When I first started Irish step dancing classes as an adult in 1996, I felt happy and excited to be part of such of a complex and traditional style of dance. Mostly, I wanted to have fun and make a great sound with my feet.
I had no idea then that the complexity and tradition is truly a direct reflection of Irish history, and the connection with the Irish people, landscape and life in rural Ireland. There are twists and turns in the roads, boreens, hedges and ditches, private little snugs and back entrances, soft gentle pasture and roaring Atlantic westerlies.
For example, did you know that modern Irish step dancing was invented in 1893 by the Gaelic League who perceived that Irish set dancing, which had been around for about 120 years, was too English? And that the Gaelic League in fact banned their members from Irish set dancing? And that despite this happening in a time and atmosphere of nationalist energy, Irish set dancing remained most popular where Irish roots were strongest, including Gaeltacht areas of Cork, Kerry and Clare?
And when our own Irish nationalist groups couldn’t kill off Irish set dancing, the Catholic church and the Fianna Fáil government of the day went in hard with the Public Halls Dance Act in 1935 and set up their own licenced dance halls in the towns, making unlicenced dances illegal. The church pushed hard for this as they viewed dancing and drinking that went with it as “sinful and immoral”, but most likely because they wanted to use this as a form of social control and revenue raising, and the State went along with it.*
As a result, house dances or country set dances in people’s homes required a licence, a sad chapter eloquently and powerfully told in this beautiful piece of film (Watch on YouTube), where John Killourhy, whistle player, flanked by his brother Paddy, fiddle player, of Ballyfaudeen, Liscannor, Co. Clare, tells the story first hand, of how the old Irish tradition of house dances died out, or rather was stamped out by the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935.
Unfortunately for the church, the government and those nationalist groups, banning something in Ireland that is deeply felt seems to be the surest way of making certain it will survive.
And so it did, with sets continuing to be danced in patches of very rural areas**, albeit quietly, until the international folk music revival came along with the likes of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s, giving an audience for Irish groups like The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners and of course, The Chieftains. This subsequently made way for an Irish set dancing revival around the 1980’s, which is now well re-established and thriving in Ireland and many other countries, and now piquing interest in more traditional forms of dance like Irish sean nós dancing and traditional Irish step dancing.
There’s much more to tell about this contrary and interesting story of Irish dance influences – including English Kings and Queens, the French and most likely, the Spanish and Morrocans as well. So, tune in shortly for Part 2 where I will delve deeper and further back in time to hopefully, illuminate.
READ MORE about Irish dance history and tradition:
*Toss The Feathers: Irish Set Dancing Pat Murphy (1995) Mercier Press
**Set Dances of Ireland: Tradition& Evolution Larry Lynch (1989) Séadna