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The steps to success: One dancer’s mission to get people tapping their toes

Features | Published:

Katie O'Rafferty has been teaching Irish dancing to hundreds of Jersey children for almost 20 years. She tells David Edbrooke why she felt compelled to get young Islanders toe-tapping and what Irish music means to her.

WHAT do you get if you put a French dance troupe, Irish flautists, a pianist and a four-piece céilí band together?

No, the answer isn’t a misjudged one-liner that plays on tired stereotypes, but the ingredients for a St Patrick’s Day party this afternoon and evening to which all Islanders are invited.

St Patrick’s Day has become one of the most popular cultural events in the world during the four centuries since it was welcomed onto the Christian calendar as an official feast day, in remembrance of the foremost patron saint of Ireland.

Although the occasion may have become more synonymous with parties than piety, one of the most positive aspects of the celebrations is how inclusive they are – along with a green hat or a leprechaun outfit, an Irish reveller invariably wears a welcoming smile as wide as the Emerald Isle.

And perhaps nowhere in Jersey is there a greater show of glittering green than at the Radisson Blu today, where a special family-friendly St Patrick’s Day party is being held.

Organised by the Cannon O’Rafferty School of Irish Dance, the five-hour celebration, from 3 pm – 8 pm, features Irish song and dance performances by Irish and French dancers.

‘The dance school has worked really hard to fundraise to put on today’s event. There were 130 ladies – many of whom are mums of the dancers – who held a tea party at the Town Hall last month in aid of our St Patrick’s Day event and they raised £1,800, which was amazing.

‘We have 126 visitors from France, a four-piece céilí band, a dance troupe from Brittany, and musicians from France and Ireland, including flautists and a pianist – all from Donegal – playing traditional Irish music,’ says Mrs O’Rafferty, who is half Irish and half Scottish.

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‘It’s a fantastic spectacle and it’s really exciting to have everyone coming together from Ireland, France and Jersey. It’s everybody celebrating the day together.’

It is this inclusive culture which the Irish are famed for and why Irish expats are so well regarded here.

‘I’m very proud of the Irish in Jersey and what a strong community it is,’ adds Mrs O’Rafferty (50), who lives in St Brelade with her Irish husband Alan (50) and their daughter Ciara (19) – who is studying to be a pharmaceutical technician.

The bond that Jersey enjoys with Ireland can be traced back to 1847, when Irish labourers arrived to build St Catherine’s Breakwater for the purpose of helping Jersey guard against the threat of a French invasion.

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A little over a century later, many more arrived from Éire to work in Jersey’s hospitality industry, bringing Irish music and Gaelic football with them.

According to Mrs O’Rafferty, the one part of Irish culture conspicuous by its absence when she permanently relocated to the Island in 1990, was dancing.

‘There were no Irish dancers and I thought, “I will need to become a dance teacher to promote Irish dancing over here”,’ explains Mrs O’Rafferty, who first visited from her native Glasgow in the late 1980s to work as a waitress.

‘I was only supposed to come for the season to work as a waitress, but I loved Jersey as soon as I arrived. I thought “I’m never going to leave” – it was just so beautiful.

‘At that time all the young people in Glasgow seemed to come over to Jersey to work the summer season and I remember saying to my mum when she was preparing to visit, “You don’t need to take an umbrella with you”.’

Mrs O’Rafferty fondly recalls working split shifts at La Marquanderie restaurant in St Brelade – ‘between 2 pm to 6 pm I was on the beach’ – and it was in St Brelade’s Bay where she met her future husband, Alan.

‘He came to Jersey from Dublin to work in a hotel and teach water-skiing.’

She and Alan – who is a trained plumber – went on to run the Oxford Hotel pub and later, the Foresters Arms in Union Street. But it was in the year 2000 that Mrs O’Rafferty finally decided to set up a dance school.

‘I never thought I’d have my own dance school when I first came to Jersey, but Irish dancing was missing from my life. My family and my husband’s family said, “You should go and start a school and make it happen”, so I did.

‘It’s just like a big family – myself, the parents and the students all call it our big Irish dancing family.’

The school, which has 40 students from the age of four to 17, is based at the town’s St Columba’s Church in Midvale Road and holds two classes a week.

Over the years Mrs O’Rafferty, who also runs an adult dance class, has seen her young pupils do her proud at numerous local and international events, including the Jersey Eisteddfod and the Dance World Cup in Paris, and last October she took a dance troupe to Ireland to compete in the Royal Meath Championships.

‘When I see my students up on the podium it makes all the effort worthwhile.

‘Some of the older girls who used to attend my dance school have now set up a dancing group of their own called Celtic Storm and they are available for bookings across the Island,’ she adds with a tone of maternal pride in her voice.

Four years ago she took students from her dance school to Saint Aubin du Cormier, in Brittany, to compete in the Jig Sous Le Cormier music and dance festival. Since then she has been cultivating close links with a dance school over there.

‘They told me they would like someone to help them with their Irish dancing because they didn’t have an Irish dance teacher, so since then I’ve been going over to the school in Brittany once a month to teach students Irish dance.’

The strong links she has cultivated with the French dance school in recent years have enabled Mrs O’Rafferty to bring over the French dancers and musicians for today’s event.

Aside from being part of her Irish heritage, St Patrick’s Day holds special resonance with Mrs O’Rafferty for another reason – ‘my great-grandparents were both Irish and they were married on St Patrick’s Day’.

And it was her family who instilled in her a passion for Irish dancing.

‘My dad was from County Donegal and when we were living in Glasgow, my uncle ran an Irish social club for many years. My dad would always sing The Town I Loved So Well at parties and at the club, and people would dance.

‘Irish dancing and Irish music have such a strong hold on you from such an early age and that seems to be the case for all the expats who are living in Jersey.’

She adds: ‘As soon as I hear Irish music I’m making up steps and choreographing moves in my head – it just moves my heart.’

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