Irish dance history is difficult to pin down for many reasons, most likely because the culture was primarily oral – passed down through stories, songs and dances- with very little being written down.
Indeed, there are no less than four versions of the greatly loved Caledonian Set from Clare, and despite differences between districts, it appears that most dancers had difficulty recalling all aspects of that dance clearly.* (I will write more about why the Caledonian Set is the most perfect of all sets sneak preview below with some absolutely fabulous dancing:)
Indeed, Fintan Vallely in his book The Companion to Irish Traditional Music proposes that tunes, songs and dances that lasted the test of time were mostly those that were written down, and it appears that much of that was done, ironically, by the English.
In 1775, the Dr. Rev.Campbell wrote:
“I was at a dance in Cashel (Co. Tipperary) and the Irish boys and girls are passionately fond of dancing and they dance beautifully.
We frog-blooded English dance as if the practice was not congenial to us, but here in Ireland, they dance as if dancing was the one and only business in life.“ **
Similarly, when James II (Catholic English) arrived at Kinsale, Co.Cork in 1689 (after he was deposed by his daughter Mary, and his Protestant Dutch son-in-law William of Orange) he was said to be delighted when the familiar Rinnce Fada (long dance) was danced in his honour** – a great example of the complex web of politics, religion and social influences that has pervaded Irish culture and history.
So, now that we have demonstrated the contrariness of influences, I will attempt to straighten that out with clusters of history, cultures outside Ireland and connections we know about for each of the 6 styles of Irish dance:
1. Irish set dancing – the earliest written record of this is in 1776, when Arthur Young travelled from England to Ireland and wrote about the French cotillion, which was the fore- runner of French quadrilles, upon which set dancing is based. These dances were popular in middle and upper class societies in France and quickly travelled to England, Scotland and to Ireland, where they were copied and eventually altered to incorporate existing music and stepping. This provenance is what set the scene for the complete rejection of Irish set dancing by the Gaelic league in 1893 as “English dancing”, and their attempt to create new dance styles – Modern Irish step dancing and Irish céilí dancing. Then the church successfully lobbied government to gain social control via the Public Dance Halls Act (1935) to ensure a higher level of social, moral and of course, economic control in rural parishes. Irish set dances were still danced in many parts of Clare and indeed, ironically, thrived in many Irish Gaeltacht areas such as in Kerry and Cork.
2. Traditional Irish step dancing – the history of traditional Irish step dances can be reliably traced back to the first part of the 19th century. However, it must be considerably older than that for the description we have of that time are of an already elaborate and sophisticated form of dance”****
This style of dance was done mostly to Irish jigs, the most indigenous of all Irish musical tempos, to reels (Scottish in origin) and hornpipes (English in origin), and was the fore-runner to what we now call Modern Irish Step Dancing.
3. Modern Irish step dancing – had entirely political origins, with the newly-formed Gaelic League wanting to strongly codify what was “ours”- Irish dance, Irish sport, Irish language, etc -in response to significant historical oppression and colonisation conducted by the English, that had almost entirely squashed expression of all aspects of Irish culture and had gained control of most aspects of daily life, including owning land. The Gaelic League banned it’s members from any foreign-influenced dancing, Irish set dancing. Although in the late 1920’s as the Irish Dancing Commission was formed, they realised they may have “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” by doing away with group social dances so much enjoyed by so many.
4. Irish Céilí Dancing – The answer was to create new social dances, which is how most of the well-known céilí dances came about around the turn of the 20th century – The Siege of Ennis, The Walls of Limerick, The High-Cauled Cap– which were dances that had long historical threads to the round or group dances from the mid 1500s – The Rince Fada, the Rince Mór , The Reel of Three, The Common Reel, The Hey and The Trenchmor. Interestingly of course, despite the complete rejection of “foreign” influences in dance, they seemed to have no trouble adopting reels (Scottish) and hornpipe music (English) for these dances. Céilí dancing as a social pastime began to go into decline in the 1960s.
5. Irish Two-Hand Dancing – these are simple dances danced by couples and are most commonly associated with Donegal. According to Pete Brett in Philadelphia:
“Donegal was the two-hand dance center of Ireland, though many of those dances were Scottish in origin. Old Ed Reavy told me that Donegal people told him that the interchange of music, song and dance with Scotland came about mainly due to clandestine affinity. The gaelic dialect in Donegal, the Highlands and Hebrides was similar. Therefore, in the Gaelic era, Donegal, people were sought for harvest. Consequently, the musicians, singers and dancers who were among these harvesters were often invited for future harvests. Due to this, friendships, vacation interchanges and inter-marriage often resulted”
6. Irish Sean Nós Dancing – The history and origins of Irish sean nós dancing remain a bit of a mystery and is generally an historically poorly understood part of Irish indigenous culture. I have written before about the potential connections to Spanish/ Morroccan and Flamenco traditions that were most likely made through trade in Connemara/ Galway. This concept is explored further by Bob Quinn through his fascinating, award-winning film documentaries The Atlantean Quartet.
NEXT? I am so intrigued by this connection which has led me to the Berbers of North Africa, that I am going to dedicate my next and entire blog post to the sean nós roots and the phenomenon it is now coming to be.
*Set Dances of Ireland: Tradition& Evolution Larry Lynch (1989) Séadna
** The Walking Polka: A Collection of Sets (1995 pp.ix) Eileen O’Doherty Na Piobairi Uilleann.
***Toss The Feathers: Irish Set Dancing Pat Murphy (1995) Mercier Press
****A Selection of Irish Traditional Step Dances Michael Tubridy (1998) Brooks Academy