The History of Irish Dance

Irish dance in the barn


The picture above, a snapshot in the history of Irish dance, shows a barn dance of the nineteenth century. (Well not really a snapshot, but you know what I mean). There was music, dancing, drinking, and other kinds of carrying on. In other words a good time was had by all. The dance crossed all class barriers.

From here you can also find a little information about the male Irish dance costume and the Irish dance dress . You can also find some pictures and information on Irish dance solo dresses .

I will go into some detail about Irish step dance shoes . I'll be going over some of the dances themselves, too. And what's with the hair and wigs?

I'll try to keep this somewhat brief for you, but there is a lot of information on this subject. I'll try not to bore you to death. Since you are here I assume you are interested in this subject, I know I am or I wouldn't be here either.

OK, with that said let's get down to it.

One more thing first. If you are interested in a good Irish dance story or two have a look at the Liffey Rivers website. It's Irish dancing with a bit of mystery mixed in as well. Definitely a good read.

Now, let's get down to it. Really this time.


Ancient History of Irish Dance

The first dance in Ireland is thought to be from the Druids and their pagan beliefs. These dances included tree worship dances, animal dances, work dances, war dances, courtship dances and some dances just for fun. My own thought is these dances were performed in a group and not solo.

The history of Irish dance has been shaped over the centuries by the many invasions of Ireland. Each invader brought their cultural contribution to modern Irish dance.

Music usually was accompanied by dancing. Music is thought to have arrived about 1600 BC with the Tuatha De Danann. They came from an area around the River Elbe in Germany. In 1300 BC during the reign of a De Danann king named Ollam Fodhla the first great feis was held at Tara called Feis Teamhair (House of Music).

The Celts came with their language and culture about 500 BC. For a little over 900 years they were a heavy influence on Irish culture. The coming of Saint Patrick (AD 432) and Christianity changed all that. Saint Patrick converted the pagan Celts to Christianity by combining pagan beliefs and symbols with Catholic beliefs. The Christians did he same with the pagan dance trying to make it more civilized, but the basic pagan movement remained.

When the Vikings began to invade in AD 795 they destroyed many of the Celts written records, including any history of Irish dance. The Feisianna (Feis) a festival of trade, politics and culture survived and was carried on by the newly combined culture of the Celts and Vikings. The Feisianna evolved into a place of art, music, dance, and sporting events. The Celts may have lost their written records to the Vikings, but dance was still handed down from generation to generation by tradition. Today Feis are music and dance competitions that still have art, crafts and trade.

The Norman invasion (1169-1172) brought the round dance to Ireland. This was an important event in the history of Irish dance. At this time in the twelfth century the round dance was very popular with the French nobility in Normandy. The Irish really took to this type of dancing. It's still very popular in Ireland today.

In the fifteenth century the Normans brought caroling to the island. Caroling was a mixture of singing and dancing. It was still being performed late into the twentieth century in parts of Wexford. This was another way to carry on the dance traditions.


Modern History of Irish Dance

What you think of as Irish dance today had its beginnings in the mid eighteenth century. Up until this time Irish dance was performed in a group, a social dance. The advent of the Dancing Master at this time brought about the solo or step dance. They taught refinement for the group dance and the footwork for the solo dance. Later in the early ninteenth century some of the group dances began to use some of the steps taught in the solo dances.

There were many Dancing Masters in Ireland. They all had distinct territories of about 10 square miles. When the Dancing Master came into an area he would stay from one to six weeks to teach for a fee. He was usually accompanied by a piper or fiddler. His first task was to obtain the use of a barn or kitchen from a local farmer in which to hold lessons. In return the farmer's children received free lessons. When the weather was good dancing was taught out in the open at the nearest crossroad.

The arrival of the Dancing Master was a big event. He considered himself a gentleman and was treated like one. He dressed in a whimsical fashion. He wore a Carolina hat, swallowtail coat, tight knee breeches, white stockings and turn-pumps, and carried a cane with a silver head and silk tassel. He was considered a cut above the piper and fiddler. He instilled this high standard in his pupils.

The Dancing Masters continued in Ireland until the early twentieth century. Nearly 200 years of teaching brought about Irish dancing, as we know it today. The jig, reel and hornpipe were refined and standardized during this period.



Any history of Irish dance would not be complete without mentioning the Gaelic League. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a strong movement for a national Irish identity. The Gaelic League was formed in 1893 to promote Irish culture. The league grew very quickly; within a few years there were thousands of members in Ireland, Great Britain and the U.S.A. Although their main goal was to preserve the Irish language, they had a big influence on Irish dance, as we know it today. For dance they encouraged proper conduct, good behavior and an air of refinement. They organized dance classes and competitions.

In 1897 the London branch of the Gaelic league held the first "ceili" (Irish figure dance). The word ceili became the term to use for such a dance gathering.

In 1929 the league set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the state of Irish dance in the world, this lead to the formation of the Irish Dance Commission in 1930. The Irish Dance Commission today still oversees the majority Irish dance competitions the world over.


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