The Irish people dance and sing when they have something to celebrate, or even when they have nothing to celebrate. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon.
Baltimore Castle Ireland
I have no doubt that the early Irish were dancing around their fulacht fiadhs (a type of pre-historic cooking site found throughout Ireland) long before written records began, however, the first written evidence of the Irish people dancing was in the year 1413 and was documented in the Carew Manuscript. The document describes an event that occurred in Dun na Sead Castle in Baltimore, Co. Cork. On Christmas Eve night, men from Waterford arrived at the door of their long standing enemies, the O’Driscolls, a powerful West Cork clan. It was recorded that, inside the main hall of the castle, the O'Driscolls were ‘feasting and dancing’ to their heart’s content. The night did not end well and the O’Driscolls were kidnapped by the Waterford men. However, the kidnapping didn’t dampen the spirits of the O’Driscolls and it certainly wasn’t the end of dancing in the country.
This meeting of the Baltimore clan and the men from Waterford in the Great Hall of Baltimore Castle has been frequently discussed by historians, because of its detailed portrayal of the lifestyle of the medieval Irish chieftain and his household. The incident provides us with a very early example of the custom of feasting and abundance. It shows medieval hospitality, in which guests were provided with rich food such as venison, oysters, wild boar and salmon, and after the feast guests were entertained with music, poetry, song and the dancing of a ‘carol’ (an old circular dance). A worthy chieftain was characterised by the lavishness of his feasts.
Many historians have stated that references to dancing in Ireland only really appear from the seventeenth century onwards. This incident of feasting and dancing in the Great Hall of Baltimore Castle in 1413 is therefore very important because it offers one of the earliest known definite written records of Irish people dancing in Ireland. The castle, which was in a ruined state for over three hundred years, has recently been restored to its former splendour, and visitors can once again stroll through the Great Hall, imagining the feasting and dancing which took place there over six hundred years ago.
Various forms of Irish dancing developed throughout the centuries - céilí dancing and set dancing, both of which are done in a group, Sean-nós style dancing and, the more widely known, step dancing. Irish step dancing, with a modern twist, gained international attention in the mid-nineties when Riverdance, an interval act of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, took the world by storm. I was ten years old that year and, like thousands of other Irish kids at the time, was learning Irish dancing in the local community hall. To say we were blown away by the performance is an understatement. We spent weeks afterwards playing the recording of the performance over and over again in slow motion trying to learn Michael Flatley and Jean Butler’s complicated steps. Now in its 21st year, the show continues to tour and still captures the imagination of audiences across the world.
Ireland has a long history of celebrating through song and dance and continues to do so both formally, through choreographed performances such as Riverdance, and in less formal ways such as on the streets of France after football matches. So you see the dancing and singing of the Irish fans this summer wasn’t that unusual really when think about it, but it was nice all the same to be awarded the Grand Vermeil.
Experience Irish dancing yourself on your own bespoke tour of the South of Ireland or Ireland’s Ancient East Tours. Better still, do a tour of Ireland’s castles and visit Dun na Sead Castle, Baltimore where the first written evidence of Irish dancing took place, and dance in the very same medieval castle where the O’Driscoll Clan danced!
Erica McCarthy, Archaeologist & Bernie McCarthy, Historian and Owner of Baltimore Castle