Cover the Buckle: A Collection of Irish Set Dances for Listening and Dancing

by Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan

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"When I first heard this recording in Kieran Jordan's house in Boston, I was truly impressed with the musicianship, the precision of the dance steps, and the whole approach to the playing of the set dances, incorporating some very pleasing variations, innovations and a few surprises. A delightfully uplifting CD that never loses interest, and that's equally good to listen to, as well as to dance to."
— Michael Tubridy

Seán Clohessy, fiddle
Sean McComiskey, button accordion, tin whistle
Kieran Jordan, dance

With special guests
Josh Dukes, bouzouki, guitar, 12-string guitar
Matt Mulqueen, piano

Produced by Kieran Jordan

In 2014, I asked Sean McComiskey and Seán Clohessy — two friends whose music, for years, has lifted my feet and my spirits — to work with me on a new CD of set dance music, designed for dance students and dance teachers, as well as tune learners and tune listeners. The guys agreed, and Cover the Buckle was born.

A “set dance” is both a tune and a dance — a musical composition with a specific set of solo steps designed to match. Some of the most popular set dances that we know today — like “St. Patrick’s Day,” “King of the Fairies,” “The Garden of Daisies,” and different versions of “The Blackbird” — have been handed down, with choreography intact, from the days of the early dance masters. And indeed, new versions of set dances are being created all the time to some of our most enduring tunes. For me, the solo set dances are the precious gems of the Irish dance tradition. They’re a real marriage of footwork and melody, showcasing the dancer's highest artistry in composing, and highest skill in performing.

Of course, there are plenty other CDs of traditional Irish set dances, so why this one? As a performer and teacher of Irish dance, I often find myself hunting for the ‘perfect’ set dance recordings to use in class or rehearsal. What’s perfect? A tune played at a comfortable dance tempo, with the correct number of parts and repeats, and a few extra measures at the top as an introduction. Something that’s musically pleasing, lively and energizing, yet steady and straightforward enough to be danceable for students at all levels. And, most importantly, something that inspires, and animates the dancer. A recording that breathes new life into the old tunes — with fresh variations, creative accompaniment, personality, and drive — shattering the sometimes-static ‘dance class’ approach and offering new possibilities for how these tunes feel, and how they might be danced.

The term “cover the buckle” shows up in many historical descriptions of Irish dance, alluding to the name of a tune, the name of a dance, the name of a particular movement or step, and the overall display of step dancing itself. The buckle in question refers to the shiny silver buckles which adorned the shoes of the 18th and 19th century itinerant dance masters.

There’s this in O’Neill’s Irish Minstrels and Musicians, from the writings of Shelton MacKenzie (born in Mallow, County Cork in 1809). In an article on “Irish Dancing Masters,” he writes: “While thus exhibiting his skill and agility, the dancing-master was encouraged with such exclamations as ‘That’s the way,’ ‘Now for a double cut,’ ‘Cover the buckle, ye divel,’ and so on, until he had literally danced himself off his legs.” We hope you dance yourself off your legs too!


We would like to dedicate this recording to Sean’s grandmother, Mrs. Mae McComiskey. As a young girl, Mae was a step dancer and loved many of the tunes featured on this recording. When Sean first started playing the box, Mae would ask him to play “The Job of Journeywork” and “Jockey to the Fair,” and she would dance the steps from her seat. Mae — these are for you.

A note about intros, tempos, and lengths:
Dancers, you will notice that we chose not to include a full eight-bar intro at the top of each tune. Instead, you’ll hear a shorter intro — sometimes it’s two or four bars, sometimes just a chord, a count, or a couple bars of dancing. The tempos we chose are what felt good as the lads played and I danced the traditional sets. We did not adhere to any prescribed metronome speeds. The lengths include full AABB parts of each tune (the right and left foot of both the step AND the set). We repeated each tune two or three times, so multiple dancers can have a go, or you can dance multiple versions of the dance on one track.

1. Mount Phoebus Hunt / The Hunted
“The Hunt” was a dance I used to do in competition. I heard Michael Tubridy and James Keane play their version of “Mount Phoebus Hunt” at a session in the Catskills in 2014, and that’s what inspired me to create the new steps we recorded here. Sean and Seán spontaneously morphed the set dance into a reel during our first rehearsal on this project.

2. The Job of Journeywork
Seán first heard this setting of “The Job of Journeywork” from the piping of Michael ‘Piper’ Cooney at a Tionól in Atlanta a number of years ago.

3. The Humours of Bandon / Miss Brown’s Fancy Two very pretty set dances that have often been played or recorded together. One of my favorite versions can be found on a collection called Slow Airs and Set Dances by Derry fiddle player and step dancer Eugene O’Donnell, who I had the honor of dancing with in Philadelphia while I was growing up there.

4. O’Carolan’s Draught (Turlough O’Carolan)
Technically not a set dance, this is a well-known O’Carolan tune that is usually played at a slower tempo, and not associated with dancing! I have a memory of friends Ben Power and Kevin Crehan playing it in a faster, rhythmic way, during some California house concerts that we did several years ago. Since then, I have always wanted to dance to it.

