Erina Brady A forgotten pioneer of Modern Dance in 1940s Ireland

Detective File
Detective File | Photo: Deirdre Mulrooney

Though Ireland’s top contemporary dance artists (some of whom are practitioners for more than two decades) had never heard her name until very recently, she has lived on in the memories of those she taught, inspired and came into contact with her. Born in Bad Homburg vor der Höhe, Germany in May 1891, her father, Terence Brady was from Cavan, Ireland, and her mother, Elisabeth Wendland, was German.

When Erina Brady was in her twenties, the Republic of Ireland was emerging as a new nation and recovering from civil war. On the continent, Erina was writing articles for the Swiss press, canvassing for Irish self-determination. She got a job with the new Irish government as a typist with the League of Nation in Geneva. Her father, who made sure that his cosmopolitan daughter had a grasp of the Irish language, was the guiding force behind this.
 
Erina came to modern dance through Dalcroze Eurhythmics and the movement choirs of Rudolf von Laban. Around 1920 she encountered the challenging work of Mary Wigman, the founder of psychologically intense Ausdruckstanz, who would quickly become her guru. Trainingwith these greats in Dresden, Erina Brady watched them perform, met them first hand, and became deeply influenced by their epic modern choreographies.

Apart from evangelising the enlightened bodily philosophies of modern dance, Erina had another secret reason for coming to Ireland. She also wanted to pay a visit to the family who had made her father persona non grata and airbrushed him out of the family tree. Today, Erina’s relative Jim Brady shares his discovery about this lost modern dancing cousin: “Following my mother’s death - my mother lived in the house with my grandmother in Cavan town - and when we were clearing out the house, I came across this biscuit tin. In the biscuit tin, there were among other things memoriam cards, and cuttings from newspapers. Luckily enough, I didn’t destroy it, I kept it.”
 
In a 1941 article about a modern dancer named Erina Brady, found by Jim Brady in the biscuit tin, another relative he had never heard of, her father, Terence Brady is described as “a lecturer in Greek in Latin”. However, it has since emerged that in fact this black sheep of the prominent Cavan family left the priesthood in 1888 to marry a young German woman he met in the USA on a fundraising trip for St Patrick’s boys’ school, Cavan, of which he had been Dean, and Bursar. Elaborating on Erina’s Cavan background Jim Brady reveals: “The priest leaving the priesthood wouldn’t have gone down well. I’d imagine that in the 1940s it was a little bit of a shock to find this lady coming from Germany and saying that I’m the priest’s daughter“.
 
When she arrived to Ireland before the outbreak of World War Two, Erina was going to bring news of her father’s recent death to his Cavan family, and she hoped, reconciliation. With this in mind, soon after her arrival, Erina visited her eldest living relative, cousin Tom, who was a bank manager, in Navan. According to Brady family lore, he notoriously slammed the door in her face.
 
But Erina did not let this harsh experience deter her from her idea of setting up her Irish School of Dance Art at 39 Harcourt Street, beginning by getting her children’s classes going. She recruited both Catholic and Protestant little students, to whom she imparted her ecumenical philosophy of free body movement.
 
One of these tiny 1940s pupils, Elizabeth Moore shares that “in my mind even though I was very young. I can see that studio. You went in, changed in the little cloakroom, went down a passageway and opened a door into this big, bright studio – indeed which Erina lived in because there was a little bed in a niche in one wall”.

Erina was just one in a wave of refugees to neutral Dublin, fleeing the war, and mixed happily in the thriving Bohemian milieu of “Emergency” Dublin. (A state of “Emergency” was declared in Ireland when World War Two broke out, and the era was officially referred to as “The Emergency”). Because Dublin, like Lisbon, and Switzerland, was neutral during World War Two, it attracted a racy international crowd. These Bohemian refugees naturally invited suspicion from the Irish Department of Defence, who were keen to safeguard Irish neutrality.On the one hand, Erina’s flamboyance, secrecy, and German background gave rise to suspicion. But on the other hand, Erina found kindred spirits in 39 Harcourt Street which was full of interesting Irish artists who warmly embraced her, as one of their own. Hugh Barden, for example. He made sets for Erina’s shows, and became a life-long friend. Another ofErina’s housemates was film-maker Liam O Laoghaire, who founded the Irish Film Society. An Irish language enthusiast at the time, O Laoghaire was enthralled by this exotic woman who turned up from Germany full of Irish patriotism and able to speak Irish.

