St Leonard’s Irish Dancers were trained and led by Phil Conroy, a teacher and folkdance enthusiast from Silksworth, in the Sunderland area. Many of the troupe's members were pupils or former pupils of Mr. Conroy’s school.
In May 1964, they had been booked to perform in Billingham on a Saturday afternoon, as part of Billingham Urban District Council's efforts to encourage people who had traditionally shopped in Stockton or Middlesbrough to use the attractive, newly-built and traffic-free shopping precinct in the centre of Billingham. Shortly afterwards, they were due to set off to take part in a week-long international dance festival in the town of Brunssum in Holland, followed later on that year by a two-week tour of France, performing at no less than four festivals. One idea leading on to another, Mr. Conroy joined forces with Fred Dawson, the Clerk to Billingham Council, to conceive the Billingham International Folklore Festival.
St. Leonard's Dancers in Tarcento, Italy, 1970.
From the Fianna Phádraig collection.In 1970, after several appearances in Billingham and at festivals abroad, Phil Conroy was looking for a pipe band to accompany the St. Leonard's Irish Dancers on a forthcoming trip to Italy and France. He remembered seeing an Irish Pipe Band a few years previously at the Eisteddfod in Llangollen, North Wales. That pipe band was none other than the Fianna Phádraig Pipe Band.
Mr. Conroy contacted Terry Dowling and in no time at all arrangements were made for four pipers, Terry, Bill, Peter and John, to accompany the Dancers on tour, together with Eamonn on the accordion and Gerard on the tin whistle.
This first tour together was a huge success and the band subsequently accompanied its friends from Sunderland on several overseas tours, in Germany and Austria in 1972, Italy in 1975 and France & Spain in 1976, as well as performances together in Manchester and in the North East.
Text largely inspired by and with extracts from Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance Teaching Pack