish Free State which inculcated a nationalism that mixed republicanism with moralism and misogyny. On a global level, the interwar years were a time of turbulent sociopolitical change around the world, with the onset of widespread globalization and the emergence of social modernity. The convergence of domestic and international changes prompted political anxiety, which catalyzed a renewed interest in the control and containment of women and women’s bodies by the State and the Catholic Church. This collaboration between the new Irish Free State and the Irish Church authorities over dance hall regulations reflected an increased willingness of the Free State to collude with Catholic authorities when it came to containing women's choices and careers, and reinforcing their roles as wives and mothers. The 1937 Constitution, which formally inscribed women's maternal roles to the nation was the culmination of a set of policies that circumscribed women's rights within the state. This summer, we explored the musical, cultural and social aspects of the Irish dance hall phenomenon, and examined the ways in which these social spaces became spaces of political regulation and gendered control. For the project, we drew largely on primary sources collected during a research trip to the National Archives in Dublin in June 2017.
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