In the year where we’re celebrating this city’s wide reaching cultural achievements, it seems amazing that more hasn’t been made of the achievements of Lilian O’More, the Derry woman who was the first person in the world to qualify as a professional Irish dancing teacher under the Commission of Irish Dancers.
Now 87, Lilian is able to look back on an extensive career in Irish dancing which in the decades before wigs, fake tan, and Riverdance, saw the Derry woman regarded as one of the best in the world in her craft.
Writing personally to Lilian prior to the publication of his latest book, international Irish dance expert Dr. John P. Cullinane, described her as a ‘legend’ in the world of Irish dancing, citing her status as becoming the first qualified Irish dancing teacher here.
In his letter, he writes: “You receive the very first copy of my book because you were the first to sit the “Teastas Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha” exam in 1943. Since then, there have been over 2,000 teachers in 18 different countries including China and Japan have taken this exam, but you were the first in the entire world and a legend in many aspects of Irish dancing.”
Lilian began her Irish dancing teaching career aged just 18, and quickly rose to prominence through the ranks to become one of the most in demand adjudicators in the world.
Proof of this are the numerous trips to places like America and New Zealand in the late seventies where she was called upon to train other adjudicators.
In the book ‘A history of Irish dancing Commission Examinations’ Lilian is referred to as a “legendary teacher of Irish dancing who produced many great champions over an extraordinary period of time.”
In 2009 Lilian was presented with a special civic award by then mayor Gerard Diver in recognition of her work over the years. In 2011 she was presented with a Lifetime achievement award at the World Irish Dancing championships in Dublin. Thanks to her dedication and commitment, Lilian well and truly put Derry on the map in terms of Irish dancing, bringing an amazing five World Championship titles home during her career.
It was her own teacher Nellie Sweeney who first inspired Lilian in the world of jigs and reels, so much so, that she wanted to pass the love of the tradition onto another generation and set up her first school behind her West End Terrace home.
As news of her ability and success started to spread, Lilian’s talents were called on beyond Derry and she regularly found herself travelling the length and breadth of the country to teach and adjudicate.
With the existence of Customs posts in the sixties, Lilian’s journeys from North to South were more colourful than they would be now, as she recalls, referring to one run in in particular.
“You couldn’t get a hold of tap shoes in the North at that stage so at one point, I bought six pairs in Donegal and was bringing them back to Derry under my coat on the bus. A customs man came onto the bus that day and asked if were carrying anything so I just said out loud ‘six pairs of tap shoes,’ out of pure nerves! The man thought I was joking and just laughed saying ‘Lilian, there’s always a joke with you,’ but the joke really was that I had the shoes there, and I got them back to Derry, one way or another!”
Lilian travelled way beyond Ireland during her career, even as far as New Zealand, where she trained teachers in 1978.
“I loved all the travelling, and I miss it to this day,” she says.
“But it was difficult too; you were trying to raise a family at the same time and keep everything going.”
Closer to home, Lilian was very well known among the local Irish dancing fraternity and still holds in high regard the teachers she has known throughout the North West, particularly her old friend, the late Brendan DeGlin. Looking back with fondness, Lilian clearly misses some of the more traditional aspects of Irish dancing, many of which have become lost in an industry which is now heavily style focused.
“It’s very different now with everything that surrounds the actual dancing, and truth be told, I think I prefer it the way it was back then. That was my heyday, and it was all just about rhythm and carriage, nothing else. I think that’s all Irish dancing really should be about.
It was when teaching a class in Moville that Lilian met her sailor husband Brendan. The couple went on to have five children; Desmond, Michelle, Brenda, Maria and Elizabeth. She’s now also a proud grandmother of seven and great grandmother to four.
Outside the family however, there were hundreds of children who knew Lilian as their dance teacher.
Now, her daughter Michelle is carrying on the family tradition by teaching a class in England, where she lives.
Lilian’s heart lies firmly in Derry however, and while her dancing days are over, she still holds fond memories of the many who passed through her dance school.
Her ability to remember individually almost each and every pupil is staggering.
“You remember them all, the pupils I had were all great. I could always tell a champion and while some brought home world championships, there were others who, with more practice, could have done the same thing and I did most of my teaching before Michael Flatley put on his first pair of dance shoes,” she jokes.
There’s no denying the fact that the Irish dancing world was revolutionised by Riverdance but for Lilian, nothing quite beats the dancing which takes place in hundreds of dance schools around Ireland and the pupils progress through local feiseanna right up to world championship level.
To this day, Lilian claims to be able to spot dancing talent, even in the toes of toddlers.
There’s no doubt about the fact that even though she has retired, the Marlborough Road woman still has dancing in her blood.
“I probably always will,” she smiles.