Moriarty, Joan Denise (c.1912–1992), Irish traditional musician, step dancer, ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer, and founder of professional ballet in Ireland, was born and brought up in England, her family having left Mallow, Co. Cork, around 1907. Little is known of her early life. She studied ballet with Marie Rambert in her early teens, but was deemed too tall to become a professional dancer. In 1931 she became champion Irish step dancer of Britain. She was also an accomplished war pipes player, winning a silver medal at the Tailteann games in Dublin in July 1932. Her immersion in her youth in two dance cultures – one continental, deriving from France and Russia, the other from the Irish countryside and cherished by the emigrant communities in Britain – was to have a decisive influence on her subsequent work for dance in Ireland.
The family returned to Mallow in the autumn of 1933, where Moriarty began to teach dance. In November 1940 she set up a school in Cork city. The timing was not propitious: it was wartime; ballet companies had not visited the city since 1931, the art being regarded by the catholic clergy with deep suspicion. In spite of experiencing hardship and many setbacks, Moriarty determined to make ballet a permanent feature of Ireland's cultural life. In addition to staging the classical repertoire, she also aspired to create a specifically Irish form of her art. The subject matter of these ballets was to derive from Irish folk themes, legend, mythology and literature; the dance was to fuse elements of traditional Irish steps with ballet. For the music she was to use existing works by Irish composers such as Hamilton Harty (qv) or Ernest Moeran (qv), and to invite living composers to write for her. She aimed to establish a professional company to bring ballet all over Ireland, to introduce dance into Irish education at all levels, and to set up a national dance academy.
Her amateur Cork Ballet Group gave its first performance in Cork Opera House in 1947, accompanied by the Cork Symphony Orchestra of Aloys Fleischmann (qv), a collaboration which was to continue for forty-six years. Her efforts gained widespread respect in the local community and won her the support of a large team of volunteers who helped to mount the productions and run the company. From 1948 the city had an annual ballet week. During the early years all dance was choreographed by Moriarty, often to music specially composed for her. The 1948 production of six ballets included 'Puck fair', with music by Elizabeth Maconchy (qv) and specially orchestrated by Ina Boyle (qv), and 'The golden bell of Ko', based on a Chinese legend, set to new music by Fleischmann. In 1949 Redmond Friel (qv) composed a work for 'The children of Lír'; two years later came 'An cóitín dearg' (The red petticoat), with libretto, stage and costume designs by Micheál MacLiammóir (qv) and new music by Fleischmann; and in 1955 the latter's 'Macha ruadh'. That year, the group – in 1954 renamed Cork Ballet Company – performed its first full classical ballet, 'Coppélia'. The following year, ten years after the company's founding, Moriarty began to invite distinguished guest artists to perform and to produce the great classical ballets with her dancers.
Moriarty danced character roles in most of the early productions; in 1957, when 'Giselle' was performed for the first time in Ireland by an Irish company, she danced the role of Myrtha. That year she founded the Cork Ballet Company Folk Dance Group, whose twelve dancers and five musicians travelled to festivals in France and Germany and frequently performed at the Cork International Choral and Folk Dance Festival.
The visiting artists Domini Callaghan, Peter Darrell, Marina Svetlova and Michel de Lutry encouraged Moriarty to found the first Irish professional ballet company, Irish Theatre Ballet, in September 1959. Its premiere performance was given in Cork at the end of that year in the presence of its patron, Marie Rambert. There were twelve dancers. The ballet masters were Stanley Judson, a founder member of the Vic-Wells Ballet, Yannis Metsis and Geoffrey Davidson; the music was provided by the renowned Irish pianist Charles Lynch (qv). Despite its meagre resources, the company performed annually in about seventy towns across the country, often in very challenging conditions. The repertoire was varied, and included classical and modern dance and Irish folk ballets. Twenty-four new ballets were created for the company, four of which by Judson, and two folk ballets with libretti and music commissioned from Seán Ó Riada (qv). In 1963 the Arts Council insisted on a merger with Patricia Ryan's National Ballet, founded in Dublin in 1959. However, after one season it became evident that the financial and administrative problems were insurmountable, and in March 1964 the venture had to cease.
