Origins of Irish Dance
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"Oh the days of the Kerry Dancers / Oh the whim of the piper's tune"
The research for this article prompted my thoughts to return back to childhood and to this first haunting Irish song I learned to sing and dance. Now, once again, pipes are being readied while feet tap out their rhythmic beat in preparation for another Irish feis.
The Gaelic word "feis" (pronounced "fesh") denoted a custom or form of thanksgiving coming after a plentiful harvest, where the nobility of Ireland, with their ladies, harpers and bards, would gather at the castle of an Irish king to celebrate and compete in music and dancing. At this particular time, the popular dance was Rinnce Fadha (pronounced "reenka faudha") which was originally an old Irish peasant dance.
Because this dance was a favorite of the reigning King Leoghaire (pronounced "leery") who was the ruler when St. Patrick came, it was frequently performed at court. It was also known as the Long Dance, meaning of unusual length. The Rinnce Mor, or Great Dance, is a later version. The Sir Roger de Coverley is a dance that was derived from this long dance, and which eventually became known in America as the Virginia Reel.
Religion has also played a role in the surviving dances of Ireland. It is said that in the 4th century CE, when the Celtic settlers converted to Christianity, the new priests allowed these Celts to retain some of their pagan elements in tunes and dance by transforming their gods into saints. St. Patrick was one such example.
Because history records these priests as of two distinct types, aesthetic and worldly, conflict soon arose over two forms of Catholicism that later caused further confusion when Protestant reformers extended English sovereignty over Ireland in the 16th century. This is why Irish dancing varies. On the one hand, you'll see a light, leaping, carefree spontaneity or perhaps only a very rigid stance where the only movement is that of the feet. Therefore, ancient ritualistic dancing is almost completely lacking in Ireland as a result of this dissension.
With the Danish invasion of the 9th century came a polishing of some dances that were later to catch the eye of the 16th century English invaders. Dancing instructors were engaged to refine these dances so that they would be acceptable at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Hence, it is said that their efforts were largely responsible for the lack of expression worn by Irish dancers.
The traditional dances of Ireland are the Reel, Jig, Hornpipe, and of course set dances. But it is in the first three mentioned that the difficulty of foot steps is encountered. The Reel, of Scottish origin, is a classic dance that is performed smoothly and rapidly, but without any noise. The Jig and Hornpipe are similar in that both use clogging and shuffling. At some parts in the dance, the feet tap the floor seventy-five times in a quarter of a minute. This uniqueness is what sets Irish dancing apart from other ethnic groups, as concentration is primarily centered only on the movement of the legs and the erectness of the body. There is a Jig, however, that is danced to "Tune of the Occupation" that involves the use of the hand in a clenched fist.
The "set dances" are performed by couples and are somewhat simpler in motion and music. They consist of hop jigs, slip jigs, single and triple jigs, and are executed in 9/8 meter. The single jig and slip jig evolved from the Double Jig that is the most common of all Irish dances. There is little doubt that the Double Jig is the oldest.
The period 1300 to 1350 CE is the oldest recording of Irish dancing and has been set down in English dialect peculiar to that age. William Butler Yeats is said to have based his poem "I am of Irerland" on this, but it wasn't until the latter part of the 16th century, that the beginning of modern Irish set down the words for dance, Rinnce and Damhsa. It is probable that these words stem from the English "rink" and the French "danse."
In the 17th century we become aware of the withy (tough and agile) dance Rinnce an Ghgadaraigh (sword dance), Rinnce an Chlaidhimn (warlike dance), and Rinnce Treasach (long dance). It is not known for sure if the Irish dance conformed to the sword dances as did Scotland and Northern England (Northumbria). Little is known of the withy and warlike dances, but it is presumed that the Rinnce Fadha was the best known. This latter dance, as we mentioned earlier, was performed on festive occasions, such as the May Day ceremonies held out of doors where the dancers decked themselves with flowers. This dance is said to have entertained the Duke of Ormonde in 1662 and again, when James II landed at Kinsale in 1689.
The tunes played for many of these dances have been mixed so thoroughly between the Irish and Scots that it is difficult to determine their origins. Both of these countries have even incorporated certain English regimental characteristics during times of war into their tunes.
The most common costume worn by the colleen (a girl or young woman) dancers, subject to modifications, is generally a green dress having an embroidered ancient Celtic design, black stockings, a "fichu" (a small triangular shawl), and cuffs. A cloak or cape-like effect is attached at the shoulder, ending on the opposite side near the waist, held in place by the ancient-designed "Tara Brooch."
The written word, no matter how descriptive, can in no way convey the vibrancy of color, execution of gracefulness, nor splendiferous pageantry of an Irish feis half as well as the pipers and dancers will at an "old time Irish faire and Hibernian games."
"Oh tell me, Sean O'Farrell, where the gathering is to be . . ."
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, March 1978.