2017-02-23 / Front Page

A Jig with History at Forty Steps

Dancing to traditional Irish music marks the official opening of Newport's Irish Heritage Month on Sunday, Feb. 26. (File photo) Dancing to traditional Irish music marks the official opening of Newport's Irish Heritage Month on Sunday, Feb. 26. (File photo) For all the events scheduled for Irish Heritage Month–and there are many–few provide the opportunity for Newporters, of Irish descent or otherwise, to celebrate the city’s Irish heritage by dancing, literally, in their ancestors' footsteps.

With the music, dance, and Ancient Order of Hibernians mens’ chorus lending their voices, Newport Irish Heritage Month will officially launch its 40th year on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 3 p.m. (weather permitting) with the traditional Dancing at the Forty Steps.

It is an event that remains somewhat frozen in time. According to Ann Arnold, a board member at the Museum of Newport Irish History, during the Gilded Age the area at the top of Forty Steps “was a favorite gathering spot for the Irish who lived and worked in Newport, including the staff of the nearby mansions. Informal dances,” she says, “were held there, accompanied by musicians.”

High above the rocky shoreline of Newport’s Cliff Walk and with a view to the ocean that no doubt looks the same today as it did in the 1890s, the venue became a familiar social gathering place for members of the Irish community to come together. Stories of 19th-century workers, dancing jigs to accordion music are a part of Newport’s diverse immigrant folklore.

The event will also include live music and demonstrations of traditional Irish set dancing.

Located at the ocean end of Narragansett Avenue, the storied staircase was built in the 1830s by New York City lawyer David Priestly Hall, to provide access for his children from his summer house to the rocky shoreline below. In 1840 Hall deeded public right of way to the City of Newport. In 1890 an iron stairway replaced the original wooden steps. The iron steps survived until the Hurricane of 1938. The most recent restoration project was completed in the early 1990s by the Forty Steps Restoration Fund and bears the names of donors who spent $3,000 each for their step.

For a full list of Irish History Month events, go to newportirishhistory.org. The highlight, of course, is the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday, March 11, which disembarks City Hall on Broadway promptly at 11 a.m., continues through Washington Square, down Thames Street to Carroll Avenue, and ends in front of St. Augustin's Church. For the parade website, go to newportirish.com.

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