We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
-WB Yeats, The Stolen Child
Dance has always been a strong part of Irish Culture. There are records
of the Greeks and Romans which describe the Celtic peoples dancing in wild
celebrations around fires. The Catholic church was an opponent of cake
dance competitions as well as the popular dances at the crossroads. It
cited poor public sanitation as the reason behind its objections. Those
who danced without a permit were fined. None the less dance was an important
social stepping stone in Irish Society. Dancing masters went from village
to village to teach the young. There was fierce competition amongst the
teachers to design the most popular set dances.
The Reel a dance in 2/4 time was imported into Ireland from France
in about 1775 although King James II was welcomed in the late 17th century
with the long dance or Rince Fada. This may have been a reel as was the
Irish Haye. The hornpipe was famous as early as 1790 when it was
used as play act fillers.
There is no native Gaelic word for dance. Both Dawsa and Rince are
used however, they are French and German in Origin.
Jigs- There are references to the jig in ancient Ireland. A number
of variations of the jig are performed including the single (or soft),
double, treble, and slip jig. The music is 6/8 time (the emphasis on beats
in a jig is: ONE-two-three four-five-six). Slip jigs are in 9/8 time (ONE-two-three
four-five-six seven-eight-nine). Dancers perform single or soft jigs in
soft shoes. Solo competitions only occur at the level of beginners, advanced
beginners, and at some feisianna, Open. Competitions at all levels also
occur in the treble jig which has a slower tempo, but dancers triple beats
in hard shoes. The slip jig (soft shoes) is the most graceful of Irish
dances and features light hopping, sliding, skipping and pointing. Only
women dance the slip jig.
Reel-The reel originated around 1750 in Scotland and the Irish dance
masters brought it to full development. The music is 4/4 time and it is
danced at a relatively fast tempo (ONE-two-three-four). Both men
and women dance the reel. For women, it is a light, rapid soft shoe dance
that allows for plenty of leaping and demands an energetic performance
from the dancer. Men often dance the reel in hard shoes.
Hornpipe The hornpipe began around 1760, evolving from English stage
acts. It was originally danced exclusively by males in hard shoes, but
now, both men and women compete. It is reported that the ladies of Cork
were the first to brazenly perform the hornpipe in the male style. The
hornpipe is in 4/4 time, reminiscent of a slow reel with accents on the
first and third beat (ONE-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a). A notable
feature is the frequent use of a rocking motion with the ankles.
Set Dances A set dance is performed to a specific tune which has remained
set over time (at least during the 20th Century). Both males and females
dance sets in hard shoes. Because the tune is always the same and the dancer
knows the tune, adjudicators expect greater interpretation of the music.
Sets contain two parts, the first is the "lead around" (from 8 to 16
measures), the second is the "set" (12 to 16 measures). Some tunes are
more than 250 years old, but most of the dances are of more recent origin,
by dance masters. Also, some of the tunes have accompanying words.
Set dances often were composed to celebrate historical events- Napoleon’s
battles or perhaps a harper O’Carrolan. Sometimes activities- The foxhunt
or harvest are commemorated. Another type of dance is the "group set dance."
They are danced in reel, hornpipe, or jig time and are derived from French
quadrilles. These group dances differ from ceili dances in that
they are less sophisticated.
Ceili Dances-Ceili dances were derived from group set dances and French
quadrilles, but were set to Irish music. They appear to have evolved with
the help of the Irish dance masters A "ceili" is a gathering for music
The first Ceili Dances were institutionally sponsored by the Gaelic
league on October 30 1897
In 1935 the Public Dance Halls Act severely limited public dancing.
(the act was put forward by the church)
In 1920 Lilly Crawford founded the first dancing school in Dublin
Dance competitions are known as the Oireactas and the Feis and are
The Jig is a dance whose name is derived from France. It is in 6/8
time. The Jig is a solo dance and is in double or in three parts.
The Jig consists of a rising step, shuffle, grinding step, sliding step,
a battering step and drumming..
The set dance derived from the schools of the dancing masters. They
are “sets” of steps or figures.
In Kerry a dance known as a slide is popular as are polkas. In
addition to these dances one must not forget the waltz which is a very
popular dance in pubs and at social occasions.
The ceili is centrally a dance event however, other activities such
as storytelling and community meals are associated with it as well. Dancing
is popular wherevere people gather. The cake dance was a dance competition
at which the winner received the prize of a cake donated by the local pub
at the crossroads.
Reel - in 4/4 time, usually fast, the most
popular of rhthms
Jig - in 6/8, derived from the European gigues
Hornpipe - in 4/4 time but with every second
beat strongly accented
Strathspey (Scotland) - an even more strongly
accented hornpipe, in 4/8 time.
Polka (Ireland) - local to the Cork/Kerry
region, similar to European polkas.
European waltzes and polkas are also common in both Scottish and Irish
This week I have picked two local musicians who frequently are heard
locally playing Irish dance music.
