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A Short History of Irish Céilí Dancing

By Kathleen Moffatt

Kathleen Moffatt

Kathleen Moffatt

There is very little reference to dancing in our earlier literature. This does not mean that there was no dancing in Ancient Ireland. The Irish are one of the Celtic peoples of Europe and the well documented arts and practices of the others include dancing so it is logical to believe that dancing was part of the early Irish culture too. Apart from historical events, I believe that one of the major reasons why so little information is available is the Celtic tradition of oral learning - the system of passing information orally from parent to child, from teacher to pupil. One of the earliest references to dancing in Irish history concerns a visit by the Mayor of Waterford to O'Driscoll of Baltimore in 1413 where "carolling" is said to have taken place. Breandán Breathnach tells us in his book "Dancing in Ireland" that carolling was a processional combination of singing and dancing. It is also said that in 1540, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Anthony St. Leger saw a round dance performed and brought it back to England where it was danced as a maypole dance.

In the early part of the 1500s, the round or group dances comprised country and figure dances based on the solo reel or jig. The Rince Fada and the Rince Mór are two of those. Also The Reel of Three, The Common Reel, The Hey and The Trenchmor. These appear to have been the first of what would nowadays be described as céilí dances.

In the late 17th century, the Penal Laws were introduced by the English. Under these laws Irish cultural activities were suppressed. Priests could not be ordained. Catholics could not be educated. Irish could not be spoken and the dance and the music had to be practiced in secret. This period of severe repression lasted for over a century and forced a decline in the Irish language, customs and music. It did not end until 1829 when Catholic Emancipation was won and those draconian laws were repealed. 

The Dancing Master appeared for the first time in rural Ireland in the middle of the eighteenth century. He taught all classes. He was usually itinerant and was sometimes accompanied by a blind fiddler or piper. He travelled an area of about ten square miles. He usually stayed about six weeks in an area, lodged in a farmhouse and taught the farmer's children free of charge to pay for his keep. Locals were very co-operative with him and would put a room or an outhouse at his disposal. In parts of the country, the Dancing Master would run his class in conjunction with Hedge Schools and the different classes would take place at opposite ends of the same room. In the book "A Tour of Ireland" by Arthur Young, there is reference to the dancing Master being paid 6d per pupil - 3d for himself and 3d for the musician. The dances he taught were mostly jigs and reels. The rising step and the first step of the jig and the sidestep of the reel. A major problem for some of his pupils was that they could not distinguish between their right and left foot. To overcome this problem, the dancing master would tie a hay rope on one foot and a straw rope on the other. He would then tell them to lift "hayfoot" or "strawfoot" as required.

To ensure that the weaker pupils were not disheartened he would organise round or group dances in which all pupils could take part and use the basic jig and reel steps that he had taught them. The standard of these dances was quite high as all pupils had had proper tuition. He also taught solo dancing. Dancing Masters survived into the early twentieth century particularly in Kerry and Clare. Gradually they were replaced by the dancing schools run by both male and female dancing teachers. The dancing master also taught Sets and Half Sets in the nineteenth century when they came to prominence again as the people who created the steps for the imported Sets of Quadrilles.

The sets were popular throughout the country in their many localized forms. They all derive from the Quadrille, which in turn can be traced back to the French Cotillion, which was very popular in France in 1723. The Quadrille was popular in the Paris of Napoleon and so the victorious armies of Wellington became familiar with them and introduced them to England and to Ireland around 1816-1820. They were first introduced to the houses of the English landowning classes and from there they spread to the crossroads and country house dances where they thrived as social dances for over a century.

