Irish Country-Dance Collections, 1790s

Irish traditional dance music, in the forms that we know it today, evolved mainly in the course of the 18th century, although some of its forms were older and most of its melodies were composed later, in the 19th and 20th centuries. The same seems to be true of Irish traditional dance and its figures.

It is clear that this 18th-century evolution of both music and dance was influenced, to a degree not yet understood, by ‘country-dance’ printed collections, which combined notated music and instructions for dancing. The earliest such Irish printed collections date from the 1720s, and Irish music publishers continued to produce them for the rest of the century. While they include Irish melodies, they mostly reprint pieces from British-published collections which themselves belong to a printed country-dance tradition going back to the mid-1600s. Versions of some of the native Irish melodies and figures they present are still to be found in the tradition. Some melodies and figures now naturalised in Ireland were imports brought in through these publications.

The prosperity of the last decades of the 18th century in Dublin – when Scottish reels and the jigs of the Limerick composer and uilleann piper Walker Jackson were particular favourites – gave rise to a burst of publishing country-dance collections there. The four sample collections given below (one also containing ‘new dances’) were all published by Bartlett Cooke, a musician, music seller and publisher, and an arranger specialising in Irish melodies, in collaboration with professional dancing masters such as the named ‘Mr Fontaine’ and ‘Tracy’. Cooke was an oboeist during these decades in the Dublin theatre orchestras of Smock Alley and Crow St; he also had a music shop on Sackville St (now O’Connell St) from c. 1794 to 1798.

The first three collections come from an undated bound collection of c. 1800 Dublin-published sheet music which once belonged to a Miss Barnewall, and later to Breandán Breathnach. The fourth item, an ITMA purchase, presents a bibliographical puzzle as the tunes on its title-page do not form a numerical sequence with those on the following pages. But possibly Cooke had a title-page engraved for an already existing sequence of engraved plates, and used it to form the publication. All the pages seem to have come from the hand of the same engraver and are held together with what seems contemporary binding.

With thanks to book donors the Breathnach Family.

ITMA would welcome the donation of other materials of this kind which are not yet in its collections (check our catalogues here), or of their loan for copying.

NC & MG, 1 October 2009