Modern Ireland: School Life
Part 1: Moving through the System
You did it! You’ve almost made it through the summer (and what a hot and humid one it was here in Connecticut,) and back to school here. Since the way the American school system works is embedded into your brains as something you just inherently know, it can be confusing when we’re faced with another country’s version. I’m sure you’ve experienced it: that dissonance that occurs when you’re reading or watching something about anyone school-aged in another country, including Ireland. Are they a freshman if they’re a first year? Wait, what do you mean, no? Let’s break down the Irish educational system for you:
First off, we have classes for our Tiny Jiggers: Preschool and Kindergarten—aka Junior Infants and Senior Infants. Much like America (or at least, most states,) school is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of 6-16, meaning their Junior Infants year (or two) is optional—though one year of Junior Infant education is free, paid for by the Irish government. While America currently has a scattered network of government-subsidized education before 6-years-old, President Biden is currently backing legislation that will secure more government funding for universal preschool programs across the country…I guess someone else has been checking out Ireland’s school system.
Primary school continues on past kindergarten in exactly the fashion we’re used to, except the Irish use the term class instead of grade for the younger students: i.e. 1st grade is 1st class, 2nd grade is 2nd class, etc.—all the way up through 6th class aka 6th grade. While 6th Grade is often part of what we call middle or secondary school, Ireland’s system is divided in two, rather than the three (elementary, middle, high) we use here: primary school (our grades Kindergarten through 6th) and secondary school (our 7th grade through 12th grade/senior year.)
Secondary school in Ireland is where things get a little more confusing: we start back at one. An American 7th grader would be a 1st year in an Irish secondary school, an 8th grader a 2nd year, and so on until you reach 6th year, aka the US senior year. That’s easy enough once you get the hang of it, but the way a secondary education is approached is decidedly different from most parts of the states. The last six years of school are divided into two cycles*: Junior Cycle, 1st year-3rd year and Senior Cycle, 5th-6th year, with 4th year (aka sophomore year) considered an optional, Transition Year. This year is supposed to be used to gain life experience, work experience, or travel, or just generally for “maturity and personal development.” You can skip this year and go straight into 5th year—but you’re not allowed to take a transition year later!
(*Fun fact: the term college in Ireland is generally considered to refer to secondary education, (rather than higher education, as in the states—though universities do have “colleges” within their institution that are schools within the school) often specifically the last two years or senior cycle.)
The linchpins of the Irish secondary school education are two major tests: the Junior Certification/Cert (taken after 3rd year aka freshman year) and the Senior Certification/Cert, also called the Leaving Cert.* The Junior Cert is a series of tests in all subjects over a course of 3-4 weeks and the results are mostly about determining where you are academically so you can start making plans for after school—no one will ask you about these results later on in life! The Leaving Cert is the more serious test (also 3-4 weeks of tests in 2-6 subjects at varying levels that award varying points,) and is akin to our SAT as yours “points” on the Leaving Cert determine what universities you can apply to, and even the subjects within that university you’re able to study (i.e. you’d need 480 points minimum to study medicine, but only 476 for literature at Trinity, one of Ireland’s best schools—don’t worry, we’ll cover universities later!)
(*It’s important to note that not everyone takes the Leaving Cert examinations, with alternatives including: Quality Qualification Ireland (QQI) courses as an alternate route to college (a bit like community college before transferring,) the Leaving Cert Applied (which is focused on work experience and group work,) or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Program that could lead straight into the work force or help place students in technical schools.)
Ireland is considered one of the best educated countries in the world, with 56% of 24-35 year olds receiving some for of higher education. (Is it the subsidized preschool year? Many people think it helps!) This is not only the highest percentage in Europe, but the fourth highest in the world (Ireland’s beat out only by Korea, Russia, and Canada) and significantly higher than the 44% average. But what’s it actually like to experience school in Ireland? Tune in next week to learn more!