Thereafter, Moriarty intensified her work with the Cork Ballet Company, which in 1971–3 performed annually in Dublin to full houses. In 1973 the government was able to provide for a professional ballet company in Cork under Moriarty's direction. The Irish Ballet Company – renamed in 1984 Irish National Ballet – toured the country, north and south, for sixteen years; it took part in the Dublin and Wexford opera festivals, the Birr Vintage Week and Arts Festival, and the Dublin Theatre Festival, and often featured on national television. The patron was Ninette de Valois (qv), the ballet master David Gordon; there were between sixteen and twenty dancers. In 1974 de Valois donated half her Erasmus Prize money to the company for master classes given by teachers such as Hans Brenaa, Rachel Cameron and Brenda Last. Sixty-five new works were created for the company, twenty by Moriarty. Among the artists commissioned were Anton Dolin, John Gilpin and Peter Darrell. The new ballets varied greatly in style and theme. Domy Reiter-Soffer produced sombre works based on Henry James, Lorca, and Milton with contemporary music, as well as his light-hearted 'Dear Mr Gershwin'. Charles Czarny's 'Concerto grosso', with music by Handel, and his 'Beethoven variations' contrasted with his 'Sunny day' to country and western. The Irish works were equally varied. Reiter-Soffer's 'Pomes penyeach' was commissioned for the 1982 centenary of James Joyce (qv). Moriarty used music by Ó Riada for the folk ballet 'Billy the music' and her very different 'Lugh of the golden arm'. Her three-act 'Táin', commissioned by the Dublin Theatre Festival (1981), was set to Fleischmann's last ballet score, while her 'Diúltú' (1983), based on a poem by Patrick Pearse (qv), had music commissioned from John Buckley. Moriarty`s greatest success was 'The playboy of the western world' with traditional music played live by the Chieftains: it was the star of the 1978 Dublin Theatre Festival, and travelled to London's Sadler's Wells (1980), New York (1979) and Rennes (1984).
In 1984 the Arts Council commissioned a report on dance in Ireland which was critical of the company. Its findings engendered controversy; Moriarty felt she had no choice but to resign in September 1985. In 1988 the council halved its dance budget, and the grant to Irish National Ballet was terminated. The company had to be disbanded the following year.
Despite ill health, Moriarty continued to teach, to choreograph, to train her dancers for the annual ballet week prior to the arrival of the guest producer, to bring the show to towns in Munster, and to support the restoration of the Firkin Crane as Cork city's dance centre. She died on 24 January 1992 in Beaumont Hospital, Dublin.
Moriarty was the recipient of many honours, among them the silver medallion of the Irish American Cultural Institute (1979), a People of the Year award (1983), and an honorary doctorate from the NUI (1979). There are plaques on 1b Emmet Place, Cork, where her studio was, and on the site of her family's home in Mallow. The memorial production of 'Giselle' in November 1992 was attended by President Mary Robinson. The centenary of Moriarty's birth was celebrated throughout the year 2012 in Cork under the auspices of Cork city and county councils in cooperation with Cork City Ballet, Cork City Libraries and Firkin Crane. Cork city central library is the custodian of the Moriarty collection – the largest of its kind in Ireland – and in 2012 set up a Moriarty website on which the digitised papers are being placed. Moriarty's legacy is significant: her former dancers and teachers are active in ballet schools, institutes of higher education, and in major Irish ballet companies; her aims for ballet in Ireland are back on the agenda of the Arts Council.
Moriarty's Cork Ballet Company served the city with an annual week of ballet for forty-five years; her two professional companies, Irish Theatre Ballet (1959–64) and the Irish Ballet Company/Irish National Ballet (1973–89), brought ballet to towns and cities all over Ireland, north and south, against all odds, for twenty-one years. She herself choreographed some 130 ballets; others were created for her companies by distinguished foreign choreographers, many of which have since been taken into the repertoires of international companies. To Irish ballet she made a contribution of national significance which is without parallel in the short history of the art in this country.