Tailor Arrested for Dancing the Polka in Sackville Street, 1844

Mid 19th century Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), Dublin, via Wikipedia. The portico of the General Post Office appears on the left. The location of the carts in front is where Mr Gaffney would have danced his polka.
A couple dancing the polka, a Bohemian dance which became very popular in Victorian England. It is not stated whether Mr Gaffney had partner(s) in his routine.

From the Cork Examiner, 21 June 1844:



A young man named Gaffney, whose attire was well calculated to display the symmetry of his anatomical proportion, was brought before the magistrates of this office on Thursday, charged with having behaved on the night preceding in such a manner as to disturb the public peace, and to fright Sackville-street from its propriety.  The prisoner, who described himself as a tailor, was slim and haggard, and his features were of ashy color; but Shakespeare’s metaphor of ‘pale as his spirit,’ however just in Hamlet’s case was by no means applicable to Mr. Gaffney, whose inner garment was of a deep saffron hue.

Police Constable 184B was the complainant, and from his statement it would appear that, when on duty in Sackville-street the previous night his attention was directed to the prisoner, who was pitching somersaults, and performing a variety of gymnastic exploits in front of the Post-office, to the infinite amusement and ineffable gratification of a large crowd of disorderly persons, consisting for the most part of pugnacious little boys, and women ‘frail as the glass wherein they view themselves.’  The constable being of opinion that these feats and evolutions however creditable to the agility of Mr. Gaffney, were calculated to disturb the repose of such of her Majesty’s liege subjects as were taking horizontal refreshment in their beds, was constrained, in the conscientious discharge of his duty, to place Mr. Gaffney under arrest, and conveyed him to the station-house, amid loud and vehement marks of disapprobation on the part of those who had derived amusement from witnessing the prisoner’s manoeuvres.

Mr. Duffy – Well, Mr. Gaffney, what explanation have you to offer of this extraordinary conduct?

Prisoner – I assure you, my lord, I do not think I was guilty of the slightest offence, and the constable overstepped his duty in taking me up.

Constable – I couldn’t avoid taking you up; you were making a complete show of yourself.

Prisoner – Well, and suppose I was, what was that to you? I am my own master, I should hope, and if I, through motives of philanthropy, or from any other cause, think fit to make a show of myself for the amusement of my fellow-creatures, is that any reason why I am to be robbed of my liberty, strapped on a stretcher, and thrown about from policeman to policeman like snuff at a wake? – (laughter).

Mr. Duffy – What object had you in view in such singular behaviour? What did you mean by pitching somersaults in the public street at midnight.

Prisoner – I didn’t pitch somersaults, my lord – I never did the like in my life; I was dancing the Polka for my own gratification, and that of a deserving audience.

Constable – You dance the Polka! Well, well, well! Did you ever in the whole course – You were doing nothing of the kind, Sir; you were kicking up a row.

Prisoner (disdainfully) – Humbug, man – humbug! – (laughter.)

Constable – You were causing annoyance to the public.

Prisoner – Arrah, don’t be tearing yourself man (loud laughter)

Constable – Your conduct was disgraceful.

Prisoner – Dirty butter! Who made you a judge of manners, or what’s the likes of you to the likes of me? (laughter)

Constable – That’s neither here nor there; you were offending the usages of society.

Prisoner – Offending the usages of society! Ah then, are you coming Paddy Grand over us, 184B.  Who gave you leave to talk so fine? (Laughter.)

Constable – It was a charity to take you up.

Prisoner – Oh indeed, you and charity might be married, for you’re no way related (laughter.)

Constable – You don’t forget the dreadful language you used when I offered to take you into custody.

Prisoner – Out with it all! I defy you.  What did I say.