A Guide to Irish Dancing 
J.J. Sheehan

A Guide to Irish Dancing
J.J. Sheehan

While the céilí dancing existed, the sets flourished until the advent of Conradh na Gaeilge in 1893. This organisation had as its objective the recreating of a separate cultural Irish nation. Its members believed that in order to achieve this, a process of what Douglas Hyde called de-Anglicisation was necessary. This meant refusing to imitate the English in their language, literature, music, dance, dress and ideas. Their primary aim was to keep the Irish language alive and they later turned their minds to other aspects of Irish culture. They believed that in order to achieve their objectives, they had to get rid of all English influences and so the sets and all their variant forms were banished from the social activities of revivalists in favour of céilí dances. Their first céilí was held in May 1897 and the first official organized céilí was held in London in Bloomsbury Hall on October 30th 1897. 

The Nationalist mood around the time Conradh na Gaeilge was founded explains the strong urge to develop a separate Irish identity. This is verified by the fact that the Nationalist community in the northern part of Ireland are the best exponents and supporters of céilí dancing today.

The Church authorities in Ireland seemed to be opposed to dancing. Throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s, they viewed it as "Lewd, licentious, immoral and unbecoming to its flock". There are many instances documented by Breandán Breathnach where dancing was condemned. One of the reasons given was the association, which existed at wakes, festivals, patterns and Sunday afternoon gatherings between music, dancing and drink. This resulted in improper behaviour. The fear and general discomfort generated by the attitude of the Clergy contributed largely to the gradual disappearance of house and crossroads dances in rural Ireland. According to Breandán Breathnach "the reason for the Churches concern was the grave danger threatened to traditional Irish standards of honour and modesty by foreign influences as epitomized by the dancing of the time". The dancing of the time was mainly sets, so when Conradh na Gaeilge started to introduce céilí dancing it seemed to be more acceptable to the Clergy.

In 1902, two dancing masters named O'Keeffe and O'Brien published "A Handbook of Irish Dance". In this book, some of the dances published were collected from Patrick Reidy a dancing master from Kerry then living in London. The dances he contributed were Rince Fada, Four Hand Reel, Eight Hand Reel and the High Cauled Cap. Another old dancing master named Tomas Ó Súilleabháin contributed The Sixteen-Hand Reel and The Humours of Bandon. In the early days of Conradh na Gaeilge, there was much controversy within its ranks regarding céilí dancing and style of dancing. However after much toing and froing in the 1920s, dancing classes were set up under the auspices of An Conradh to teach young children. An Coimisiún le Rinncí Gaelacha was set up in 1929. Its members were chosen from the dancing section of An Conradh and as a follow up to this "Ar Rince Foirne-Book 1" (A céilí dance handbook) was published in 1939. The editor was Tomás Ó Faircheallaigh.

Public Dance Halls Act, 1935

Public Dance Halls Act, 1935

The 1920s and 1930s were a very turbulent time in Irish history. The new state was struggling to find its identity. Many Irish organisations were beginning to assert themselves and the clergy were agitating to have Country House and Crossroads Dances controlled. The Public Dance Halls Act was finally passed in 1935. It required all public dance halls to be licensed and this effectively put an end to House and Crossroad Dances and with their demise, the sets went into decline. Functions could now be controlled. Parochial Halls were built in most towns and villages and as Fíor Chéilí seemed to be more acceptable to both Church and State they flourished and fewer sets were danced in rural Ireland. Some private country house dances were held. Those were called "Sprees" (from the Irish word spraoi) or Joins but no money was collected and they were more like a house party. Sets were still danced at such functions.

Tomás Ó Faircheallaigh who edited "Ar Rince Foirne-Book 1" and Miss Nan Quinn collected more céilí dances in South Armagh and other areas of the country in the early 1940s and a second book in the series was published in 1943.

Aoibhneas na Bealtaine - The Sweets of May was collected in county Armagh and dated from the early nineteenth century. It is said to have been inspired by the dancing of the fairies on May Eve. An old man returning home from a house céilí on May Eve passed a Fairy Rath and saw the Fairies perform the dance. When the dancers reached the clapping movement all the bell shaped flowers shook on their stems ringing in unison with the tune. 