Brendan Mulvihill- FiddleBrendan Mulvihill was born in 1954. His roots
in Irish music run deep. Brendan's grandmother, Bridget Flynn, was a fiddler,
and her brothers were all musicians as well.Brendan's father, the late
National Heritage Fellow Martin Mulvihill of County Limerick, Ireland,
was a renowned fiddle player and one of the most highly respectedIrish
music teachers in America. Despite these influences, however, Brendan's
style is uniquely his own. Brendan’s strong tone, remarkable bow work and
unsurpassed musicianship come from a deep love of the music and from a
surprising influence. Though inspired by many traditional Irish musicians,
Brendan also developed a passion for classical music. This classical influence
can be heard most clearly perhaps in his playing of the baroque music of
Turlough O'Carolan. The final distinctive result of Brendan’s many influences
was best summed up by a quote printed by the Washington Irish Folk Festival,
"...It's often said that the difference between a fiddle and a violin lies
not in the instrument but in the player. If that's the case, then Brendan
is not the player
one should look to when trying to draw such distinctions. Here is a
man whose heritage, background and training epitomize that of the fiddler,
but whose full, firm tone,
exquisite bow work and subtle, sensitive musicianship bear all the
hallmarks of the classical violinist…." Brendan immigrated to New York
with his family in 1965. In the ‘70s he traveled to Ireland playing throughout
the country with his contemporaries and building a huge repertoire of tunes.
During this time, he won the All Ireland Fiddle Championship. Later, Brendan
moved to Birmingham, England where he played in ceilidh bands and with
the many Irish musicians who had also settled in the English Midlands.
In 1975, Brendan returned to New York, where he soon began playing with
accordion player Billy McComiskey and singer/guitarist Andy O'Brien. The
three eventually made their way to Washington, DC, ostensibly for a week-long
gig in The Dubliner pub as The Irish Tradition. The week turned into several
years, and The Irish
Tradition became a seminal influence in traditional music, helping
to establish it as a permanent and integral part of Washington's musical
fabric. During this same time
period, Billy and Brendan traveled back to Ireland to win the All Ireland
Fiddle/ Accordion Duet Championship.-from the webpage: http://www.brendanmulvihill.com/
Billy McComiskey-Accordian. Some notes concerning Billy are found above.
Billy works as a plumber (at last note) but is one of the most wonderful
and gifted accordian
Players in the region. He has played at the White House frequently.
You will also
Find him playing at J.Patricks in Baltimore and at the Baltimore Irish
“My Maryann, and The Corner House”
The Irish Tradition: Billy McComiskey, Brendan Mulvihill and Andy O’Brien,
Mick Moloney. Track 7. From: The Flight of the Green Linnet., RCD 30075.
“The Diplodocus, The Gandy Dancer The New Leaf”
Trian: Dáithi Sproule, Billy McComiskey,Liz Carroll
Track 2, from: Trian., Flying Fish,FF 70586.
“The Plane of the Plank, The Rolling Hills of Maryland, The Champion”
Trian: Dáithi Sproule, Billy McComiskey,Liz Carroll
Track 11, from: Trian., Flying Fish,FF 70586.
Moore’s Melodies-The Irish tenor, sentimental song constellation….
While the peasants were singing their Sean Nos, the songs of work and
ballads of all kinds the aristocracy was recreating to the famous tunes
of Thomas Moore.
Moore, Thomas (1779-1852), Irish poet of the romantic movement.
Moore's verse, characterized by a nostalgic songlike quality, deals with
themes of patriotism and love.. Irish Melodies (1807-34), a collection
of 130 poems that included such famous titles as "The Last Rose of Summer,""The
Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls," and "The Minstrel Boy," is considered
his major work. –Encarta Irish Culture owes a lot to the late 18th and
early 19th century. It was during this period that Irish stories culture
and music became popular in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy. Dublin
also became a world capitol and jewel of the Georgian architects. Travelers
arriving back to the big city would bring tales of the Peasantry as well
as sentimental verse such as that put to music by Moore. As interest grew
and developed in the 18th century in the big houses research was inspired
which lead to the revival work of the late 19th century. The popularity
of singing with the Irish was to lead to the skillful use of the broadside
by the Young Ireland Movement which in turn inspired the revolution of
I provide an exerpt from the video: the Three Irish Tennors. PBS 1999.
The Mermaid song style constellation
Today one of the most important style constellations or genres in Irish
music is the mystical sound of the mermaid like female singer. Internationally
this style is typified by Enya locally you can hear it locally in the
whispy and romantic style of the group Connemara and Grace Griffith. An
early manifestation of this style constellation is the music of a group
united only for one recording Scara Brae. These sounds are flowing and
abstract. They are aided by the texture of the Irish language.
Here is a track from Scara Brae.
“Cad e Sin don Te Sin”-Scara Brae (What Business is It of His) Track
1 Side 2, Scara Brae.,
From the web page: http://www.loworbit.com/grace/index.html
To give you the flavor of this style I give you a bit from Enya:
“Triad”. Track 10, from: Enya.,Atlantic 7818422