For the past couple of weeks, a trial in Dublin has heard the details of a sensational gangland killing in which an AK-47-toting gunman dressed as a police officer and a hitman in drag stormed a boxing weigh-in, killing a member of Ireland’s most notorious drug cartel.
Ireland is regularly hailed as a great, safe place to live, but the fact that it is home to an international cartel run by gangsters with $5mn bounties on their heads might be news to visitors lured by the country’s easy-going reputation for craic, or fun.
Irish dancing, on the other hand, is a globally-recognisable symbol of Celtic culture made famous by the hypnotic, high-kicking extravaganza, Riverdance. But while the gangster trial got under way in Dublin last month, another scandal was unfolding that has sent the apparently genteel world of Irish dancing literally reeling.
A whistleblower tipped off the Irish Independent newspaper about alleged competition fixing and cheating involving teachers lobbying — on occasion with the apparent promise of sexual favours — to get their dancers bumped up the rankings in prestigious competitions.
Screenshots of text messages between teachers and judges shone a rare light into a sordid underworld behind the sequins, massive curly wigs and mesmerising fancy footwork of one of Ireland’s biggest soft power cultural exports. No one in the multimillion euro, international Irish dance competition industry — where ornate dresses can cost €6,000 and families can spend €20,000 a year taking their children to compete around the country — appeared surprised.
But only former dancers, freed from what they called a Mafia-like cult of omertà, felt able to speak out about the industry’s grubby open secret: cheating. Rigged results, they allege, bring prestige to complicit academies for whom a shiny championship record translates into more students and more money.
Ireland considers its native dancing an art form, integral to many children’s lives. Aficionados can study it to doctoral level. Then there is the financial benefit: cities hosting the glossy world championships can rake in €14mn in economic impact, according to evidence to a committee in the Irish Dáil, or parliament.
The industry has come a long way from the ancient Celtic ritual of dancing around trees. Jigs became a feature of country life, with dancers’ arms pinned to their sides reflecting a lack of space in cramped cottages, according to some accounts. With the late 19th-century Gaelic revival that fostered Irish language, dancing and sports, it flourished. But it was Riverdance — the stage sensation that began as an intermission act when Ireland hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 — that really put it on the map.
Eurovision songs are often famously forgettable, but for the 300mn viewers who were transfixed by Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley and his co-star Jean Butler, this was Irish dancing as it had never been seen before. It has not looked back since. Riverdance turned into a sellout global phenomenon, Flatley moved on to star in Lord of the Dance in 1996 and An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, or CLRG, the governing body at the centre of the scandal, reaped the benefits of the explosion of interest in Irish dancing.
Deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar has warned of the risk of “reputational harm” to Ireland over the championship-fixing allegations. He will take over as taoiseach, or prime minister in December after clearing his own name earlier this year in a scandal over his leaking of a confidential document on doctors’ pay. Irish dancing, he has said, must face a proper investigation and be held to account.
A former Court of Appeal judge has investigated the allegations and CLRG, which was set up in 1927 as a commission of inquiry into the organisation of Irish dance, has promised disciplinary action and to restore “integrity”.
But for Gráinne Conroy, a former Irish dancer, the scandal is an opportunity to take stock and focus on “what Irish dancing really means to us”. “This controversy could be the best thing to happen . . . since Riverdance,” she wrote in an editorial in the Irish Times. “It’s time to begin again.”