by Arthur Flynn
the past decade Irish dancing has experienced an astonishing
rise in popularity. One of the main contributing factors
has been the worldwide phenomenal success of Riverdance
and Lord of the Dance.
1994 Riverdance began as a short interval act during the
Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. The performances of Michael
Flatley and Jean Butler received such an enthusiastic reception
that the producers developed an entire dance show that has
played to critical acclaim around the world.
dancing is another aspect of Irish culture which has
undergone a recent revival with regular sessions in pubs,
hotels and clubs. With its intricate steps set dancing serves
as a social outlet and meeting place for mature people with
a love of Irish dance. They travel long distances to attend
dancing sessions, festivals and workshops.
earliest times in Ireland there was a changing balance of
population through invasions and migration. Although there
is little early reference to dancing there is evidence that
among the first practitioners were the Druids, who danced
in religious rituals worshipping the sun and the oak. Traces
of their circular dances survive in the ring dances of today.
the twelfth century, at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion,
a popular dance in Normandy was the Carol, in which the
leader sang and the remainder replied as they danced around
him. Later this dance was performed in the towns the Normans
In sixteenth century writing three principal Irish dances
are frequently mentioned: the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada
("Rinkeh fodda", Long Dance) and the Trenchmore. In a letter
written in 1569 by Sir Henry Sidney to Queen Elizabeth appears
one of the first references to dance. 'They are very
beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers'
Sydney wrote of the girls that he saw dancing enthusiastic
Irish jigs in Galway.
around this period dances were performed in the great halls
of the newly built castles. The sixteenth century English
invaders adapted some of these dances and brought them to
the court of the Queen. One of these was the Trenchmore
which was, in turn, an adaptation of an old Irish peasant
dance. Another style of dance to appear around this period
was the popular Hey. In this females wound in around their
partners in what may have been a forerunner of the present
day Irish Reel.
the middle of the eighteenth century the Dancing Master
first appeared in rural Ireland. Country people were then
so poor that they had to create their own entertainment.
From this background the Dancing Master emerged and would
travel from village to village with a blind fiddler or piper.
He would be paid a few pence, or given a chicken, to teach
the children to dance.
Dancing Masters were flamboyant figures who wore brightly
coloured clothes and carried a staff - a long walking aid.
One difficulty they encountered was that many of the children
did not know their left foot from their right. To overcome
this problem a master would tie straw or hay to his pupils'
feet and give the orders 'lift hay foot' or 'lift straw
Dancing Master developed rounds of group dances to hold
the interest of their less successful pupils. It also gave
them an opportunity to enjoy themselves. The standard for
solo dancers was high. They were held in such esteem that
often doors were taken off their hinges and placed on the
floor for them to dance upon.
1897 the Gaelic League was quick to realise the importance
of Irish dancing in Irish culture. That year they organised
the first ceili in Bloomsbury Hall, London. Its members
worked enthusiastically to restore dancing to a place of
honour in the social life of the nation.
costumes of Irish dance today reflect the clothing of the
past. Girls' dresses are styled after Irish peasant dress
of old. Many are adorned with hand-embroidered Celtic designs,
while copies of the famous Tara Brooch are worn on the shoulder.
These clasps hold a cape which falls down over the back.
Boys' costumes are considerably less embellished, but no
less steeped in history - they wear a plain kilt and jacket,
with a folded cloak draped over the shoulder. Modern dancers
now wear specially made hornpipe shoes, and for reels and
jigs soft shoes akin to ballet pumps. Recently there has
been a trend to introduce a plain dress for girls and black
shirts and pants for boys.
Today there are many organisations dealing with dance. For
a long period the Feis ("Fesh" - competition) has been an
important part of the cultural life of rural communities.
Dancing championships range from the four held in each of
the Provinces, to the All-Ireland and World Championships,
where upwards of a thousand competitors are common. The
World Championships are held at Easter and attract competitors
from England, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and
Ireland. Standards are extremely high and dancers must qualify
by winning one of the other championships.
Ceoltoiri Eireann provides a number of cultural facilities
at their headquarters in Belgrave Square, Monkstown, Co.
Dublin - from dance and music classes to the staging of
regular shows to informal music sessions. Their Friday night
ceilis are a popular event. Dancing is an integral
part of the Fleadh Cheoil competitions which
attract enormous crowds at both regional and national levels.
the great revival of set dancing and the success of Riverdance
many young people are joining dancing schools. They are
proud to display their skills. Boys, in particular, are
coming more to the fore. Irish dancing is now regarded as
being on a par with music and acting.
the summer months there are many opportunities to watch
and enjoy Irish dancing. Hotels and clubs provide organised
entertainment in which dancing is widely featured. Irish
dancing still forms a regular part of social functions and
many set dancing sessions are preceded by a teaching period
in which novices are shown the initial steps. Visitors are
encouraged to participate and should quickly master the
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