Irish Step Dancing Costumes: History

Figure 1.--Modern Irish dance costumes are even more recent in origin that the dance steps that the dances perform. We do not have many historical images, but believe the costumes began to develop after Irish independence in the 1920s. All of our images date from after World War II.

Irish step dances are relatively modern, creations of the dancing masters prevalent in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. "... almost all references to Irish dances in literature, down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, deal only with Round and Long dances, and ... there is a marked absence of any indication of the existence of the dancing-master until about the same time." The intricate steps were invented by the dancing masters, who elaborated on the simple steps of Round and Long dances. Irish dancing until the Republic obtained independence in 1921 was rather informal. The new Republican Government as a matter of national policy sought to promote Irish culture which they felt, with some validity, had been suppressed by the English. This included even attempts to revive the Irish language which was then only spoken in remote rural areas. Thus all areas of traditional culture, including dance and music benefited from Government support. Irish dance developed during the inter-war years (1919-39), but began to become increasingly popular after World War II. The rising income levels provided more leisure time for a widening sector of the population. The increasingly economically successful Irish in America began to take more interest in their heritage and one expression of this was Irish dance and music. This was a particularly important development as 30 million Americans identify themselves as Irish-American, ten times the population of the the Republic. One Irish contributor to HBC reports that his dance teacher began dancing in the 1940s. She says she has been dancing since she was a young girl. Her house is filled with medals and prizes. Apparently Irish dance became very popular in the 1960s and 70s. Our Irish contributor remembers seeing pictures of his older cousins (boys and girls) dancing. It was the "done thing" back then to learn Irish dancing and a musical instrument. The costumes were simpler and less frequent costume changes.


Irish step dances are relatively modern, creations of the dancing masters prevalent in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. That does not mean of course that there were no dance in Ireland earlier or that that these early dances did not influence what eventually evolved into step dancing in modern times. Not a great deal is known about the earliest Irish dances. The first dances often sited are those of the Celtic people and the Druid priests. Unlike Englabd, the Roman Empire and the Roman culture never crossed thecIrish Sea. The next major influences seem to be the Normans who brought medieval French culture to Ireland. Much more is known about medieval dances it was a French-English import. It is only in the 19th centuries that we begin to find evidence of the the step dances that are today so regonizanle as Irish step dances.

New Steps

Most Irish dancers in competitive dancing do traditional dances. There are, however, some new dances. Dancers cotinuously make up new sets occasionally. An article in Set Dancing News (October? 2003) has a letter from Florida describing local dancers that made up their own, often intricate set. Another report describes dancers at a set dancing holiday during October 2003 in Rhodes, Greece, made up a few figures of a Rhodos Set. Irish dancing workshops sometimes teach Derry Colmcille and Loughgraney sets, both of which seem to be sets that were composed. The Dublin Set is also a composed set and the music were in Set Dancing News (October? 2003). Many modern compositions are not well known. Some Irish dancers like the traditinal sets. Others are more attracted by innovative, moder sets. One dance enthusiast writes, " I was afraid that this dance form was stuck in the past. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that new dances are being composed since it seems when there is a resurgence of interest in something there are also new takes being created adding to the enjoyment of the old. I hope these new dances are received well and look forward to dancing them myself someday."


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Created: October 30, 2003
Last updated: 6:11 AM 7/10/2013