What kinds of dance did Gaels do before the European dance trends of the Renaissance (and later) came to Ireland and Scotland? It was only then that the jigs, reels, and so on, now considered “traditional,” came into being. Is there any evidence about what bodily movement they did to music, when, why and by whom? How did these early dance forms differ from those that emerged later and eventually replaced them (a topic I’ve explored in two previous blog entries, here and here)?
In this blog entry, I’ll be providing some new ideas (I hope!) and novel solutions to these challenging questions within Irish Gaeldom. This will, I think, help shed light on the situation in Scotland as well, but where there is considerably less surviving evidence from Gaelic contexts. Besides pointing out some evidence that hasn’t been examined in this light, I’m also making use of a new book that has helped me make some important connections, namely The Carole by Robert Mullally.
One of the complications in approaching a question like this is one of terminology: We who use the term “dance” in modern English use it in a very loose and universal way for all kinds of physical responses to music, yet are seldom aware of choreographic forms that pre-date the Renaissance, when the modern forms with which we are most familiar originate. We need to be able to appreciate that most “traditional” (i.e., oral-dominant, non-industrialized) societies are likely to use more specific terms that will encode the distinctions between different kinds of physical responses to music: choreographic forms attached to particular kinds of events, performed to particular kinds of music, done for specific reasons in a specific way, and so on. On the other hand, if music or song and physical movement is integrated in a very basic synthesis, there is no need for distinctive terminology.
Part of the frustration with these investigations is that the only words in Gaelic which have been used (at least since the 16th century) to refer to dance are non-native ones: rince and damhsa in Irish, and ruidhle and dannsa/damhsa in Scottish Gaelic. This in itself is indicative of cultural contacts and borrowings, or of a shift in perceptions at the very least.
As Fergus Kelly pointed out in the lecture he gave in November 2013, there are no words for dancing in Old Irish (see the lecture and/or handout here). Despite having a great many texts that describe Irish life over a great time span, there is no evidence of a distinct term to describe dancing as a distinct activity — despite anthropologists reassuring us that dance is a universal impulse. This suggests to me that (1) physical movement was not distinguished from musical performance itself, especially song, and that (2) there was no conception of complex choreography, such as what developed in Renaissance courts on the continent. And indeed, the examples that Kelly gives involve mundane words suggesting leaping, acrobatics, and general physical exertion. All of these passages, furthermore, are translations of Biblical texts into Irish rather than descriptions of “native” activities.
Pretty much all over the world, “traditional” people have a practice of singing together while being linked together in a chain or ring. You can find examples of this practice in Iceland, the Faroes, France, all over the Balkans, India, and so on. It would be very strange if the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland did not have a similar practice in the early medieval period. These kind of formations create a seamless fusion of music and dance and affirm the solidarity of the community as a connected and uniform body. They are typically done at special holidays of the calendar or rites of passage (like birth or death).
Following the ideas laid out by John MacInnes about waulking songs (2006: 248-64), I have argued (Newton 2006; 2009: 272-7) that Scottish Gaels did have some form of choral dance although vestiges of it died a slow death in the 19th century. Can we push the evidence back in Ireland for this same choreographic structure?
One of the most interesting and important windows into the life of the “tribe” is the poem describing the annual celebration at Carmun (described in one of the Metrical Dindshenchas poems). In verse 65, amidst the depictions of the various attendees and their jovial activities, we get the enumeration: “Pípai, fidli, fir cengail.” This could be translated as “Pipes (aerophones), (medieval) fiddles, and connected-men.” The men are connected, I believe, because they linked together in a song circle.
When the Anglo-Normans came to Ireland, the French element certainly carried with them their own musical and dance traditions. Scholars such as Seán Ó Tuama have traced French influences in Irish poetry and music, pointing to such forms as the carole to explain the emergence of certain themes (romantic love) and musical structures (the amhrán form).
The presence of the Anglo-Normans also explains, I believe, the origin of the ordinary Irish term for dance: rince. While previous scholars (Breathnach 1971: 36) have connected the term with skating, it is clear to me that this is a borrowing of the Middle English term ring, which was used as the rough equivalent of carole (Mullally 2012: 111-12). As he explains in the rest of this valuable investigation, the carole was the dance par excellence of French society from the twelfth to the fifteenth century; it was “a very simple dance consisting of women, or men and women generally alternating, stepping sideways to the left in a circle” (49) performed to song (not instruments).
