Ann Mann has written a fantasy novel all about the Penal Laws and Irish dancing. She spoke to Adam Shaw about she believes dance, music and literature shaped Ireland
England’s invasion and centuries-long occupation of Ireland for a long time included suppression of traditional expressions of Irish identity, including the Irish language, sing and dance. Barns, forests and hidden schools were just some of the places dance enthusiasts met to perform away from prying English eyes. And Irish dancing did not die.
It survived, thrived and developed. It remains a big part of Irish identity and this, in part, is due to the passion and bravery of those who refused to stop moving. Their efforts, combined with a lifelong love for Ireland and its mysticism, inspired British author Ann Mann to write a novel celebrating all the joys and pains of life.
“I wanted to write something which was dedicated to Ireland and showed my love for the country,” she said. “I’ve always felt that it’s my spiritual home, despite not having any Irish blood, I’ve been several times and just love everything about it.”
This affection for Ireland was borne out of childhood visits and the fact that, despite growing up in Somerset, she was introduced to the poetry of W.B. Yeats. While all the other schools in her area were taught strictly British literature, her education had a distinctly Irish flavour.
“The others did English and Scottish poetry but, because we had three Irish teachers, including an Irish headmistress, we learnt Yeats.
“From the outset I was fascinated and that continued right up through my studies,” Ann explained. She attended the Yeats Summer School in the 1960s where she “became aware of the amazing artistic and cultural contribution that Irish writers, artists and musicians had made to the world”.
Later on in her career she returned to the Summer School to lecture with her own thesis Yeats and Music while her novel opens with an extract from To Ireland in the Coming Times. The connection between Ireland and music has always been a feature of Ann’s work, including presenting and producing various programmes on the subject for the BBC. An interest in Irish dancing, however, developed as her idea for the novel took shape.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the old dance masters roaming the country and teaching others to dance,” she said. “When I was doing some further research it really hit home that people were once forbidden to dance and they took great risks at the time by continuing to do so.
“The whole spectacle just lends itself to drama – the rhythmic music and pounding of the feet.
“I also saw it as a good way of incorporating the supernatural and of linking the past with the present – you have these old dance masters and then a modern troupe.”
Past and present
Ann says she always wanted to write a supernatural novel having explored other avenues in the past. She said she had long felt that Ireland, with its strong traditions in mysticism and mythology, would be the perfect subject to base it on.
Given that, in Irish dancing, she was tackling a theme about which she had little prior knowledge and, bearing in mind she had chosen to switch between eras, the author explained that she had been forced to utilise her artistic license.
“It was tricky switching between the past and the present, and I had to do an awful lot of research,” she said.
“I have taken a few geographical liberties because I needed lakes, I needed a wood, and I needed a town and so on.
“Everyone from Shakespeare to Ruth Rendell has had to do the same and I was told that unless you’re from these exact areas, you probably wouldn’t notice anyway.”
These small details, particularly in a fantasy novel, are moot. What does come across plainly is Ann’s relationship with Ireland and the strength of her characters.
She expressed a particular pride in Blossom – an American, transgender psychic – and explained how the initial reactions to her work have been positive. This praise, in addition to an overall love of writing, means she will continue to produce books *provided she has the inspiration.
“I have to get the idea because the others have always been there. And while I probably have finished with a completely Irish novel, it doesn’t mean that, in the future, there’ll be some Irish influence,” she said.
As Ann noted, the idea for a story about Ireland has been with her since her youth. It manifested after her discovery of Irish literature and came together when she saw Michael Flatley in Riverdance. What she has produced is befitting of a true Hibernophile; as she pointed out, she’s “always taken the side of the Irish when it comes to how they were treated in the past”.
Had she been around in Clare, Galway, Limerick or anywhere else during the Penal Days, it’s likely that she would have defied the English. As it is, she’s thankful that so many did.