Under Suspicion

Initially the Department of Defence mistook Erina for a well known spy and “letterbox” (a person who re-posted letters). Detective James McGuire intercepted Erina’s May 24th, 1941 postcard inviting the Hempels – the German Legation to Dublin - for tea to her studio. You never would have guessed it from her youthful appearance, but it was the week of Erina’s 50th birthday. Frau Hempel had young children, and was interested in promoting the holistic German dance of expression taught at Erina’s Irish School of Dance Art. Unfortunately for Erina, her intercepted invitation coincided with the bombing of Dublin’s North Strand by the German Luftwaffe, when Dublin was mistaken for Liverpool and many Dubliners were killed. As far as the detectives were concerned, this unfortunate coincidence gave them more cause to suspect that Erina’s so-called dance school could possibly be a front for something much more threatening to Ireland.
 
“Although the source or extent of her income cannot be ascertained, apart from school fees she appears to have plenty of money, and I have been informed that she sometimes entertains lavishly, giving what is known as “Bottle and Pyjama” Parties at her flat”, notes McGuire on 23 June, 1941.
 
Politically, like a country in neutral gear, “Emergency” Ireland could go in any direction. On the one hand, people feared a German invasion, on the other, that the British might take over once more. While the Irish Department of Defense were on edge, artistically, Dublin became a hotbed of cutting edge Modernism. Erina was at the centre of this milieu, which included The White Stag Art Group, under the leadership of avant-garde painters Basil Rakoczi and Kenneth Hall.

Rakoczi was also monitored by the detectives. Others in their milieu were interned in the Curragh, and some were even deported on suspicion of anti-Irish activity. Erina’s friends and fellow bohemianswere pacifists, who came to Ireland from Britain to avoid the war. Referred to by many in Dublin as the “corduroy panzer brigade”, The White Stag Art Group practiced what they called “New Subjectivity” in their modernist art, and attracted Irish artists into their circle. Erina was best friends with Rakoczi, and would open his exhibition of Irish landscapes in 1945. They were interested in all aspects of the human being and started a “Society for Creative Psychology” in Dublin. Young Irish artist Patrick Scott also first exhibited his work with the White Stag Art Group.
 
In February 1942, Erina made her much anticipated debut at the Abbey theatre as dance advisor/choreographer in Irish language plays Dráma Morálta, Ó Cách, a version of the Medieval play, Everyman; and Gloine an Impire, by Traolach Ó Raithbhearthaigh. From Irish language productions, to musicals like Rose Marie (a Romance of the Canadian Rockies), at the Gaiety, Erina Brady was versatile. She both choreographed the musical, and played the role of the Squaw, Wanda, reviewed Dec 16th, 1942 in the Irish Independent: “The war has undoubtedly provided a silver lining with the chances it has given to native talent. That was my outstanding impression when I returned home from the enthusiastic first night of Rose Marie. Artistes all. They starred that very fine professional artist, Erina Brady, another Irish girl. She has played with the Paris Theatre Mogador, as far away as Tunis, and Algiers, and is a talented disciple of the best European schools of dance art. She is a great ballet teacher as the gorgeous Riot of the Totem Pole dance showed.”
 
The momentum was building towards her ultimate goal of creating the Erina Brady Dance Company of her dreams. To this end, she gave “dance demonstrations” around Ireland, accompanied by Jacqueline Robinson. Through Park House Protestant School, Erina was delighted to find 17 year old June Fryer, another dancing star who would help to realise her vision of holistic modern dance for Ireland. June would become Ireland’s first modern dancer.
 
