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Traditional Irish dance is individual and communal, much like faith, priest says

Jesuit Father Brian Frain, pastor of St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore, shows a traditional Irish dance step Feb. 6, 2023. He is a former competitive Irish dancer and avid accordion player who first learned Irish dancing at age 5. His father was born in Ireland, as were his maternal grandparents. (OSV News photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review)

BALTIMORE (OSV News) — As a lilting Irish hornpipe blared from his smart phone, Jesuit Father Brian Frain’s hard shoes repeatedly smacked a wooden floor with rapid-fire precision. The hypnotic rat-a-tat-tat-tat that echoed in the empty room seemed like the perfect percussive accompaniment to the Celtic tune.

When the music changed to a jig, the priest’s feet flew even faster as he floated across the floor — arms rigidly held alongside his torso.

The music ended, and a smile engulfed the clergyman’s face as he leaped about three feet and kicked.

“You know, I should really have the 911 button ready to go,” said the 59-year-old pastor of St. Ignatius Parish in Baltimore, his breathing slightly heavy after several minutes of high-energy dance. “I’m out of shape.”

Traditional Irish dance has been an important part of Father Frain’s life ever since he was a boy. His father was born in Ireland, as were his maternal grandparents. His aunt, who first taught him to dance when he was about 5, learned the art form while attending an Irish boarding school. He later studied in an Irish dance school.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey, Father Frain remembers falling in love with the beauty of the movement. He won several regional Irish dance championships and once competed at the national level. From 1987 to 1992, he ran his own school of Irish dancing before giving it up to enter religious life.

Father Frain, who earned his dance licensure from An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha in Dublin, the world’s premier Irish dance commission, also taught with Irish dance groups at Fordham University in New York, St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.

Now just under a year into his new pastoral assignment in Baltimore, he plans to offer Irish dance classes at St. Ignatius this Lent. Over the years, he has helped three people earn their certification to teach Irish dance.

Irish dance is both individual and communal, Father Frain said, much like the practice of the Catholic faith.

“It takes a lot of coordination and perfection with others,” he told the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “You are no longer just a self, but you’re part of a community and you can’t do what you want. You have to lift your leg exactly at the same height that the others lifted. You have to lift your hands at the precise millisecond that the others lift their hands. It requires you to stop thinking individually and start thinking of who’s around you.”

Father Frain, who has visited Ireland seven times, also plays the accordion and enjoys monthly Irish jam sessions in the rectory with a cousin. He recently began serving as chaplain to the Baltimore-area Lady’s Ancient Order of Hibernians.

“There’s a joy that’s expressed in Irish dancing,” he said. “I just love it when I see kids dancing and they know what they’re doing and that they can do it. It’s a beautiful thing.”

George Matysek Jr. is managing editor of the Catholic Review, news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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