There are not many references to Irish dance in early literature - one of the earliest is in a letter written by Sir Henry Sydney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, to Queen Elizabeth I in 1569, 'They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers' Sydney wrote of the girls he saw dancing enthusiastically in Galway. When King James II landed in Kinsale in 1689 we are told of 'young rural maidens weaving dances before him as he travelled'. The renowned English diarist and traveller Arthur Young mentions in his writings from 1776-9 that dancing was 'almost universal in every cabin' and that dancing masters were to be found throughout the country.
The dancing master was an unusual figure, often dressed in a swallow-tail coat, sporting breeches and white stockings, his silver-headed cane adorned with a silk tassel. Accompanied by a piper or fiddler, he’d travel within his local district and teach dancing to all who could afford to pay. In addition to his teaching and dancing prowess, part of his craft was the ability to compose new dance steps.
Throughout history, dance has always had its critics. The Catholic Church and dancing were not always good bed-fellows. In 1875, the Irish bishops issued a pastoral address in which they denounced the improper dances that had been imported from abroad – these would have included waltzes, polkas, lancers and quadrilles. In 1924 the Bishop of Galway noted that 'the dances indulged in today were not clean, healthy Irish dances.' (The influence of British naval bases in Cork and the dances imported by the Connaught Rangers may have also influenced this thinking).
Until 1935, houses and cross-roads were where most social dancing took place, and from time to time some of these dances were used as legitimate fundraisers.But there were also fears that they could have been used to raise funds for illegal causes, and that poitin, illicit alcohol, would have been present. So, that neither clergy nor the gardaí could police them created legal and moral problems.Eventually Church and state joined forces and the Irish government passed the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935, which forbade the holding of dances in buildings, yards, gardens and such like without a licence. This did go some way towards wiping out informal social dance gatherings and did damage the dance tradition, but other elements like emigration, the emergence of other popular dance forms (fox-trot and two-step), and the relative ease with which people could now travel to such dances also contributed to dance’s decline.
Terry Moylan talking to Michael O Suilleabhain
History and popularity of set dancing, and its revival circa 1982
Commission for Irish Dancing
Catherine Foley speaks on the background to the setting up of The Commission and its control over dance to this day. the clip also features some archive dancing