The Earliest Gaelic Dances

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.

Select Bibliography

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.

– ‘ “Dannsair air ùrlar-déile thu”: Gaelic evidence about dance from the mid-17th to late-18th century Highlands.’ International Review of Scottish Studies 38 (2013).

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).



15 Comments Add yours

  1. Mats Melin says:

    Good points Michael. A further note to consider, I do not think there is a coincidence at all that the early forms of the Scottish Reel was circular (see Flett 1985) as it would only be natural for the circular or ring dance to be continued in some form. Also the nature of the reel as a two-parted dance suggest to me a call and response pattern. Same as in the the Carole or Ballad /Song dances, I see a link in the call (verse) where all dancers are circling and doing the same step and figure to a response (chorus), which may be uniform in words but may allow for some individual interpretation in footwork as in the Cape Breton Scotch Four, or in dancing different Fling or Reel steps in the current Highland Reel. As the Reel developed, the circular form was dropped in favour of the haye / weaving figure commonly known today as a reel of four (or three etc). I also argue that the circle danced by a solo dancer in the early set (fixed pattern and not improvised) Cape Breton solo dances, such as the Flowers of Edinburgh and Fling as described by Rhodes (1996) is simply a reel danced by a solo dancer (the call) and the more stationary footwork in the B part would be the response. With regards to the solo dancer performing a circle one must however take into account that this occurs in European court dances such as the Canarios and so forth (which in itself may have kept elements from earlier circular group dances). Also the circle motif by a solo dancer occurs later in stage dances such as the Hornpipe.

    1. Thanks, Mats. Yes, I agree that there is some structural and conceptual continuity – albeit a somewhat slender line – in the stanza/chorus form and preference for circular patterns. This is certainly apparent in the development of the Branle from the earlier carole, for example.

      1. Mats Melin says:

        Indeed the continuity may slender, but I personally think it is more likely there is a connection to the past than not. Humans are by nature reluctant to change, so keeping something of the past as continuity would be favourable, until such time the memories of the past has faded enough for bigger change to occur. As in change the circular reel to an in line figure of eight formation, which may or may not have something to do with space of the contexts in which the dances are performed changing. Thus requiring a change in the movement. We can see something of this in Cape Breton where the dancing of reel in small spaces like a kitchen disappeared and gave way to the dancing of Square Sets (Quadrilles) in the local halls and school houses when they became available and took over as the prominent dance venue.

  2. Mats Melin says:

    As you point out, one must remember that the European term ‘dance’ is in a way ethnocentric and only applies to certain (western) ideas of what certain types of movement is. From a more global and ethnochoreological perspective one should think of dance as a ‘human based movement system’ as the term ‘dance’ does not apply to movement in connection with song / drumming / music etc. globally. In fact a term such as ‘African dance’ does not exist in any indigenous language of Africa apart from in the colonising languages of English, French, German and so forth. African terms are more inclusive of many aspects of particular events and commonly infer sound and movement in an integrated relationship. ‘Dance’ is not a universal term. So I agree with your points Michael that one must look broader and at terms signifying events or to references to song (music) to find ‘dance’ in early ‘Gaelic’ sources. I once saw James MacDonald-Reid and a group of dancers perform a Gaelic call and response song (I forget which) in Stirling and they danced slowly to the rhythm of the song in a circle with arms interlocked similar to a Faeroese Kvad dance or a Balkan circular dance. Worked for me.

  3. As I have a strong dislike of the terms “European” and (especially) “western”, I must add a little elaboration here. The actual distinction is one between rural societies and urban societies that have élites with lots of luxury time and distinguishing education. The latter inevitably rather consciously develop forms of cultural expression which are increasingly specialized and complex, and that pull apart “simple and organic” forms to become distinct, contrasting, discrete and intricate.

    I’m sure that the same processes and resulting distinctions could be found in the courts of Imperial China, feudal Japan, the Maya, classical India, etc. So, it’s not about being “western”, it’s about urban élitism.

    I perhaps should have stated the case as follows: there is no need to develop a term for “dance” (or “choreography”) when the activity in question is understood to be an integral and relatively simple and undistinguished aspect of the performance of music or song.

    There is a parallel in the development of instrumental music in Europe which, unsurprisingly, was developing an independent life of its own in this same time period due to the same processes. Prior to the 14th century, instruments were understood to be primarily as a means to echo, imitate or support the human voice performing song. This began to take on more sophisticated and complex form so as to have its own identity and functions, increasingly specialized and “refined”.

    Similarly, as choreographic structures began to become detached from an integral performance of song and take on increasingly complex form as an aspect of élite cultural expression, divorced from its vernacular song origins, it was necessary to develop associated terminology which marked its separate identity and existence. This development did not happen in the Gaelic world – Ireland or Scotland – until the encounter with the Anglo-Norman world. There were many conceptual and material consequences of this encounter: see

    1. Mats Melin says:

      Agree with your elaboration Michael of urban vs. rural. My statement was based on that what is now the most common daily usage of the word ‘dance’ should be considered in relation the lack of its use in in many cultures and perhaps commonly in rural settings. I would also add that those who wrote our histories were predominantly the educated urban elite which has, and sadly often still, ignores the oral traditions of the many and predominantly rural people of many places. And yes there are ‘elite’ dance forms in many places round the world, some of which that have only recently become recognised as comparable to ‘ballet’ for example. This is a whole other discussion of course, but we can not ignore the power of the choice of words of the literate on the usage of the same in oral tradition over time. Therefore I agree with you that we need to think broader in terms of what terminology is/was used in oral tradition as indigenous inclusive terms for events that involved what we now separate with the terms music, song and dance.

  4. Sábhier says:

    Probably something like this?
    ‘Danzantes de Peranzanes’. Peranzanes, El Bierzo, Spain.

    1. I don’t think so – that choreography is far too geometrical and abstract. I think something like this is far more likely, and much close to “home”:

      1. Sábhier says:

        I see. That Spanish dance probably is based on an ancient ritual of martial training performed by the young men of the community -this could explain the strong geometrical figures an the intricate movements.
        And the Iberian peninsula is not so far from ‘home’. 😉 Thanks.

    2. You say “probably is based on an ancient ritual…” The problem is that these things are never static but are periodically hybridised with new contemporary forms and so inevitably evolve, even if slowly. While it may be “based on” something old and have great continuity, it has no doubt changed. Look at language as an analogy.

  5. I wound be interested in suggestions of specific songs that would work for this kind of choral ring-dance. Do we think that some waulking songs might represent the kind of song that is suitable for a dance like this, or are the demands of waulking too different? Is it possible that some early collectors mis-categorised ring-dance songs as “waulking songs”?

    1. Actually, most waulking songs work really well when performed as ring dances. When I was in the folk ensemble Drumalban (in the 1990s) we performed several that way.

      1. mrealg says:

        OK, thanks!

  6. Dannsair says:

    Michael — I am so pleased to have made your acquaintance and look forward to future meetups.
    I’ll be very interested in learning about dance and Gaelic dance in particular! Perhaps it is time for a dance narrative piece with Gaelic dance as the vocabulary!

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