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Michael McGing (1880–1957)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McGing is far right, back row]

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McGing is far right, back row]

Michael McGing, Irish dancing exponent, was born in Glenmask, Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland on 6 November 1880, the son of Anthony McGing, farmer, and his wife Mary (née Collins). He grew up bilingual in Irish and English, and like his parents did not learn to read and write. He also learnt Irish dancing in the traditional venue of the crossroads dance. On the long summer evenings in Ireland, where the sun sets at 10 pm, community dance sessions were held at crossroads. All the young people of the district attended and took turns to dance solos and group sets.[1]

Following the death of his father in early 1912, 32-year-old Michael emigrated to Sydney on the Wilcannia, arriving in November 1912.[2] He soon found employment as a labourer with the Tramway Department of the NSW Railways, where he commenced in April 1913.[3] In September 1913 he advertised dancing lessons in the Lynwood Hall in Abercrombie St, Golden Grove. The dances listed in the advertisement show the range of steps which he had learned in his early years: Rince Fada (Long Dance), 6-hand reel, 4-hand Kerry reel, Humours of Bandon jig, 8-hand Kerry reel, 4-hand square reel, Larry O’Gaff’s jig, 6-hand Fairy reel, Bridge of Athlone (jig) and Rocky Roads of Dublin (treble jig).[4]

Michael soon became active in Irish organisations which could sponsor his dancing activities and provide both pupils and audiences. He featured as a judge of step-dancing at the 1913 Boxing Day annual outing organised by the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society.[5] He also joined the Irish National Association at its foundation in 1915 and soon became their dancing class teacher.[6]

McGing continued working for the NSW Railways until the great strike of 1917, when all workers were dismissed. The strike, involving around 100,000 workers, began in NSW and spread to other states over six weeks from 2 August to 8 September 1917. He then found employment as a gardener at Lewisham Hospital, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.[7] The hospital, in Sydney’s inner west, was founded in 1889 by the Little Company of Mary sisters.

The Irish National Association came under surveillance by Australian security authorities in 1918, and on 17 June seven of its officebearers were arrested. They included McGing and his fellow INA warden William McGuinness, the secretary Albert Dryer and vice-president Edmund McSweeny. The group was accused of forming branches (or circles) of the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood; one circle was headed by Dryer and McSweeny while the other was led by McGuinness and McGing.[8]

It was noted by the arresting officers what McGing had no books or documents in his room at the hospital, other than some race cards.[9] Although McGing’s only real connection was his post as INA warden, the use of the coded description of the circles as ‘dancing classes’ may have weighed against him. Following a public enquiry most of the internees were detained until December 1918, after the conclusion of World War 1, while Dryer remained in custody until February 1919.

McGing had a long history of public performances of Irish dancing, in Sydney and beyond.[10] These included concerts in Orange in 1919 and Wollongong in 1922.[11] During the 1930s he extended his activities to the Gaelic League and acted as an adjudicator and judge at various competitions. He was also highly regarded as a dancing teacher, on one occasion being complimented that he was ‘the only teacher in Sydney who seems to have a correct conception of the Irish tradition in dancing.’[12]

Although his active involvement in Irish dancing seems to have declined after he turned 60 in 1940, there was one event in 1947 which was widely reported. A protest was lodged against the group awarded highest marks in the 8-hand reel at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod. The protest alleged that the winning group danced a more intricate 8-hand reel than the authentic and traditional version. McGing was called in as an authority on 8-hand reels, which he claimed to have first introduced into Australia, demonstrating various steps to the committee in the Eisteddfod office.[13]

Shortly before McGing’s death his colleague Albert Dryer described him as ‘one of the very greatest exponents of Irish dancing in Australia’.[14] Michael died at Lewisham Hospital on 5 September 1957 and was buried in Rookwood Catholic Cemetery. He was unmarried and had no relatives in Australia.[15] He left his savings of £361 to his surviving brothers Martin and Patrick.[16]

[1] Sean Williams, Focus: Irish Traditional Music, New York, 2010, p 17; National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

[2] Death of Anthony McGing, 4 February 1912, Doon, County Mayo, Irish Civil Registration; ‘Coming by the Wilcannia’, Daily Telegraph, 15 November 1912, p 13.

[3] Railway personal history cards, NSW Records and Archives.

[4] ‘Irish Gaelic Dancing taught to adults’, Catholic Press, 25 September 1913, p 33.

[5] ‘Hibernians’ Annual Outing’, Catholic Press, 1 January 1914, p 23,

[6] ‘The Irish National Association of NSW’, Catholic Press, 21 October 1915, p 31.

[7] Inquiry under Regulation 56B of the War Precautions Regulations before the Hon Mr Justice Harvey re Irish Republican Brotherhood (hereafter Harvey Inquiry), National Archives of Australia, series no A432, control symbol 1929/4572, pp 23-24.

[8] Garrath O’Keeffe, ‘Australia’s Irish Republican Brotherhood’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 83, pt 2 (December 1997), pp 136-152; Irish Republican Internees: Report on Cases by Mr Justice Harvey, Australian Government Printer, Melbourne, 1918, p 6.

[9] Harvey Inquiry, pp 134-138.

[10] McGing’s Irish dancing career is examined in detail by Jeanette Mollenhauer, Dancing at the Southern Crossroads: A History of Irish Step Dance in Australia 1880-1940, Sydney, 2020, pp 31-34.

[11] ‘Irish National Concert’, Dubbo Liberal, 18 March 1919, p 2; ‘St Patrick’s Entertainment’, Illawarra Mercury, 24 March 1922, p 6.

[12] ‘Irish Musical Feis’, Catholic Press, 18 November 1926, p 27.

[13] ‘Man of 86 Dances Irish Reel’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September 1947, p 9. Although the article says he was 86 years old he was actually 67.

[14] Witness statement of Albert Dryer, WS1526, Bureau of Military History, Irish Military Archives, np.

[15] NSW death certificate 21728/1957.

[16] Michael McGing, probate packet 4/471090, NSW Archives and Records.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'McGing, Michael (1880–1957)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McGing is far right, back row]

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McGing is far right, back row]

Life Summary [details]


6 November, 1880
Glenmask, Mayo, Ireland


5 September, 1957 (aged 76)
Lewisham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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