Dancing through History

Book Review by Jeanette Mollenhauer

Orfhlaith Ni Bhriain and Mick McCabe, Jigs to Jacobites: 4000 years of Irish History told through 40 traditional set dances. Independent Publishing Network, Dublin, 2018.
ISBN: 978-1-78926-286-5
RRP: €35  (incl. postage) from http://www.trad.dance

In Irish step dancing, there are a number of tunes which are used for solo set dances. Some have dance steps which are fixed, so that every dancer performs the same choreography, whilst others are known as own choreography set dances, where original choreographies are created by dance teachers and performed to a particular tune. Yet, in my twenty-five years of involvement with competitive step dancing, I have never heard an explanation about the origins of either the tunes or the steps, in spite of the existence of splendid yet puzzling names such as ‘Is the Big Man Within?’ and ‘The Drunken Gauger’.

Jigs to Jacobites provides information about the origins and developmental pathways of forty dance tunes. Ni Bhriain is well-qualified to write on this topic: she is a step dance teacher and adjudicator, a musician and an academic who is the Course Director of the M.A. in Irish Traditional Dance at the Irish World Academy for Music and Dance, University of Limerick. The artwork is by McCabe, a flautist and graphic artist.

In the book, the dances are arranged in chronological order in terms of their provenance. The first is ‘King of the Fairies’, the story of which is recounted in the book Annála na gCeithre Máistri (The Annals of the Four Masters) which dates back to 1700BC, while the most recent is ‘The Blue Eyed Rascal’, published in 1965. Hence, the narratives of the set dances extend across a period of almost four thousand years, as stated in the book’s title.

Each set dance is explained under common headings of story, music and dance. The story section draws from a wide range of sources, including folklore and Irish social, cultural and political history. The music section provides information about the compositional structure, the composer (if known) and the alternative names for some tunes. Finally, the dance section describes the specific usage of each tune within the context of competitive step dancing; it may outline the entrance of a tune into the competitive canon or provide information about famous dancers or teachers who have had close associations with a particular set dance. Each tune name is also beautifully illustrated by McCabe and there is often an explanatory note about the symbolism of his drawings. For example, he has illustrated ‘The Blackbird’ with a blackbird wearing the Jacobite blue bonnet and sash to show the representation of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

There are separate sections covering prominent collectors of Irish traditional music, prolific composers of the same, and some of the well-known dancing masters who developed several of the ‘fixed’ set dances, where the choreography is pre-determined. There is also a map showing the geography of the tunes, from ‘The Orange Rogue’ with its connection to Brockville in Canada, across multiple locations in Ireland and as far east as Jerusalem, where Thomas Whaley (‘The Rambling Rake’) travelled to win a wager.

The appeal of this book is broad-ranging and indeed, Ni Bhriain and McCabe have succeeded in producing a book which is able to be understood by the children and young people who learn step dancing. Importantly, there is also sufficient academic rigour in the text to interest scholars of Irish history and culture. The research processes are explained, and key concepts are defined to help those who are not familiar with Irish step dancing and the competitive domain. There is also a comprehensive bibliography containing both textual and digital references.

Modern step dance students are taught very little of the culture and history of the dances they learn and so this book will enhance their understanding beyond the highly competitive framework within which the genre currently operates. However, it also serves to show that the study of Irish music and dance has much to contribute to the disciplines of history, anthropology and cultural studies.

Jeanette recently completed a Ph.D. on Irish Dancing in Australia.