5. Jockey to the Fair
This is a favourite of Seán’s. A tune he used to play in Grupai Cheoils growing up. Originally sourced from The Roche Collection, his setting has since been influenced by a number of other sources.

6. The Blackbird
One of the most beloved and often-played set dances … a haunting tune that, for me, evokes loneliness, reverence, and transcendence. I love hearing the solo instruments on this piece. My steps appear only at the beginning as an introduction … a familiar riff that many dancers will recognize.

7. The Priest and His Boots
This is a lively set dance that has gained popularity among old-style step dancers around the world, thanks to the teaching of Labasheeda, County Clare dancers Dan Furey and James Keane, who originally brought it to the dance classes at the Willie Clancy Summer School. I learned this dance several times before it ‘stuck,’ but it finally did, after a workshop in Boston with Michael Tubridy. Michael and his wife Céline have carried on the steps and style of Dan Furey through their own teaching and performing, and their invaluable book and DVD entitled A Selection of Irish Traditional Step Dances.

8. St. Patrick’s Day
This is one of those tunes that I listened to, and/or danced to, literally hundreds of times at feisanna in my youth. Seán, Sean, Josh, and Matt have brushed off the cobwebs and made it new again.

9. Madame Bonaparte
Sean McComiskey plays this one on his own with Matt, highlighting the irresistible playfulness of this tune, and showcasing his finger acrobatics!

10. Queen of the Faeries / King of the Fairies
“Queen of the Faeries” is a tune that was suggested to me by Séamus Connolly, and he can be heard playing it himself on the new Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music, online at Boston College. As Séamus mentions there, the first few bars of “Queen of the Faeries” sound similar to “King of the Fairies,” and it was his idea to put the tunes together as hers-and-his set dances.

11. Maggie Pickins
“Maggie Pickins” or the “Maggie Pickie” is another old-style step dance which is enjoying a revival now, thanks to traditional step dance research, workshops, and in-person and even online dance communities. The dance, which is associated with County Donegal, features many variations that can be done as a solo or in pairs. The tune, possibly of Scottish origin, has been described as a barndance, Schottishe, hornpipe, single jig, and fling! In my feet, the steps feel similar to dancing a Cape Breton strathspey.

12. Three Ducks and a Goose (Brendan Tonra)
A recently composed set dance, Three Ducks and a Goose was written by the late great fiddle player and composer Brendan Tonra. I first heard this tune in 2013 when Brendan’s dear friend and accompanist, Helen Kisiel, invited me to create steps to it for a recording project. The result of that project was a wonderful children’s book and companion CD. Here are the lyrics, if you want to sing along to Seán’s lovely slow playing at the start of this tune.
When I was a young lad I’d always complain
When my mother would make me come in from the rain.
Then I’d look through a window that was shaky and loose...
and from there I could see the three ducks and a goose.
Those ducks and that goose would be having great fun.
They’d rather the rain any time than the sun.
They’d be flapping and splashing as ‘round they did run.
But soon the rain would be over and then,
I’d run to the door and go outside again.
I’d jump up and down with my shirt flying loose,
and join in the fun with THREE DUCKS and a GOOSE!

13. The Garden of Daisies
“The Garden of Daisies” is a well-known set-dance amongst musicians as well as dancers. This setting comes from The Roche Collection, with a little inspiration from the playing of Sean Maguire on The Irish Fiddler — his timeless recording of set dances.

14. The Three Sea Captains
One of the many set pieces that is danced today in both the traditional old-style, as well as the contemporary competition style. The melody rarely gets the recognition it deserves, and this turned out to be one of our favorite tracks. It’s a tune that works well played fast or slow, and we took a relaxed and easy approach to it, to wind down this recording.

15. Oslo Waltz / Augusta Waltz (Bob McQuillen)
A good night of Irish social dancing often ends with a waltz. “The Oslo Waltz” is a favorite of Sean’s and it was his grandfather’s favorite waltz. Sean learned it from his father, Billy, who in turn learned the tune from Sean McGlynn. Here it is paired with the “Augusta Waltz,” a composition by legendary contra dance piano player, Bob McQuillen, commemorating the Augusta Irish Arts Week in Elkins, West Virginia.

All tunes traditional except where noted.

© Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan
Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws. All rights reserved.

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released December 4, 2016

Seán Clohessy plays an Andrew Clohessy violin.
Sean McComiskey plays a vintage grey Paolo Soprani.

Recorded in December 2015 and May 2016 at the House of Jam, Beltsville, Maryland
Recorded and engineered by Josh Dukes and assisted by Dylan Foley
Mastering by Sean Keegan
Design by Robert Hakalski
Photography by Andy Bell, Josh Dukes, Kieran Jordan

Thanks to everyone who gave their time, talent, and support to this project, including Andy Bell, Judy Dukes, Dylan Foley, Helen Kisiel, and Michael Tubridy. Special thanks to Vincent Crotty, Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, Matt Mulqueen, and Josh Dukes, and to all the dance teachers and musicians whose artistry and generosity has inspired this recording. We had such great fun putting all this together, and the inimitable words of Matt Mulqueen summed it up for us — “Set Dances!!! Who knew!”
We hope you enjoy it.



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