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Nimble Irish dancer Nellie O’Callaghan dies at 90

Irish immigrants Nellie and Edmond O'Callaghan were married 60 years. | family photo

The Harvest Time Jig.

Haste to the Wedding.

Trip to the Cottage.

The Siege of Ennis.

The Sweets of May.

Lannigan’s Ball.

The names of ceili dances capture the lively sweep of these Irish ancestors to American square-dances, filled with twirls, jumps, swings and glides, creating patterns as intricate as the Book of Kells.

When Nellie O’Callaghan was a young woman in Ireland in the 1940s, traditional folk dances had been supplanted by the Waltz, the Fox Trot and the Quick Step.

But decades later, after she had immigrated to America, worked hard and raised a family, she rediscovered the beauty of her native country’s ceili (pronounced KAY-lee) dancing in classes at the Irish American Heritage Center on the Northwest Side.

She lived to be 90, a fact her family believes is partly attributable to spending the last 30 years engaged in ceili dancing. It mixes aerobics and craic, the Irish word for that combination of repartee, jokes and storytelling that makes for a great evening.

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Nellie O’Callaghan (left, in yellow shirt and blue sweater) doing ceili dancing at the Irish American Heritage Center. | Provided photo

Mrs. O’Callaghan, who died last month, was a nimble fixture of the Francis O’Neill Club. Every Friday night, she and her husband, Edmond, did three hours of ceili dancing with the club at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox. Each Tuesday, they practiced there.

The Francis O’Neill Club, which helps preserve the old steps, is named for an Irish-born Chicago police chief of the early 1900s who is credited with saving ancient Irish melodies by collecting them and having them transcribed — in effect, gifting them back to their country of origin. In addition to the exercise, the club enabled Mrs. O’Callaghan and her husband to enjoy some travel. They went to ceili conferences in New York City, San Francisco, St. Louis, Toronto and Washington, D.C., learning new steps and dancing.

Young Nellie Connolly O'Callaghan | Family photo

Young Nellie Connolly O’Callaghan | Family photo

“She was a pretty handy little lady,” said John O’Grady, former president of the club. “A lovely person, and she was a born volunteer.”

Often, Mrs. O’Callaghan wrestled with a 60-cup urn to make “the tea” for as many as 100 people at the ceili gatherings. “Every Friday for over 30 years,” said Linda Green, secretary of the club. It earned her the nickname “Queen Tea.”

“I don’t think she ever missed a Friday,” O’Grady said.

She was born Nellie Connolly in Derryveeny, a hamlet near Lough Mask and the Partry Mountains in Tourmakeady, County Mayo. “She often mentioned the long journeys to school, 3 miles to school, 3 miles home,” said her husband, and “going up to the bog to pick up ‘the turf’ ” — peat fuel for fires.

During spring lambing, the Connolly children had a friendly competition, her husband said. “They would go out during the morning and see how many lambs were born during the night, and who saw the lambs first, and they’d lay claim to that lamb. They [the sheep] would be way up the mountain.”

Like many rural Irish children of her generation, she went to school only through the sixth grade. When she got a little older, “Her fun would be going to the local dance, getting a ride on the bar of a bicycle,” her husband said.

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A nimble Irish dancer, Nellie O’Callaghan showed she could still jump a fence on a trip back to her native Ireland. | Family photo

After World War II, she immigrated to England and worked in a hospital. She met her future husband at a dance near the Tooting tube stop. “I thought she looked beautiful,” said the native of Limerick. “She had beautiful hair; it was black. And she had a lovely pair of legs.”

They became engaged. She had a cousin in Chicago who worked for the CTA, so in 1955 she immigrated to America on the Ile de France ocean liner. When it neared the Statue of Liberty, “They all went to the side of the boat and looked up at it,” her husband said. He followed her to the United States.

At her first job in Chicago, she worked as a domestic “from 6 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night,” her husband said. “She took care of the baby, did the cooking and the housework.”

“She was there for about a month and then got out of there,” he said.

Mrs. O’Callaghan landed a job at Northwestern University, where she helped prepare meals for a sorority, he said. They married in 1956 at St. Mary’s Church in Evanston.

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Nellie and Edmond O’Callaghan married at St. Mary’s Church in Evanston in 1956. | Family photo

A few months later, he was called up for a two-year stint in the Navy. He didn’t get to see his eldest daughter, Mary Beem, until she was 3 months old. “Oh God, I was delighted,” he said.

They raised their family in St. Bartholomew Parish. When her kids were older, she worked in the lunchroom at Pulaski School.

On Sundays, Mrs. O’Callaghan served mouthwatering dinners of roast beef and oven-browned potatoes with chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Each week, she’d walk to Maureen O’Looney’s Shamrock Imports store on Laramie Avenue to pick up Irish newspapers, sausage and bacon. “She read the newspaper from one end to the other,” said another daughter, Eileen Reddington.

She also is survived by their son Edmond; her siblings Mary, Winifred, Eddie and Julia; eight grandchildren, and a great-grandson. Her six grandsons were her pallbearers. At the funeral, Kathy Cowan sang “Lord of the Dance,” with its lyrics:

They buried my body
And they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance,
And I still go on.

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Nellie and Edmond O’Callaghan and their grandchildren. | Family photo