Ceili Dancing and the Gaelic League

Group dancing was a core part of the social activities of Conradh na Gaeilge/ the Gaelic League which was founded for the promotion of the Irish language in Dublin in 1893.

Dancing (along with singing and instrumental music) was seen by the League as an integral component of Irish-language culture, and was central to the life of the organisation's branches. The League's dance occasions were called céilithe or 'ceilis'.

This relationship between dance and language was formalised in 1930 with the foundation in Dublin of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (the commission for Irish dances), an agency of the League which was intended to promote and regulate Irish traditional group dancing and solo step-dancing through the organisation of classes, schools, exams, festivals and competitions. An Coimisiún continues successfully to this day.

In 1939 An Coimisiún published Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne (our group dances), its first handbook for the learning and teaching of ‘ceili’ dances. These were, for the most part, traditional group dances which had originated in the 19th century. Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne has been in print, in numerous expanded editions, for some 75 years now, and An Coimisiún will publish a new edition of the handbook in 2012. The Irish Traditional Music Archive reproduces here from its collections the original ten-dance edition of Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne of 1939, with the kind permission of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha.

Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne: 10 Popular Figure Dances

These ceili dances only became the standard group dances of the League in the early 20th century. Before that, members had danced quadrilles, waltzes, and other social dances of the time at their events. The story of how ceili dances were introduced and popularised, which begins with members of the Gaelic League in London, is told in a lecture script reproduced here with visual illustrations: ‘The Beginnings of Ceili Dancing: London in the 1890s’, by Nicholas Carolan, which was delivered to a seminar of the Folk Music Society of Ireland ‘Traditional Dancing in Ireland’ in 15 Henrietta St, Dublin 1, on 19 May 1990. The script was reproduced as an article of the same title in Céim (no 69, Sept. 1990), the magazine of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, and also as an article ‘Ceili Dancing: London in the 1890s’ in Rince Céilí. Céilí Dancing 2004, a publication edited by Eilís Ní Mhearraí for Cairde Rince Céili na hÉireann (Dublin, 2004).

'The Beginnings of Ceili Dancing: London in the 1890s' by Nicholas Carolan

See also A Guide to Irish Dancing / by J.J. Sheehan

Dances of Donegal / collected by Grace Orpen

Le buíochas don Choimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha as ucht cead a thabhairt an chéad eagrán de Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne a chur ar fáil anseo. Thanks also to the Irish Examiner, Cork, & to Gael Linn, Dublin, for permission to reproduce their photographs.

NC & GT, 1 June 2012