This post is part of a series. Check out our last Modern Irish Culture post, full of children’s book recommendations, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
Technique Review: Turnout
Welcome to technique review! In this new series of posts, we’re looking at some of the most important basics of Irish dance—from Beginner level to Championship. It doesn’t matter how many medals you may have won; every dancer needs to continuously refresh themselves on the fundamentals and continue to work on them! First on the docket: turnout.
Turnout is one of the most critical tenets of dance generally, and Irish dance in particular as every movement of Irish dance is performed in a turned out position. Not only is correct turnout one of the key points noted by adjudicators on both a technical and aesthetic level, it’s also crucial for safety of the dancer. In a study published in Sports Medicine-Open in 2018, researchers concluded that improper or overcompensated turnout is one of the leading causes of injuries across dance disciplines. This expanded the conclusions published in Open Access J Sports Medicine in 2013 that decreasing the likelihood of dance-related injuries is possible with attention to proper technique and physical training. And as Irish dance’s gravity-defying jumps are performed with less cushion (both in shoes and technique) than other forms of dance, the need is all the greater to know what proper turnout is and to practice on improving it!
Turnout in dance refers to an outward rotation of the leg, starting from the hip and continuing through the thigh, knee, ankle, and foot. The goal is a “perfect” 180 degree turnout—a straight line running from the left toe, through the left foot to the left heel, then through the right heel, foot, and toe. While some dancers win the genetic lotto and start with close to that 180 degree ideal, most dancers will have to continuously work on their turnout to achieve this!
First: what’s your turnout like naturally? Stand with your feet together, heels touching, and then try to make a V-shape with your feet, turning the entire leg from the hip while keeping your heels together. You’ll know if you’re overcompensating your turnout through a number of signs, including: discomfort, knee position not matching foot position, and a slight (or not so slight) forward roll on the inside of your foot. Any of those signs and you’ll want to close your V-shape into a narrower position—as we said before, dancing when overcompensating puts dancers at a much greater risk of injury (and your teacher won’t be happy either!)
But how does one improve their turnout? Like everything else in Irish dance: practice, practice, practice. The most important considerations are increasing the strength of your hip flexors and maximizing the range of motion in your hip joints. Exercises like clams, seated leg rotations, and parallel/turn out drills (among many others you’ll learn in class!) are the key to increasing that range of motion and strength. But none of this will help unless you also stay aware of your turnout while in motion while dancing. This focus can be difficult to maintain while you’re counting along to the music in your head and remembering your choreography, so Miss Courtney recommends giving yourself mental cues! Learning to remind yourself “heels forward, “toes out,” “show the inside of your heel,” or something similar while you dance is as important as the turnout itself–otherwise all that work won’t show in your dancing!
Sound like a lot of extra work on top of learning all that choreography? It is! But because of the safety issues (here’s another study looking specifically at injury in Irish dancers that correlates improper landing technique with injury,) not working on your turnout may slow down your progress as an Irish dancer. Not only is it a basic principle of any dance you perform, but Miss Courtney and your other teachers care about your safety first and foremost, and may choose not to teach you more advanced moves until your turnout improves. As, for example, landing jumps or leaps on a straight foot can lead to severe ankle sprains or even cause ligament damage that can take years to fully overcome, you can’t progress without good turnout!
This post the first in a series. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Children’s Books, Part 2
With the summer winding down and regular dance classes about to start up again, it can be hard to get back into the school year groove. Back to school burnout is real and it happens to a lot of our dancers—so why not get them excited instead? We’ve gathered together five highly reviewed children’s books all about Ireland (and one about Irish dance!) that will get your dancer excited to be back in the studio (or at least more excited about it than school.)
1. Am I Small?
Philipp Winterberg & Nadja Wichmann
This story follows a young girl named Tamia as she takes a journey through a whimsically illustrated landscape, interacting with all sorts of magical and realistic creatures, and asking each of them: Am I small? But this book does more than tell a beautiful story (that comes to conclusion that size is relative and everyone is perfect just as they are)—it also has the distinction of being a part of the World’s Children Book project. Writer Philipp Winterberg has dedicated himself to not only writing books with positive messages, but has gotten over 400 translators in on the fun in an attempt to find universal touchstones for all the world’s children. Imagine a world where across every culture and border, we’ve all read Am I Small?! While the copy we’re linking is a bilingual copy in English and Gaeilge, the official language of Ireland, the book comes in over 200 languages, with a goal of 500 languages in the future.
