Jigs ‘n’ Reels: Irish Dancing’s Past and Future!

Posted on: March 31st, 2014 by Jessica Hickey No Comments

Irish dancing was given a much needed boost in popularity in 1994, when ‘Riverdance’ burst onto the scene! 20 years later, this theatrical show is still running and mesmerising audiences around the world.

I remember being a little girl, when a rerun of the “Eurovision Song Contest” came on the television. (Which is basically 6 hours of this…) The interval show of the contest I was watching was ‘Riverdance’.

Wow!! I was absolutely enthralled. So much so, that the very next week I joined a dancing class. From 1998 until I became “too cool” in 2004, I lived and breathed Irish dancing!

I couldn’t be more jealous of the Riverdancers!


Irish dancing began a very long time ago and our culture is very much influenced by it! As an example, where I’m from is a place called “Clocha Rince” which translates as “the dancing stone”. When penal laws were introduced by the English in the 1700s, Irish customs were basically all banned! The people from all the surrounding areas gathered to dance and have a ceili on this stone there, where it was possible to look out for soldiers coming from afar.

How it came to be? Well, there are only vague references to it in Irish history, but there is evidence of Druids dancing in religious rituals to worship the sun and the oak. It’s thought that some of the circular set dances we do (whilst being drunk at 21st birthday celebrations…), have roots in these pagan rituals.

When the Celts and Normans arrived in Ireland around 400AD, they brought with them their own traditions and customs, including folk dancing. The music and dance involved in Celtic ceremonies and gatherings were retained, even after Christianity had spread throughout the country.

Three dances in particular are mentioned often in 16th Century writing;  “The Irish Hey”, the “Rince Fada” (long dance) and the “Trenchmore”. The first written reference to dance is possibly in a letter to Queen Elizabeth I in 1569 from Sir Henry Sydney.  He said of dancers he saw in Galway; “They are first class dancers.”

Modern Irish Dancing

Irish dancing has come a long way since its beginnings. The commitment and skill of competitive dancers is immense! One of the reasons I gave it up was, that to get good enough to compete and place at a major “feis” , I would have had to train for 3 hours a day 6 days a week!

The money invested in dancing by dancers and dancing schools is also crazy. It’s fair to say that the “fashion show” aspect to the competitions is out of control. Little girls as young as 3 years of age wear fake tan, make up, glitter, wigs and false nails! (There is nothing remotely “Irish” about being the same color as a pumpkin!)

Here’s a price list of the items required to take part in the competitive sport;

Curled wig: $80

Dress: $600 (minimum!!)

Hard shoes: $90

Socks: $6…….

I could go on, but you get the idea!

Despite the dresses and tans and hairstyles, these dancers are extremely talented and impressive individuals. They would certainly shine, even without all the glitter!!

Fancy giving it a go?

It is so much fun. Trust me! Even though I don’t compete or anything, I always get up at parties to do a jig or a hornpipe for my granny’s sake!  Set/group Irish dancing is a great way of making friends, having a laugh and getting surprisingly fit! The “Walls of Limerick” and “Kerry Polka” are my personal favourites, alongside the “Six-Hand”, which is not for those of a confused disposition!

So, ‘Riverdance’ is only the tip of the iceberg. (Or hardshoe…) Irish dancing seems to be far less popular now than it was in the 90s. This is possibly due to the pageant style look of the young girls involved being deemed as “inappropriate”.  Maybe a reminder of how it all began might help!

Do you feel that aspects of the competitive side of dancing are “over the top”?

Do you think it hurts Ireland’s reputation abroad?


Hi I’m Jess! I’m a student of Zoology in Trinity College Dublin, but my real passion is to write.

I gain inspiration for writing from everyday life and as an Irish woman, it is a great pleasure to explore Celtic culture and write about it with a fresh modern outlook.

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