Irish Dance History

Irish Dance History: A Contrary Tale: Part 1

Irish Dance History: A Contrary Tale: Part 2

Irish Sean Nós: Rich and Deep : Part 3

IRISH DANCE HISTORY: A Contrary Tale: Part 1

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.

What I have also come to appreciate is how convoluted and seemingly contrary the whole business of Irish culture and history really is, and that there is a story behind everything.
There is truly nothing straighforward about the Irish.

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:

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.

Nora Stewart

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



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 have written 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. **

Reception of King James II at Kinsale

Reception of King James II at Kinsale

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 four of the  6 styles of Irish dance:

A very brief history of 4 Irish dance styles1. 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.

Nora Stewart



Sean nós  (say shan-nose) means old style in Irish, and I have often wondered just how old old really is. The very first time I remember seeing Irish sean nós dancing was in  early 1989 at my very first Irish set dancing weekend in Donegal Town, Co.Donegal. The snow was all aflutter outside the big windows of the hotel ballroom and three auld fellas shuffled along, “doing a bit of shtep” during the céilí -that’s how I recall it. It was relaxed, simple, very rhythmic and obviously, memorable.

Picking up the thread from my last post  Irish dance history: A contrary tale: Part 2 , I have been exploring more about the potential roots of Irish sean nós heritage, which it seems, may possibly originate from North Africa.  Bob Quinn, in his 1981 documentary series The Atlanteans, illustrateEurope map with travel route of Berberss his theory that  dwellers on the West Coast of Ireland, particularly in Connemara,  are not Celts but what he terms “Atlanteans”. They are ancient descendants of sea-faring people from Algeria and Morocco- the Berbers – who travelled all along the Atlantic coastline – West along Spain, Portugal, Basque country, Brittany in France and then North -West to Ireland – settled in parts and continued using the sea as a big super highway, that was much safer than travelling across land.

I found the evidence presented in the documentary is compelling and curious,  with potential multiple connections between ancient Irish and Berber civilisations starting with traditional singing, dancing & music, musical instruments including the Irish drum bodhrán which has a double in the Berber bandir, sailing boats – Galway Hookers with púcán sails & Felucca with lateen sails,  stone circles, standing stones and carvings in similar contexts in both countries, art and fine jewellery pieces thought to be Celtic have an eery resonance in the Berber style, and on it goes.

I decided to have a look for myself and see what the new prism of Google and YouTube could provide to help convince me that this connection with North Africa has truth to it.

Quite a lot, I think.

Irish sean nós singing is an unusual, highly-ornamented style of solo, unaccompanied singing  and in my view, has a deep, reflective and soulful quality about it. The sean nós style of singing was the aspect of Irish culture that pricked Bob Quinn’s interest to wonder where it came from. See for yourself –  beautiful Irish singing by Róisín Elsafty (who ironically has mixed heritage Irish & Arabic – a modern day Atlantean) and a young American woman singing a traditional Berber song:

Irish sean nós dancing is a loose, rhythmic, percussive style of dance, where dancer and musician are strongly connected through the act of music playing and dance, creating a gentle and intimate energy.

I searched “Berber dancing” on YouTube and I am delighted and intrigued at what I find there:

It too has a mesmeric quality – the clapping, percussive rhythms and deep contemplative immersion gives great genuine pleasure and satisfaction to those doing the singing and dancing, and those others present.  Further into my bit of research, I found this as part of a description of the Berber drum:

The bandir or bendir is used in the special ceremonies of the Sufi. The Sufi (islamic) tradition is strongly characterized by the use of music, rhythm, and dance to reach particular states of consciousness.

Singers, dancers and musicians alike often have their eyes closed for much of the time they are singing, dancing or playing – signalling that this is very much an internal process- connecting deeply within. This quality is like to be familiar to Irish musicians and some Irish set dancers, when you get “in the zone”, a sweet spot that nourishes and pulls you back for more. It does remind me of the traditional Irish water wells  (An Tobar in Irish) – it has a depth that you can fall headlong into and also drink deeply from.Irish well

For me personally, exploring the roots of Irish sean nós and its’ potential connections to North Africa has been extremely revelatory, making pieces of a bigger more, complex picture of dance, music, my Irish heritage and personal journey fit together more snugly. And, during this research, after a flash of insight, I typed into Google:

Q: Is Nora an Algerian name?

A: The exact origins of this name is unclear, some say its a derivative of the word honor, or Honora. But the popular belief is that it comes from the Hebraic/Arabic word Noour or “Light”, correctly translated in means “Bright Light”.

Not definitive then, but more possibility of a link to North Africa, more than just the likely Scandinavian/Viking link that I had originally thought to be the origin of my own name. Then, a memory stirred somewhere – of my namesake, Nora Barnacle, whom my father named me after, the muse and then wife of writer, James Joyce. Could there be a connection there?  From my visits to Connemara, I know that it is often known as Joyce country but I was a bit unprepared for what I found in the next Google:

 Nora Barnacle was born in the city of Galway…(and) her father Thomas Barnacle, a baker in Connemara….

The universe sometimes has an interesting way of revealing itself to you.

Nora Stewart (Barnacle)

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