Constable – Bloody War! Says you, mayn’t I dance the Polka?  That’s what you said (loud laughter)

Prisoner – Well and what of that! Sure, there’s no treason in that, is there? I admit it might have been more polite in me to have said sanguinary conflicts, than bloody wards, but I was speaking under excitement and under the influence –

Constable – Oh there’s no use in talking; your conduct flogged all.  You were running up and down like mad and pirouetting on one led equal to a peg top, and if them isn’t quare doings for a tailor in a public street I don’t know what to say.

Mr. Duffy – It’s all very well, Mr. Gaffney, to dance the Polka at home or in a house, but tin the public street.

Prisoner – But you see, my lord, the delicate position in which I ‘m place.  I have got neither house or home, and if I don’t dance it in the street, I can’t dance it at all (loud laughter). I hope I convey myself (laughter) I delight in the Polka.

Mr. Duffy – Oh, there’s no accounting for tastes, Mr. Gaffney.

Prisoner – No accounting for tastes, your worship, true enough; only for that who’d eat black puddings (laughter).

Mr. Duffy – you are young and strong – would it not be better for you to enlist than be a vagrant through the streets?

Prisoner – My lord, I had once some intention to enlist, but it’s now out of the question.

Mr. Duffy – Why so?

Prisoner Because of the new shako (laughter).  I have too much respect for myself, poor as I am, to walk about the streets of my native city with an inverted flowerpot on my head.  Perish the unworthy though! I’d rather cry black turf through the Liberties, where nobody could afford to buy turf or anything else (laughter).

Constable – I have one thing your worship, to say in favour of the prisoner, and it was this, that when I was bringing him to the station-house he and his brother, who was with him kept the crowd quiet, who were willing enough to be turbulent, and they both united in endeavouring to preserve the peace

Prisoner (in great consternation) Tare and ages do you want to ruin me all out? Do you want to have me sent to Richmond Bridewell (then turning to the Magistrate) I wish expressly to have it understood, my lord, that my brother and I did not enter into any agreement whatever to make the people keep the pace, quite the contrary.  It’s all a notion of the constables No, no, my lord, I waked to the station house as stiff as a Protestant, but I didn’t tell the crowd to be quiet.

Constable – Oh very well, be it so.

Magistrate – Will you give me a solemn promise never again to dance the Polka in public if I discharge you?

Prisoner – Indeed I will my lord.  I’ll dance it for the future in the Royal Exchange, or in the Linen Hall or in some other seat of Irish commerce, where I will be sure that nobody will see me (laughter) But dance it I must somewhere, for now it has become an indispensable qualification for mixing in civilized society.  Know you not what the poet (that’s myself) has said on the head of it

‘Tis sweet on summer’s eve to rove

Adown the river Tolka

But ah! It is a sweeter thing

By far to dance the polka?

Won’t you dance the polka?

Can’t you dance the polka?

The joys of earth

Are little worth

Unless you dance the polka (laughter)

Ladies wanting husbands true

You must dance the polka

Bachelors, if you woo

You must dance the polka

Married folks of all degree

If your children you would see

Happy, prosperous and free

Teach the brats the polka

Can’t you dance the polka?

Won’t you dance the polka

The joys of earth

Are little worth.

Unless you dance the polka’

Magistrate – That will do, Mr. Gaffney, you are discharged.

The prisoner bowed respectfully to the bench and withdrew amid general laughter.”

Needless to say, this was not Mr Gaffney’s last tangle with Constable 184B in the Dublin Police Court. More exploits to come!

The Tolka is a river in Dublin not far from Sackville/O’Connell Street.

One interesting feature of this story is the date – events took place at the height of the Irish Famine. Hence the references to being unable to sell turf in the Liberties (a poor area of the city hit hard by the Famine) and the Royal Exchange and similar buildings in Dublin being devoid of commerce. There was probably not much work for tailors, or indeed poets, which explains why Mr Gaffney was at a loose end. What is also interesting is that the Magistrate would suggest enlistment as a solution to homelessness.

There must be something in the air in Sackville/O’Connell Street, because the tradition of dancing outside the General Post Office continued until the 20th century. More here.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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