2. The Children of Lir: Ireland’s Favorite Legend
Laura Ruth Maher & Connor Busuttil
In this version of one of Ireland’s most beloved legends, Maher’s rhyming, lyric poetry is paired with Busuttil’s rich illustrations that call to mind the illuminated manuscripts of ancient Ireland. The story is one older than written record, stemming from a tale from Ireland’s millennia-old oral tradition, and tells of King Lir and his four children: Fionnula, Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn (this is also definitely an opportunity to learn some new names!) But, like many fairytales, all was not well in King Lir’s court after a mysterious woman arrives and becomes his wife. Like most fairytales, this new stepmother isn’t all she appears to be and transforms the children into swans, a form they remain in until the curse cam be lifted. This is a typical Irish legend, so not the happiest story, but don’t worry—it’s being told for little readers and skips the scarier parts! Want a preview before you buy? Check it out here.
3. O’Sullivan Stew
Meet Kate O’Sullivan: bold, brave, and always getting into trouble. When the witch in Kate’s village has her horse stolen, the whole town feels the effects: no fish in the nets, no food in the fields, and no milk from the cows. Kate takes matters into her own hands and enlists her brothers to help her steal back the horse and save the town from hunger—but there’s a problem: it was the King who took the witch’s horse! When the palace proves too challenging for a heist, Kate finds herself in front of the King with only her wits to save her and her family. Luckily, Kate is an excellent storyteller and the wild stew of stories she concocts just might do the trick! This rollicking adventure is full of creative, fantastical details, humor, and the most Irish thing of all (besides dance, of course): a good story or two! Sound interesting? Check out an elementary school principal out of Oregon reading it out loud for all!
4. Let’s See Ireland!
Come along with Molly and her cat, Mipsy, on their tour of Ireland! Bowie is a Dublin based author and illustrator with a comic art style perfect for children of any age—with some learning snuck in! Your child will meet the animals of the Dublin Zoo before stopping to feed the pigeons at Christ Church Cathedral, and then it’s on to peering over the Cliffs of Moher. Full of humor that doesn’t take away from the facts, from the Giant’s Causeway to Hook Lighthouse and Newgrange, Molly’s story will introduce all of Ireland’s most beloved sites—even the Titanic Belfast! While most kids will be able to recognize Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower from a young age, why not let them in on all the coolest sites in the country their favorite activity is from? (And it sure beats the price of a plane ticket!) Hear (and see!) the story, read by a staff member from the Kilmihil Library in Ireland in her beautiful accent, here.
5. Rínce: The Fairytale of Irish Dance
Gretchen Gannon & Don Vanderbeek
Does the word rínce (ring-ka) look familiar? It should! It means dance in Gaeilge and is the R in SRL, after all! This fanciful story creates an original myth about the origins of Irish dance, that, while not necessarily factually accurate (check out our “Origins of Irish Dance” series on the blog for that!), is certainly fun! Gannon’s narrative brings us back to ancient Ireland, where faeries and humans lived together peacefully in a town called Rínce. This richly told and illustrated account (that anyone who loves fairytales will delight in) tells of Irish dance evolving from a pact between the Fae and the humans—creating a new legend for everyone to enjoy! Gannon might never have been an Irish dancer herself, but she married into the world—her mother-in-law hails from Limerick and founded the St. Louis Irish Arts School of Music & Dance—and this book is clearly a labor of love: her two young daughters have been Irish dancers since the age of four!
This post is part of a series. Read our last set of book recommendations, for YA readers, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Staff Recommendation Corner: Devon
Welcome to our new series, where you can get to know SRL’s staff better with some hand-picked recommendations! Next up is Devon—our Office Manager and New Student Concierge!
