On with the show!

black-and-white image of Patricia Mulholland, playing the violin

by Anna-Maria Hajba, Archivist

Belfast-born Patricia Mulholland (1915—1992) is regarded as one of the most influential figures of twentieth-century Irish traditional dancing. In 1936, she took over her sister Stella’s dancing school and, disliking the rigidity of the traditional form of Irish dancing, decided to develop it in a new direction by teaching her pupils to use not just their feet but their entire bodies. She borrowed elements from classical ballet and Scottish dancing, and added to them movements of her own devising. Her dancers never held their arms by their sides but a few inches away from their bodies, and women often used their hands to hold their skirts. Feet were pointed out and down at all times, and dancers were encouraged to fill their movements with animation. This new form of dancing broke away from the more rigid and formulaic ‘Feis’ style, and instead focused on each dancer’s individual style of movement.

N29/64 Patricia Mulholland, c1959


In 1953, Patricia Mulholland choreographed and produced her first Irish folk ballet, Cúchulainn. It was to a great extent devised to showcase her most talented dancer, Norman Maternaghan (1932—2008), an All-Ireland champion for many years. Another student in Patricia Mulholland’s Irish dancing school was Brian Bunting (b 1946), who joined in 1951 at the age of seven. He was an enthusiastic participant in Cúchulainn, and in many of the other ballets in Mulholland’s extensive repertoire — A Piper (1955), The Dream of Angus Óg (1956), The Black Rogue (1959), The Oul’ Lammas Fair (1959), The Variety Market (1959), Phil the Fluter’s Ball (1961), and The Children of Lir (1961), to name but a few.

N78/2 Brian Bunting and Norman Maternaghan (centre front) performing in a hurling scene in ‘Cúchulainn’, c1953

Costume design

From the outset, costumes for these ballets were designed by Mercy Hunter (1910—1989), head of art at Victoria College, Belfast and a founder member of the Ulster Society of Women Artists. Although her sketches were colourful and visually pleasing, Mercy had little knowledge of what was required of a costume to facilitate the movements of a dancer. In Cúchulainn, the tunic she designed for Norman Maternaghan came so far past his knees as to make dancing almost impossible. Norman, who possessed a good artistic eye, was eventually permitted to create his own, much shorter version of the garment.

Another shortcoming Mercy Hunter had was lack of knowledge of the technical side of dressmaking. When the production of a new ballet began, dancers like young Brian Bunting were simply handed a coloured sketch of their intended costume with a fabric sample or two and, with the help of their mothers and sisters, told to get on with making the outfit. The sketches were wide open to interpretation, and it was not uncommon for dancers to misunderstand them or to abandon them altogether in favour of their own design ideas. This could lead to unexpected surprises and flared tempers at dress rehearsals!

From Belfast to the wider world

For dancers like Brian Bunting, Patricia Mulholland’s school offered not only a wonderful creative environment in which to grow up, but a rare opportunity for foreign travel. As part of Mulholland’s team of dancers, Brian performed at festivals in the Royal Albert Hall, London (1962), Royan in France (1964), and the Isle of Man and Leeds (1967).

For others students, the school offered a springboard for unimagined heights. Norman Maternaghan shortened his surname to Maen and worked as a dancer in Canada and the United States before moving to London, where he established a career as a choreographer and shot to international fame. He arranged dance routines for stars like Liza Minelli, Julie Andrews, and Sammy Davis Jnr, and was the creator of a number of dance routines for the Muppet Show, including the unforgettable Swine Lake sequence featuring Rudolf Nureyev and Miss Piggy. In 1970, Norman Maen won an Emmy for outstanding achievement in choreography. It was a proud moment for Patricia Mulholland and her School of Irish Dancing.

N65/99 Norman Maen receiving an Emmy from Anne Bancroft for outstanding achievement in choreography, 1970

Related collections:
The Patricia Mulholland Papers (N29)
The Norman Maen Papers (N65)
The Brian Bunting Papers (N78)

Cited works: MacCafferty, Joyce Ann. The Deep Green Pool: The Life, Work and Legacy of Patricia Mulholland. Derry: Guildhall Press, 2007.