The 1930s anti-jazz movement has been well-documented in recent years, with Cathal Brennan’s 2011 Irish Story article a particularly good read. The movement against jazz was by no means merely a Dublin phenomenon, indeed it was often strongest in rural Ireland. Brennan’s article notes:
On New Year’s Day 1934 over three thousand people from South Leitrim and surrounding areas marched through Mohill to begin the Anti – Jazz campaign. The procession was accompanied by five bands and the demonstrators carried banners inscribed with slogans such as ‘Down with Jazz’ and ‘Out with Paganism.’
Only in the last few weeks, the Evening Herald has joined the long list of newspapers digitsed by the excellent and very important Irish Newspaper Archives. Being a tabloid publication, it is of a very difficult style to many of the previously digitised broadsheet newspapers, and throws up some real gems on cultural issues and moral panics. While there is much condemnation of jazz music and the danger of the dance halls, there are also some wonderful advertisements for jazz bands, including ‘The Yankee Jazz Maniacs’, described on more than one occasion as the “hottest band in Ireland.”From time to time, these advertisements could appear on or opposite pages denouncing jazz music!
Much of the discourse in the Ireland of the time around music, dance halls and jazz was shaped by the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935, introduced under the first Fianna Fáil government. That Act can only be viewed in the context of the moral panic against dance halls of the time, which was encouraged by the Catholic Hierarchy, cultural nationalists and some in the press. The Act sought to make provision for the licensing, control, and supervision of places used for public dancing. It was bad news for dance halls in the cities, but also for communal traditions like crossroads dances in rural Ireland. It could only have been introduced in a country where it was acceptable to peddle the kind of nonsense that “one of the immediate and chief causes of the immorality of recent times, involving particularly the unmarried mother, is the commercialised dance halls.”
The fear of jazz ‘infiltrating’ the dance halls of Dublin was present even at meetings of Dublin Corporation, with Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne on record in February 1934 as stating:
The Citizens of Dublin are not following the dances of negroes. I challenge you to go into any hotel or ballroom in the city and point out anything that could be described as following the negroes or indecent.It is a slander on the people of Dublin to say they are following the negroes, and nobody has any right to make that charge.
It was clear those condemning jazz and jazz dancing knew nothing about it, with the claim that the music was “borrowed from Central Africa by a gang of wealthy international Bolshevists in America, their aim being to strike at Christian civilisation throughout the world” even making its way into the papers.
The raiding of dance halls under the terms of the ludicrous 1935 Act took up plenty of column inches; the Herald reported of a raid in January 1936 which resulted in the closing down of a dance involving 150 young men and women. Unsurprisingly, young people were more than willing to violate the terms of the Act and to seek something other than rigidly controlled social spaces:
A rare moment of sense in the debate around dance halls came from a letter writer to the paper in October 1940:
As a parent, may I be permitted to give my views on the dance problem? Dancing is one of the oldest of human pleasures…and telling young people that dancing is wrong is just inviting trouble. If you go further and prevent them from attending dances, you have only yourself to blame if they kick over the traces. I have never opposed my children going to dances. I trust to their good sense and it works out alright.