Books: I love all books, but Margaret Atwood is my favorite writer (and Ada Limón is my favorite poet!) For younger reading levels Rick Riordan is my favorite and for teens, Rainbow Rowell. If you want a personal recommendation, tell me what you or your dancer is into and I’ll come up with something. I’m always excited to talk about books at any level!
TV Shows: I recommend The Great British Baking Show (or The Great British Bake Off in Britain!) to quite literally any person that asks. It is the most soothing, delightful program I have ever seen—so wholesome. Nothing like an American competition, but it is on American Netflix.
Coffeeshop: I LOVE Rebel Dog Coffee (they have locations in Farmington and Plainville) and I started going to Birdhouse Coffee in South Windsor on my way in to the studio on Saturday mornings—it’s the cutest!
Restaurant: I think about Bricco’s Nutella Pie on a near-daily basis and my last meal would be a cheeseburger from Plan B Burger Bar.
Favorite Quote: “Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
--Leonard Cohen, “Anthem"
Vacation (One Day!): I grew up in San Diego and can’t recommend it enough for a vacation. Balboa Park (and the beaches, of course) should be top on your list, and definitely, definitely Mexican food all day, every day. (Just make sure to get a California burrito while you’re there—they’re exclusively a San Diego thing and there’s French fries inside!)
Dessert: Go to any location of Taste by Spellbound and pick any dessert (there’s a few in the immediate area!) They’re all incredible.
Music: I used to not like Taylor Swift—no reason, just wasn’t really my thing. But it’s been months now and I can’t stop listening to folklore and evermore on repeat. I am now her biggest fan?
Important Thing to Learn: Be kind. You’re never going to regret being the bigger person, or taking the time to think about others.
First Job: Everyone should have to work in retail and food service before they’re allowed to be a customer. It really makes you appreciate how much work goes into your everyday experiences and have a newfound respect and kindness when interacting with people!
Gift to Give: If you can swing it, an experience over a thing every time. My go-to wedding gift is usually a cooking or dance class!
Artist: Nan Lawson is an incredibly talented illustrator who takes pop culture and cult favorites an adds her own style to them. (I own Harry Potter and Salinger prints from her and they’re gorgeous. She only does limited runs, so check her out on Etsy!)
Cheesy Song That’s Actually Great: “Tiny Dancer,” Elton John (I mean, remember that scene in Almost Famous?)
Strange, But Delicious Food: Did you know you can make a float out of pretty much anything carbonated? Fruity-flavored seltzers with vanilla ice cream may sound weird, but it’s actually amazing!
Must See Natural Wonder: This is an obvious one, but when I saw the Grand Canyon I was completely stunned. Nothing does it justice—even being there in person it feels unreal. (And I wrote this before I realized I'd be posting it after so many of our dancers were at Nationals in Phoenix!)
Current Obsession: I was late to the party with this one and it’s the first video game I’ve ever played…but I love Animal Crossing. It’s essentially a digital dollhouse in the form of an island (though you have a house to decorate and an avatar to dress, too!)—low consequences, just arranging items and performing small tasks. It’s perfect for a type-A person to unwind.
CT Outdoor Activity: Hiking up to Hueblein Tower or reading in Hartford’s Elizabeth Park (the tulips come out in April and check in early/mid June for the roses--but there's beautiful flowers all summer!) Also love the West Hartford Reservoir for a run!
Advice for Dancers: Nothing happens overnight. Progress happens so slowly you won’t even see it and then all of a sudden…you’ve got it! You can’t see yourself growing taller day to day, but you are—you’re becoming a better dancer every day you practice, too!
Local Business: I just bought several pairs of earrings from Hannahbees Jewelry when she was selling them at Birdhouse Coffee. Lightweight and beautiful, 10/10 would recommend for all earring-wearers (and she does custom orders!)
Charities to Donate to: Did you know Dolly Parton doesn’t just help fund vaccine research, but is responsible for children receiving millions upon millions of books over the last 20 years? I’m a huge literacy proponent and think Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a truly worthy cause! Check it out!