Jacqueline Robinson immortalised the forgotten training given by Erina Brady in her Irish School of Dance Art in her Dublin Memoir entitled “Modern Dance in 1940s Ireland? Yes, There Was!” in 1999, shortly before she died. Giving us a window into Erina Brady’s studio, Robinson writes “Professional training was in fact very like that given by Mary Wigman in her schools in Germany. In the intimacy of her studio, we knew Erina exacting and considerate, aloof, and tender, cold and passionate, ever filled with the desire to go further, deeper, with no compromise, into the veracity of the art of dance to which she was devoted, and to bring us along that same path. We looked at her dancing, and were taken into another world. We listened, and tried to do what she asked for in the dance classes. Conscious of the length and richness of that path. She encouraged us to learn about and enjoy other art forms – music, painting, architecture – as it were ever opening up new doors, revealing new landscapes.”

In the Convent

 In May 1945, when the war in Europe was finally coming to an end, Eamon De Valera was still walking the tightrope of neutrality, offering controversial condolences to Edouard Hempel, the German representative to Ireland, on the death of Adolf Hitler. Soon after, as Ireland’s Tuberculosis epidemic raged, modern dance seemed to be going mainstream when De Valera opened Erina Brady’s choric dance fantasy, “A Propaganda Ballet Against Tuberculosis”, on May 28th, 1945. The production was part of the Irish Red Cross Society’s Tuberculosis Exhibition at the Mansion House.
 
In her Dublin memoir, Jacqueline Robinson recalls: “During those weeks of The TB Ballet, we could but rejoice that the war in Europe was over. A stop to the horrors. This furthermore meant for us in a neutral country, that doors would be opening up once more. We had felt isolated for sure. A curtain was lifting, a promise of light.”
 
Thanks to her father’s clerical background, Erina had a good rapport with Catholic clergy. As part of her ambitious campaign to spread modern dance throughout Ireland she succeeded in getting her classes into convent schools. However, this sometimes got her into trouble, as the following Autumn 1945 anecdote from Robinson’s memoir indicates: “For my first class I wore a long fluid coat, which was a customary garment for dancing at the time. The class went very well, with one of the sisters attending. Afterwards I was summoned by the Mother Superior. “Miss Robinson I hear that you lifted your skirt, revealing your legs, which furthermore were in a wide stance! No question of your doing that here!” At the end of the term the Bishop announced that there would be no more dancing classes of that type at the convent.”  
 
After the war, Ireland was hurtling headlong into the dark ages of the repressive 1950s in which Erina Brady’s holistic ideals of modern dance and the body hadn’t a hope. Unfortunately that Bohemian exodus included Erina’s now worldly young hopefuls, June and Jacqueline.
 
Despite her best attempts to get the seed she had planted to take hold, by setting up a Dublin Dance Theatre Club in 1948, not even the Trojan modernist Erina Brady could sustain her vision now. In a last ditch effort, she decided to take her work to London. In Spring 1948 she brought her Erina Brady Dance Group to debut The Voyage of Maeldune at the Rudolf Steiner Hall in London. Alas, instead of the great launch, and beginning she hoped for, this would be their last performance together.Erina did her best to hide her disappointment as her two great hopes left her: June took up further training with Sigurd Leeder and went to teach at Oxford Theatre School. Jacqueline went first to Nottingham, and then to Paris where she would set up L’Atelier de la Danse.  
 
In the meantime, Erina’s Dublin classes were dwindling, as her past pupil Elizabeth Moore recalls:“It was round about 1948, and the classes had been somehow growing smaller. I arrived this day and nobody else came to the class, except myself. I was a little bit in awe of Erina. But she sat down and just talked to me… She told me on that occasion to stand up, and to be oneself, and she said, I always remember this – the Irish have been oppressed for so long, and downtrodden... Evelyn Burchall opened a school around that time. This was ballet, tap, ballroom dancing, a big dance school, and she actually came to see Erina when she started her school – a courtesy call? I don’t know. But she told her that she would fight her for pupils. And the sad thing is I think she actually won because very shortly after that, I think Erina’s school closed and she left Ireland.“
 
Erina had pulls towards Brione, Switzerland, where her elderly mother lived in the eponymous Casa Erina. This is where Erina eventually returned, giving up on Ireland. Erina was as secretive about her personal life as she was about her family history. All we know for sure is that her good friend Hugh Barden visited her from time to time. Erina Brady died quietly in Switzerland in 1961 at the age of 70.
 
There are at least fifteen contemporary dance companies in existence in Ireland today – all of which are the inheritors of the great Erina Brady.