Pat Roche

Chronology of a Chicago and Irish Dancing Legend

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Pat Roche is born to a farming family in Doonaha, County Clare, Ireland.

Michael Hennessey, Irish dance master, establishes himself in Doonaha, teaching young Pat Roche the art of Irish dance, which he pursues at every opportunity in a converted creamery.

Wearing a new suit and carrying a small pack of provisions, 20-year-old Pat Roche makes the six-day passage to New York to live with his sister and to find his way in America.

Pat Roche takes dance lessons from Professor James McKenna, a leading New York Irish dance teacher, influencing Pat Roche’s style.

Pat Roche moves to Chicago, opening a small door-to-door grocery business and teaching Irish dance to parish children, including those at St. Gabriel parish on Chicago’s south side.

Early 1930’s
The 1933 world’s fair, the Century of Progress, extends into 1934 in Chicago, marked, in part, by the opening of the reorganized Irish Village there.

Pat Roche is enlisted to serve as master of ceremonies for the dancing and music entertainment at the Irish Village.

Adding authenticity to the Irish Village, Pat Roche organizes the Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, a group of Irish musicians,  providing music for the world’s fair Irish dancers.  The group includes a drummer, an uilleann piper, a pianist, a fiddler, and an accordion player.

Pat Roche and the Harp and Shamrock Orchestra record on the Decca record label, capturing Pat Roche’s hard shoe sound to “The Blackbird” and “The Garden of Daisies.”

Pat Roche provides his expertise in preparing performers at the “Pageant of the Celt,” staged at Soldiers’ Field.  Through song, story, and dance, 1,000 chorus members and 500 dancers portray the story of Ireland.

Pat Roche founds the Harp and Shamrock Club with the sole purpose of keeping alive the music, song, and dance of Ireland.  The club becomes the group with which Pat Roche is most closely involved.  In later years, the club establishes the Irish Family of the Year Award and the Cuchulian Award for outstanding work in the Irish Community.

Late 1930’s
The Harp and Shamrock Club begins hosting “Irish Festivals,” including entertainment by Pat Roche’s dancers.

Believing in the importance of involving young people in Irish music as well as dance, Pat Roche enlists music teachers and organizes a flute band for children.

Pat Roche expands his dance classes to four locations around the city, including St. Mel parish on Chicago’s  west side.

Movie distributors join with Pat Roche in providing Irish stage shows to accompany movie theatre showings of films about Ireland.

Pat Roche serves as editor of The American Gael, a newspaper for Irish Americans.

Early 1940’s
Pat Roche expands his dance classes to five locations around the city, and, with the cooperation of the Harp and Shamrock Club, expands music classes to two locations and organizes a drumming class in another.

Pat Roche travels with his students beyond the Chicago area, including the National Folk Festivals in Washington, DC and Philadelphia and the New York Feis at Fordham University.

With the support and encouragement of his New York friends, including his former teacher, Professor McKenna, Pat Roche and the Harp and Shamrock Club host Chicago’s first annual Irish national feis.  The feis is distinguished for attracting Irish dancers from around the country.  The Harp and Shamrock Feis takes place annually under the club’s sponsorship for 15 years.

Late 1940’s
A number of Pat Roche’s students, including Mary Shevlin McNamara, Mary Campbell Fahey, Jim Shea, Joe Cullinan, Eileen Ring, and Frank Culhane, open their own dancing schools.

Approximately a dozen Irish dance schools are in operation in Chicago, nearly all of them bred of Pat Roche’s vision to promote Irish dance and culture.  All of them participate in the Harp and Shamrock Feis and other events organized by Pat Roche.

Pat Roche serves as president of the Irish Dance Teachers Commission of America, an organization he helps organize as a precursor to the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America.

Late 1950’s
Marge Bartishell, another of Pat Roche’s students, opens her dancing school.  Marrying Dennis Dennehy,  a student of Mary Campbell Fahey, the couple forge a new era of Irish dance in Chicago.  The Dennehys eventually train Michael Flatley, the first North American to win the Senior Men’s Solo World title and Mark Howard, founder of Trinity Academy and Trinity Irish Dance Company and the coach behind numerous gold, silver, and bronze World Championship teams.

Pat Roche is invited to form the Chicago branch of the Comhaltas Ceoltóití Éireann (Irish Musician Association of Ireland). In doing so, Pat Roche and fellow members reprint music from the association’s collection for distribution to Irish musicians throughout the world.

Pat Roche trains a team of 12- and 13-year-olds for a Ceili competition against adults at a feis in Boston.  Up until this time, Ceili dancing had been dominated by adults.  The victory of Pat Roche’s young team over the adults changes the course of team dancing at U.S. feiseanna.

The international branch of the Pat Roche School of Irish Dancing is launched with dance master Charles Malone in Dublin.  Steps are exchanged via 8mm film.

Pat Roche creates his legendary “Lakes of Sligo” Choreography for his senior dancers as Irish dance Choreography gains popularity.

The Harp and Shamrock Irish Hour, with Pat Roche as host, is launched on WOPA Radio.  The popular program runs 12 years on WOPA and WXRT.  Through this show, Pat Roche combines his love of Irish culture with his interest in Irish political events and shares them with a loyal listening audience.

Late 1960’s - 1982
With his daughter, Peggy Roche Boyle, Pat Roche continues to teach Irish dance.  His special pointers focus on posture, timing, and “getting the sound out of the feet.”   He continues to host his popular radio show, support efforts for a united Ireland, advocate the recitation of the Rosary, and promote all things Irish.

Peggy Roche Boyle retires as the lead teacher of the Pat Roche School of Irish Dancing, passing along her students to Mark Howard, who opens the doors of Trinity Academy.

Late 1980's - Early 1990's

Pat Roche's granddaughters are members of Trinity Academy's Dance Drama teams and Choreography teams, winning three gold medals and a silver medal at the World Championships.  They are: Aileen Kulak O'Malley, Meghan Boyle Larson, Kathleen Boyle, and Jennifer McDonnell Akalaitis.

Mark Howard founds the Pat Roche Feis, combining efforts with several Chicago Irish dance schools to launch it.  At 97 years of age, Pat Roche is joined that day by numerous family members and 2,000 Irish dancers, honoring him for his contributions to Irish dance and culture.

The Pat Roche Memorial Dance Award for senior men and senior ladies and the Century of Progress Award for Under 10 Girls and Under 10 Boys are introduced at the Pat Roche Feis as perpetual trophies.

Pat Roche passes away on October 24, four months shy of his 100th birthday.  At his passing, he is survived by his wife, Grace, eight children, 26 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

As sole hosts of the Chicago Pat Roche Feis, Trinity Academy Booster Club introduces the U14 Preliminary Champion Harp and Shamrock Award, named for Pat Roche’s club, as the first ever perpetual trophy in this category.

Chicago Sun-Times
"Pat Roche, 99; helped spread Irish step-dancing"
October 26, 2004
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Pat Roche was inducted into the
Irish Traditional Music Hall of Fame
in 2003
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Some thoughts and stories of Pat Roche
click here

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