A Brief History of Irish Dance

by Donncha O Muineachain



There are no definite references to dancing in the early Irish Literature. This would seem to infer that the ancient Irish never danced. However, since the Irish were renowned for their music, such a theory would be at variance with the history of most peoples in the early ages. It is no more possible to dissociate Irish music from Irish dance in early times than it is today. Praiseworthy references to Irish musicians can be found by 12th century English and Welsh historians. Names by which we have come to know the dances, e.g. reel, jig, hornpipe, etc., do not help in tracing the origin of the dances themselves. It is believed that the word "jig" was derived from the Italian word "Giga" and was the work of Italian composers Gemiani and Corelli, to whose work piper O'Carolan was attached. However, tunes called Irish jigs had previously been published between 1650 and 1700, many years before the birth of these two Italian composers. There is no evidence to show that the origin of the jig as danced in Ireland for the past 160 years is of great antiquity; instead, evidence seems to point to the fact that in its earliest forms it was a "Round" or a "Long" Dance, "A Hey de Gigue". Dr. Petrie, the well-known Collector of Irish Music, was inclined to the view that our jig tunes were originally clan marches. The word "reel" cannot be traced to an Irish origin at all, but indications are that it originated in Scotland as a "reill" - so referred to in Scottish literature in 1598. Another origin viewpoint is that the tunes that are now considered to be of Scottish origin may in fact be of Irish origin, over 1,000 years old. Before St. Colmcille's lifetime (circa 500 - 550 A.D.) many Irish from Antrim/Down settled in Scotland and brought with them their Irish music, dancing and language. Subsequently, the language, music and dancing in Scotland and Ireland developed independently, hence the little variations. A possible reason why references to Irish dancing are so scarce in early Irish History was because up to Cromwell's time, the history recorded was largely a history of the aristocracy. From then on, and particularly from Sarsfield's time (circa 1690), we began to get the history of the common people of Ireland. Three dances frequently mentioned in the 16th century Anglo-Irish or English literature were "The Irish Hey", "The Trenchmore" and "The Rince Fada". Allusions were frequently made to "Irish Heys" or "Rince Timcioll" in well-known plays of the 16th/17th centuries. These references indicate the existence as early as 1550 approx. of a round (circle or Hey) dance in which a number of men and women took part, and it may be reasonably inferred that the old Irish Hey was the earliest and simplest from of our modern round dances like the 8 Hand Jig, 16 Hand Reel, etc. The "Rince Fada" (akin to the "Bridge of Athlone" as danced in the last century) is said to have been danced for King James II on his arrival in Kinsale in 1689 and to have given him great delight. It was the customary last dance of the evening at private and public Balls and also at comedies/Comic Operas.


Dress of Dancers


A few centuries ago, the gent normally wore high buttoned waist-coat, cravat, knee britches, stockings and brogues, while the lady wore a coloured homespun skirt reaching down to her ankles and black bodice.


Types of Dances


There are 3 main categories of Irish Dancing - Solo Dancing, Figure/Ceili Dancing and Country Set Dancing. Solo dances are performed nowadays mainly in exhibition or competition and require considerable expertise and many years of training. Figure (ceili) dancing and set dancing generally do not require more than an elementary knowledge of the basic step and are most suitable for social dancing.


(a) Solo Dancing

Evidence seems to suggest that solo dances were the creation of dancing masters of the 18th/19th centuries. All references to Irish dances in literature up to the beginning of the 18th century deal only with round or long dances. The "Dancing Master" was a very important person in rural Ireland and he commanded the greatest respect. His dress was colourful and he travelled the country from village to village in the company of a piper or blind fiddler. There would be great excitement in a village when the dancing master arrived, as it meant that there would be music and dancing for several weeks. He might stay in one farmer's house or in a different house each night. Each dancing master had his own district and never encroached on the territory of someone else. It is said that the dancing master received a fee of sixpence from his pupils, with the musician getting about half this amount. Dancing masters would challenge each other at fairs or similar events and hold a dancing contest in public. Around 1800, Cork, Kerry and Limerick were renowned for their dancing masters. The music of set-dances such as "St. Patrick's Day", "Job of Journeywork" is said to have been composed by some of these dancing masters, with perhaps the assistance of their accompanying musician. There was a time when men and women did not dance the same steps/dances. The old dancing masters taught women steps of a lighter and simpler character. Steps with a "treble" or "batter" were traditionally reserved for the men. Equality of treatment did not exist in those days!


(b) Ceili Dancing

The word "ceili," derived from "le cheile", originally meant the gathering of neighbours in a house at night to have a chat and to have an enjoyable time together; it was some time before music and dancing became part of a "ceili". Ceilithe can be traced back prior to the famine when dancing at cross-roads was one of the most popular pastimes in rural Ireland, usually on Sunday evenings. After each dance there would be a change of partners, as it was considered unseemly for the same couple to dance two consecutive dances together unless they were actually married or engaged to be married. The priests generally denounced cross-roads dancing, considering it to be an occasion of sin - young boys and girls being allowed out until an ungodly hour without supervision. Crossroads dancing was eventually forbidden by the clergy in many parishes around Ireland and so the dances moved indoors! This, in turn, led to the birth of the Ceili Band for non-house dances. It is felt that some of the present day ceili dances were invented by the Dancing Masters to hold the interest of those pupils having difficulty with the solo dancing and to give them an opportunity to enjoy themselves. They gave us plenty of variety with Round, Long (progressive) and Square Dances. The side-step in Ceili dancing is unique to Irish dancing and is not to be found outside of Ireland. The great Dancing Master, O'Kearin (O'Kearing) from Kerry is reputed to have been mainly responsible for the crystallisation of Irish dances, reducing them to the order and uniformity they have now attained. Iri