A Handbook of Irish Dances

A Handbook of Irish Dances

Port an Fhómhair - The Harvest Time Jig is a dance from the west of Ireland dating from the eighteenth century. It is unusual in that it only calls for half as many men as women, the man in the centre and one woman on each side. It originated at Harvest-time when there was a shortage of men, for at that time hundreds of harvesters left home to seek employment in other areas where work was plentiful, returning home when the season was over.

Baint an Fhéir - The Haymakers Jig is another eighteenth century dance which is also said to have come from the west of Ireland and originated at house dances during the haymaking season.

Rince Mór na Tine - The Bonfire Dance is an old circle dance in reel time. It had an association with old traditions in that it was supposed to have been danced around the bonfire on St. John's Eve. It is said to be very old.

Tonnaí Thoraí - Waves of Tory is another very old dance that is said to have come from the Donegal coast. It bears all the hallmarks of the old Celtic tradition of worshipping the sea and commemorating the rough waves, which can occur between the mainland and Tory Island off the Donegal coast. Those dances together with the Rince Fada and the Rince Mór are still danced today and are living proof that our céilí dances are centuries old.

Céilí dancing flourished after the foundation of the state. Conradh na Gaeilge was responsible for organizing many of the céilithe and feiseanna , which were held throughout Ireland. Groups such as the G.A.A., Gael Linn, Glór na nGael, An Réalt, Cumann na bhFiann, Cumann Rinceoirí Éireann, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and many more promoted céilí dancing. Radio Éireann had the first dancing class on radio with Din Joe. Teilifís Éireann ran programmes such as Beirt Eile and Club Céilí in the early 1960s. Oireachtas na Gaeilge was one of the important Irish cultural events of the year. Its dress céilí with supper, which was held in the Mansion House, was one of the annual showpieces of céilí dancing.

In the 1960s céilí dancing began to go into decline. This caused great concern among lovers of céilí all over Ireland. It led to the formation of Fíor-Chéilí clubs. They were mainly in the province of Ulster. Club classes flourished and Fíor-Chéilithe are alive and well in Ulster today.

It is difficult to understand why céilí dancing was abandoned in the other three provinces. Some say that in the dancing schools the emphasis was on solo dancing and on competition and that there was no time for the céilí. In the few places where it was taught, the concentration seems to have been on competition and so the enjoyment factor was lost. The growing influence of the media, which brought imported music, song, dance and ideas to the country greatly influenced people particularly the younger generation. The large commercial ballrooms came into being and with them the showband era , which brought foreign music and dance to most towns throughout Ireland.

With the revival of Irish music brought about by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann came the urge to dance to the hearty music played by the great bands like the Tulla, Kilfenora, Bridge and Castle to name but a few. C.C.É. ran competitions for set and céilí dancing as did the G.A.A. in Scor. In 1982 for the first time the teaching of set dancing was included as one of the activities of the Willie Clancy Summer School. The class was conducted by Joe O'Donovan of Cork. This seems to have been the start of the set dancing revival. Workshops were organised throughout the country and classes and summer schools mushroomed. Once again the native dances were abandoned.

Most of the summer schools were promoted by Comhaltas and this I think accounts for the fact that a large percentage of the people who learned and dance sets do not know that they are not Irish in origin. Sets peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s.

1997 was the centenary of the first formal céilí and Cairde Rince Céilí na hÉireann (Comóradh an Chéid) was formed late in 1996 to commemorate this event and to reactivate interest in the native céilí dancing throughout Ireland during centenary year. When centenary year was over, it was decided that there was a need for a national organisation to promote céilí dancing and a committee was elected. Cairde Rince Céilí na hÉireann is a national voluntary cultural organisation for the promotion of non-competitive céilí dancing among all age groups throughout Ireland.

Further information on this organisation including a list of forthcoming events and a contact number/email address is to be found elsewhere on this website.

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