preserving the cultural tradition of Irish ceili and set dancing since 1991
Remembering John (Sean) Coakley
An Appreciation of an Irish Immigrant and Former Member of the RKIDs
by Obie O'Brien
There is a story to tell about our 15 minutes of fame.
Some of you may not know that a few current members of the Ring of Kerry Irish Dancers performed at Lisner Auditorium on March 10, 1990, on the same billing as Tommy Makem.
Sean Coakley, the promoter of the event that night, called us the Kerry Dancers in his promotional materials, as shown on the left. Actually, our name then was Andes Dandies, but we were too excited to care about this detail.
Sean, an old friend of mine, had asked me if our group would like to perform with Tommy Makem. I checked with Kathy Andes, our instructor and leader, and she was all for it.
We were thrilled that Jesse Winch and his group, Celtic Thunder, would provide the music for our performance. Kathy called Jesse and they decided we would do two figures of the North Kerry Set, a dance that was fairly new to dancers in the Washington area. The gig was two weeks away and we needed to perfect the two figures quickly.
Celtic Thunder practiced their tunes and we rehearsed to taped music, but we never rehearsed together. Sean was a Big Idea guy, but not into details. He did not consider that we might need time to practice together. We had to wing it.
The night of the performance, we were ready. We were scheduled to dance during intermission in front of 2,000 Irish music enthusiasts. It was a wide stage with Celtic Thunder stage right and the Kerry Dancers stage left. As Makem was playing, we were to set up behind the curtain. A problem occurred. There were wires all over the dance floor. Luckily, a stage hand had some duct tape and was quickly able to cover up most of the wires. We were ready to go.
Makem finished his first set. Sean went to center stage and announced that Celtic Thunder and the Kerry Dancers were about to perform. Our hearts were pumping. All went well until the music started. Jesse played at a rapid pace and we had practiced at a slower speed. We did our best to keep up with the lively music, but basically, we were out of sync. We just kept smiling!
Then, Jesse and his band played 8 less bars of music than we had practiced during our first figure. It wasn’t a mistake. There are variations in the way the music is played, but it meant that each couple ended the figure on the opposite side of our normal positions. Again, we were out of sync with the wonderful music presented by the talented musicians on the other side of the stage. We were bewildered, but we carried on and Sean congratulated us on a fine performance. Kathy received ample praise, and, despite the hiccups, we had our 15 minutes of fame.
A Gifted and Keen Mind
An accomplished man with a gifted and keen mind, Sean Coakley, the show's promoter, was devoted to promoting Irish culture in the Washington area. Sadly, he passed away on April 16th, 2021. His obituary appeared in the Washington Post of Sunday, April 18th.
Like my mother, he came from Skibbereen, Co. Cork, Ireland. Along with my brother, Jack, he started the first DC St. Patrick’s Day parade which marched up Massachusetts Ave from Dupont Circle to the Irish embassy.
Sean ran a feis (step dancing competition) where my children danced and as a realtor, he sold my parents’ house in Northeast DC to Catholic University. Sean loved to dance and was a member of the Ring of Kerry Irish Dancers. He was brother to former members, Patricia Boler and Mary Falvey.
He will always be remembered for founding the Irish Folklore Society and convincing the Park Service to open the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo to the Irish community for a dance on Memorial Day weekend.
His impact on Irish arts and culture in the Washington area cannot be overstated.
From Sean's Obituary:
May the Irish hills caress you.
May her lakes and rivers bless you.
May the luck of the Irish enfold you.
May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.
For it is not goodbye we will say today, but Slan Leat or good-bye for now.