This post is part of a series. You can learn more about Devon here, in her Q&A, or read our last set of recommendations with Miss Courtney here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Irish History: Volume X
The Tailteann Games, Part 2
Last week, we discussed the ancient tradition of the Tailteann Games—a precursor to the Olympics the Greeks would begin and the world would recreate centuries later—a celebratory and entertainment-driven festival held to honor the harvest and the harvest goddess Tailtiu, to gather the Irish people together in one place for political reasons like announcing new laws, and to compete in feats of athleticism and craft. The tradition was said to have lasted for at least a thousand years (cut short by the Norman Invasion,) with a small resurgence in medieval times, but had been long dead when the Celtic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th century arrived. The Celtic Revival was a time of deep interest in ancient Ireland as a way to restore the identity of the Irish people, whose culture had long been repressed by British rule, and in 1924 this led to a brief, but notable, reforming of the Tailteann Games.
The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884 (and is still the largest athletic association in Ireland, concentrating on traditional Irish sports,) and after Ireland gained its independence in the early 1900s, the GAA began discussing the revival of the Tailteann Games. There was a hunger in the newly formed Irish Free State to reclaim their national identity, attract tourists after years of conflict, and honor their native culture as something distinguished to be celebrated. The Celtic Revival revived all thing ancient Ireland—language, dance, sport, and dress, among others—and the idea of reviving the Tailteann Games, particularly inspired by the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, began to gain momentum as the revolutionaries that would eventually gain Ireland its freedom began to stir.
In 1922, with the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed and the Provisional Irish Government in place, discussions and planning could begin in earnest. With a £10,000 grant from the government, and a promise that Dublin’s Croke Park (site of the death of 13 athletes who were attacked on Bloody Sunday) could be used for free for the duration of the games, things were ready to begin…until the Civil War of 1922 changed their plans. Finally, in 1924, things had settled down enough for the 32 sub-committees it took to organize the massive event to get things underway. Even with all their preparation, war-torn 1920s Ireland was unsure they could accommodate the interest they anticipated, but decided to go ahead and the first Tailteann Games of the modern era were held between the 2nd and 17th of August, 1924.
On the docket was anything the GAA has decided was in line with the national Irish identity—from original events like boxing and swimming, new events like gymnastics and chess, and particularly Irish events like hurling and camogie. Conspicuously absent from this list were sports the GAA has taken it upon themselves to ban anything thought to be particularly “English,” despite their longstanding foothold in Ireland: soccer, rugby, cricket, and hockey. Like the original Tailteann Games, athletics weren’t the only competitions held. There was, of course, dance competitions, as well as contests in writing and oratory, music, and a wide variety of arts and crafts, all celebrating the Irish identity. Given it was the 1920s and automobiles were still a bit of a novelty, the most well-attended events was reportedly the motor racing competition held in Dublin’s famed Phoenix Park.
Despite attempts to make the competition open only to the Irish or people of Irish descent, the popularity of the Paris Olympics the same year led to the government inviting athletes from a variety of countries to compete to induce people to attend. It worked! More than 20,000 people attended the opening ceremonies in Croke Park where a procession invoking ancient Ireland, complete with a Queen Tailtiu (a statue of who adorned the medals and trophies handed out) and her retinue all in their period-correct outfits. After the Free State President, William T. Cosgrave, opened the ceremonies, organizer J.J. Walsh addressed the crowd saying that he thought the festival would have, “satisfied [foreign visitors] that the people of Ireland were capable of one common great effort to re–establish this old nation once again on its feet,” and that “this island of ours is not a colony but the home of a race of a historical lineage unsurpassed elsewhere.”
This new version of the Tailteann Games was unfortunately short-lived, with only two more held: 1928 and 1932, both of which were considered unsuccessful. The 1936 games were planned, but in-fighting in both the government and multiple athletic associations coupled with the extravagant cost of the games (the previous two attempts had failed to recoup the spending they required) caused them to be shelved for good. Since then, multiple, smaller versions of the event have popped up that either concentrate on a specific event (like the cycling event known as the Rás that still occurs annually,) or a specific group of people (like the 1963 “Junior Tailteann Games.”) The term “Tailteann Games” is still used in common parlance in many parts of Ireland for annual inter-school championship sporting events. Fingers crossed we see a revival in our lifetimes!
