The Story of Irish Dance, Helen Brennan. (Brandon Books, £15.99) ISBN 0863222447

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2000), Reviews, Volume 8

The study of the history of Irish dance is hampered by the scarcity of pre-twentieth century accounts of it. Although the country was dance-mad, to judge by the few accounts we do have, very few people thought it worth their while to leave a thorough description of the activity. The extant sources suggest a society in which all classes were ready to take to the floor on the slightest pretext, but no-one wrote down what they did. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there appear to have been only three works on dancing published in Ireland: Neals’s collection of country dances (1726); James Cassidy’s A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Dancing (1810); and Leggett-Byrne’s Terpsichore, Her Votaries and Fashions (1898).
Things picked up over the last hundred years, but as dancing, along with Irish music in general, was annexed by the nationalist movement, much that has been published was written to promote an agenda and must be read with care. For example, no-one reading the publications of the Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha would dream that people all over Ireland once danced a completely different repertoire of dances to those described (and prescribed) therein. The only reliable account of the subject was Breandán Breathnach’s Dancing in Ireland (1983), originally published as individual articles in Dál gCais. Breathnach was the foremost scholar of Irish music in the twentieth century and his history of Irish dance, drawing together and evaluating all the available accounts, should have put an end to the mixture of nationalist longing and first and second-hand conjecture that made up the general perception of the subject.
If it did not then the present volume should. Helen Brennan’s work is comprehensive and clear-sighted. It is not entirely untouched by partiality. It is quite obvious that the author’s taste is for traditional dance—a phrase which is prey to endless misunderstanding. The dance tradition(s) she documents is that, or those, which were created in Ireland or are associated with Irish music. This includes both native creations such as the old solo set dances, and imports such as the country dances, quadrilles and polkas which became Irish, just as did earlier imports such as the reel and hornpipe.
In the field of solo dancing there are at least three regional styles, the northern, western and southern. The southern is that which, through an accident of history, became canonised as ‘Irish dance’ and is the one which after many ‘developments’ spawned Riverdance. The original traditional southern style, long abandoned by the dance-school movement which sprung from it, is enjoying a quiet renaissance as the styles and repertoires of dancing masters like Joe O’Donovan, Dan Furey and James Keane are being taken up and learned by a younger generation. The Connemara style known as ‘sean-nós’ dancing is likewise asserting itself after being effectively suppressed for years. Improvisational in form, it is characterised by spontaneity and freedom of movement, in marked contrast to the structured and disciplined southern style. Its emergence now goes some way to explain the discrepancy between the hundreds of nineteenth-century images of Irish dance which show dancers with arms raised or hands on hips, and the received perception of Irish dance as a straight-armed, rigid style.
Social dancing is likewise very well documented here. Due to a particular conjunction of political and cultural events Ireland now possesses two distinct social dance traditions, céilí dances and set-dances. The sets held sway throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century until they were banned from Gaelic League functions in the early twentieth century and their place taken by céilí dances. By the 1960s céilí-dancing had lost its audience and in the past thirty years sets have enjoyed a revival. In this, as in the re-introduction of the old-style step-dancing, the Willie Clancy Summer School in County Clare must take a major part of the credit. Their introduction of Joe O’Donovan’s set-dance classes in the early 1980s and Dan Furey’s step-dance classes in the early 1990s were the sparks that ignited both revivals.
This is a book for anyone with an interest in things Irish, for dancing was for so long such a central part of Irish life. For a reader unfamiliar with dance it will provide what will probably be a startling introduction to the sheer extent and complexity of the subject. People who know and enjoy Irish dance can get quite passionate about it, and this book reveals a lot of that passion—from the dancing-masters feuding over territory to their supporters’ enthusiastic support of champion dancers; from the Gaelic Leaguer’s anxiety to restore ‘native dances’ to the set-dance enthusiast’s determination to restore dances now recognised as native.
For dancers and those familiar with dancing the book has a wealth of anecdote and information not previously published which will enhance their enjoyment and appreciation of this most pleasant of pursuits. The whole story of Irish dance is here, told with insight and affection. It is the fruit of the author’s thirty years of research and the results of all that work and devotion are visible in every page.
There is one glitch I am bound to mention. The Pipers’ Set was composed by Joe O’Donovan and not by myself, although it was commissioned by Brooks Academy, the set-dance club with which I am involved. (Perhaps not the first set to be composed during the revival, it was probably the first newly-composed set not to be passed off as traditional—a record of sorts!) But this is an insignificant flaw in an outstanding work. As this book is bound to become the standard work on the subject there will be time to correct it for the many reprints which are sure to follow.

Terry Moylan


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