PW Joyce on Irish Dance

Patrick Weston Joyce, in addition to his major contribution to the preservation and dissemination of Irish traditional instrumental music and song, has also made an important and seminal contribution to our knowledge of Irish traditional dance.

Earlier Irish writers, such as William Carleton of Tyrone in the 1830s, had included impressionistic descriptions of dancing and dancers in their fictional works, but Joyce was the first to make a scientific classification of the types of Irish dances performed in the early nineteenth century and to analyse their characteristics. As an observant musician who had played for dancers from his childhood, he was well positioned to distinguish the various types and their salient features.

Joyce’s earliest published observations on dance were those first conveyed to his friend George Petrie in the early 1850s, presumably in writing. Petrie incorporated them verbatim in his notes to some of the dance tunes in his Ancient Music of Ireland volume of 1855. Although earlier collectors had taken little note of dance tunes, Petrie thought them ‘of equal interest’ to any other kind of Irish melody. He knew that he was breaking new ground in providing a description of their related dances, and acknowledges his own inability to do so had it not been for Joyce ‘whose words I shall in every instance use’. Although Joyce’s observations were made of Munster dances, Petrie believed that they applied equally to the dances of the other provinces of Ireland. His transcriptions of Joyce’s words partially survive in manuscript.

The principal kinds of the dance music of Ireland, Petrie says, are the

These dance-types are then described by Petrie, using Joyce’s notes on the number of participant dancers, the parts of the foot used, the various movements and steps employed, and the appropriate dance terminology with its meaning.

A facsimile edition of the Ancient Music of Ireland of 1855 and its unfinished successor of 1882 will be found here; the pages relevant to dance are pages 49–53, 58–62, 64–5, 92, 114 and 167 (in 1855) and pages 18–19 and 25–6 (in 1882). Joyce’s notes on each dance-type will also be found above by clicking on each dance-type name. They are provided in searchable text, in facsimile from the Petrie volume, and (when they survive) in facsimile from Petrie’s manuscript transcription.

Joyce himself published some notes on dance tunes in the preface to his Ancient Irish Music of 1873 (notes which he later quotes in the preface to his Old Irish Folk Music and Songs of 1909):

The Dance tunes that prevailed in the Munster counties, twenty-five or thirty years ago [in the 1840s], were chiefly the Reel, the Double Jig, the Single Jig, the Hop Jig, and the Hornpipe. The Reel was in common, or two-four time. The Double Jig was a six-eight time tune, the bars of which usually consisted of six quavers in two triplets. The Single Jig was also six-eight time; but here the triplet of the Double Jig was generally, though not invariably, represented by a crochet followed by a quaver. The Hop Jig, or as it was also called, Slip Jig, or Slip Time, was a nine-eight time tune. The Hornpipe was in common, or two-four time; it was played not quite so quickly as the Reel, and was always danced by a man unaccompanied by a partner. All these dance tunes, except the last, took their names from the manner in which they were danced. Besides these, there were ‘Set Dance’ tunes, i.e. tunes with some peculiarity of time, measure, or length, which required a special sort of dance, that had to be learned and practised for each particular tune. A Set Dance was always danced by a man without a partner. On the subject of the Munster dances I may take advantage of some other opportunity to make a few observations.

He also gives a pendulum method in the preface to indicate the time in which each tune, including the dance tunes, was to be played, observing that ‘I will venture an opinion that our song tunes are generally played and sung too slowly: while, on the other hand, the dance music is often played too fast; and in both cases the sentiment of the air is injured – sometimes utterly destroyed’.

In his A Social History of Ancient Ireland, first published in 1903 in two volumes, Joyce returned to the subject of Irish dance in a chapter on ‘Assemblies, Sports, and Pastimes’, but in this case not the dancing of his childhood but dancing in ‘ancient Ireland’, which he defines as ‘Ireland before the Anglo-Norman Invasion’ and ‘back only as far as there is light from living record – history or tradition’. He rightly says that there is no early evidence that the ancient Irish ‘danced to music, or danced at all’, but then unfortunately goes on to say that there is ‘very strong negative evidence that they did not’. It was not then understood that dancing is a human universal. The often-repeated statement that dancing was unknown in ancient Ireland owes much to this source, and to the sources that Joyce quotes here. The section on dancing, from the revised 1913 edition of the Social History, will be found in searchable text and facsimile here.

In his A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland of 1906, a one-volume condensed version of the two-volume work, Joyce deals briefly with dance on p. 501: ‘There is no mention of dancing in… any other ancient Irish record; and there is good reason to believe that the ancient Irish never danced at all – in our sense of the word’.

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