It was certainly known in Ireland and practiced by Anglo-Norman and Gaelic lords alike, as witnessed in the account of a meeting between the Mayor of Waterford and the native chieftain Ó Driscoll in 1413:
With that the said Maior toke up to daunce O’h-Idroskoll and his Sonne, the Prior of the Friary, O’h-Idroskoll’s three brethren, his uncle and his wife, and leaving [leading?] them in their daunce, the Maior commanded every of his men to hold fast the said powers, and so after singing a carroll came away, bringing them aborde the said shipp the said O’hIdriskoll and his company, saying unto them they should go with him to Waterford to syng their carroll and to make merry the Christmas. (Rimmer 1989: 42)
Note, however, that if the dance was used to move people from one place to another, it must have taken the shape of a line or chain (see the discussion of tresche below).
Some 17th-century descriptions of Irish dances show that the ring formation remained, for example, John Dunton’s observation that “Sometimes they followed one another in a ring (as they say fairies do) in a rude dance” (Brennan 2004: 19).
I believe that there is even a hint in the Gaelic ode by Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (†1387) to a clársach (native Gaelic harp), written c.1382, of this practice. The very last two lines, in praising the arts supported by the patronage of the Lord of Cenél Fiachach, in Westmeath, state:
biaidh cnoc lomnán ar gach leath
d’orghán a chrot ’s a chláirsioch. (Bergin 1971: 69)
“the harmonious playing of lyre and harp will cause (dancers) to bare all of the hillsides around.” (my translation)
Considering that the term cnoc is a conical hillock, I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to infer that this is referring to ring dances – what other choreographic pattern would cause a hillock to become bared?
Sean Donnelly has written a very interesting article about the many references in late 16th- and early 17th-century English sources to a (supposedly) Irish dance called the “Trenchmore” in these sources (see his article here). The latter part of the name is clearly Gaelic mór “great,” and Donnelly goes to great lengths to explain the origin of the name of the dance as a place name in Ireland. While it is certainly possible that the name was later re-analyzed by Irish speakers and associated with a particular place on that basis, I’d like to suggest (after reading Mullally’s book) that there is a better explanation for the name: that like rince, this was also a borrowing from the Anglo-Norman settlers of Ireland.
The term tresche was used as a synonym, or close equivalent, to carole in Anglo-Norman texts, although it sometimes seems to have been danced as a line or chain rather than a closed circle (Mullally 2012: 59-61).
The choreographic practices that I’ve been describing thus far (ring song-dances) differed greatly from the innovations of the French court in the 15th century onwards in their social function, style and constitution. They affirmed and embodied group solidarity and participation. By contrast, what came out of courts was a product of the “refinement of manners,” the efforts of the aristocracy to demonstrate physically their education, training and grace that distinguished them as specially endowed individuals who were above and distinct from the lower orders. These endowments demonstrated their right to rule (having colonized their own bodies), their eligibility for courtship with others of the same social order, and their economic mobility. Couples dances emerged from this time period.
Even the weaving figure of the Hay (which was borrowed from the French in the 16th century by the Scots to become the “reel”) shows a very different mentality from the conformity of the sung choral dance: dancers are individuals moving on their own track, having to encounter and shift around other individuals moving contrary to them. This individuality and distinction of refinement only intensified in new choreographic innovations.
Osborn Bergin. Irish Bardic Poetry. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970.
Breandán Breathnach. Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. Cork: Mercier Press, 1971.
Helen Brennan. The Story of Irish Dance. Dingle: Brandon, 2004.
John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.
Robert Mullally. The Carole: A Study of a Medieval Dance. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.
Michael Newton. “Dancing with the Dead: A Highland Wake Custom,” Cànan & Cultar / Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 2003, eds. Wilson McLeod, James Fraser and Anja Gunderloch (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006): 215-234.
— Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.
Joan Rimmer. “Carole, Rondeau and Branle in Ireland 1300-1800: Part 1 The Walling of New Ross and Dance Texts in the Red Book of Ossory.” Dance History 7 (1989).