Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Irish Dancing


I've just started into this book, and it's a great read. Seriously thought provoking and a wonderful idea. Barbara O'Connor is using dancing as a prism to analyse the evolution of certain attitudes and values in Irish society.

I knew about Irish dancing. I grew up with it. But it never struck me to think about it or to wonder how it got to be what it is. In latter days I have an interest in it from a family history point of view as a relation (first cousin of the husband of a grandaunt, if you must know) was an innovative teacher of Irish dancing in the first half of the twentieth century.

The bits I've read so far include the gradually evolving role of dance in the underpinnings of the Irish struggle for independence. There is also the role of dance in gender stereotyping. And I'm now getting to the bit where the wrong type of dancing is seen as challenging the hegemony of the Irish Catholic Church's vice-like grip over Irish society.

Can't wait to get stuck further into this book over the Christmas.

Meanwhile a few wee observations.

One of the preoccupations of the clergy was with the purity of the swing in Irish dance. Two are mentioned in the book, one of which I'm familiar with but but then there's one on the cover of the book that I was not familiar with. The full picture is (i) the gentle swing on the cover where only the hands touch, (ii) the somewhat more violent swing which is stabilised by hand and elbow gripping, and (iii) the one the clergy forbade, hand to hand and hand to waist. The last two could achieve supersonic speeds and lead to serious dizzy spells if you were not used to them. And there was a certain advance in intimacy between (ii) and (iii) which the clergy viewed with abhorrence but which was a consummation devoutly to be wished on the part of the (male?) dancers.

I was very taken with a quote in the book which I came across just earlier today. It is from a guy called John Northbrook and dates from 1577. He felt that "through this dauncing many meydens have been unmeydened, whereby, I may say, it is the storehouse and nurserie of bastardie". Unfortunately I never had any luck in that department in my Irish dancing days.

I learned that " 'Foreign' dance came to be seen as a contamination to the purity of Irish culture and, as such, was a source of concern to the cultural and moral arbiters of appropriate movement". Now that did ring a loud bell. In my innocent youth I ran a series of céilís in a Dublin suburb. But being young and in the age of rock I alternated the dances between pure Irish and jive. One father forbade his daughter to attend on precisely the grounds set out above.

And, finally for now, I wonder what the author would have made of the all male céilís in the Gaeltacht summer schools run by Ógra Éireann. Maybe Barbara will get to it later in the book. If not I'll have to write and tell her all about it.

The book is published by Cork University Press

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