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the ancient version of the games, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
411: Testimonials from Dancers
Interested in trying out Irish dance, but aren’t entirely sure? We could talk all day long about the benefits Irish dance has, physically, mentally, and socially (and we have—check out these posts to learn more!) but why don’t we let some of our dancers tell you a little more about why they love Irish dance here at SRL! We hope you’ll join us!
Looking for: far-reaching life skills?
“Irish Dance trained me to have a very high stamina, physically and mentally. Courtney was the best at pushing her dancers towards their goals. I know how to work towards long term goal without being worn out, and to push through to the very end.”—Lindsey
Looking for: competitive spirit?
“My favorite thing about dance is the competition. I like that in Irish dance you can show off how much you've learned and progressed.”—Magnus
Looking for: enjoyment and self-expression?
“When there are no words to explain how you feel, you express yourself through dance. I remember there would be nights when…I was tired, but when I walked through those studio doors I knew it was my time to work. And when I walked out of those doors at the end of the night, I felt like a better person.”—Lindsey
Looking for: an online option?
“My favorite thing about online class is I can dance at home safely and there’s more one on one with the teacher. Plus, my mom is there to help if I'm struggling.”—Avonlea
Looking for: inspiration?
“I look up to Courtney because she has given me a second home and something that I truly love.”—Ellie
Looking for: friends?
“Dance has given me the ability to have friends all around the world that share the same love and passion for Irish dance that I do.”—Christian
Looking for: somewhere to learn and grow?
“Irish dance was a life changing experience that provided me with so many opportunities to learn and grow. It was a daily challenge, which inspires my work ethic today. I always aim high and dream big. Through Irish Dance, I learned by working hard and practicing my craft, I could achieve anything.”—Tara
Looking for: something to be passionate about?
Just take Tilly’s word for it: “I like Irish dance and you will too!”
If your dancer is looking for it, SRL has it! While classes run on a school year schedule from September to June, we have a special offer to let new dancers get a taste before they sign up in the fall! SRL’s Intro to Irish Dance Summer Camp sign-ups are now open for new dancers 2-12, with two sessions available at work-friendly drop off times for parents. Learn more about the program here, or feel free to reach out to our Office Manager, Devon, at 860-385-1107 or shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s happy to help!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last 411 post—tons of testimonials from parents!— here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Irish History: Volume X
The Tailteann Games, Part 1
The Ancient Games
A thousand years before the Greek Olympic Games were founded, Ireland was believed to be inhabited by a magical race of god-like heroes called the Tuatha Dé Danaan (learn more here!) To gain their foothold on Irish soil, the Tuatha had to first defeat the current residents--the Fir Bolg—and what better way to establish a new rule than handing over your child to be fostered? When the Fir Bolg were rousted, members of the Tuatha (Cian and Ethniu) turned their only son over to be raised by the mighty Fir Bolg queen, Tailtiu, as a gesture of good faith. That boy grew into one of the most famed members of the Tuatha, the god-hero-poet-craftsman (learn more about some of his many his exploits here and here) Lugh.
You might be thinking that this sounds more like mythology than history, but, like many cultures, Irish traditions tend to muddle the differences. While not much is known about Tailtiu, we do know a few things: she was beloved of Lugh, is said to have died in service to the Irish people after clearing the whole of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and the area of Teltown in Co. Meath is named after her, as it’s said to be the site of her final resting place. In honor of Tailtiu’s memory and the good she had done for both the country and her family, her foster-son Lugh threw a grand, celebratory funeral games in Tailtiu’s honor, possibly as early as 1829 B.C. But not only that—Lugh declared that these games would reoccur at least every three years (the trinity being an important symbol in Irish mythology) forever.
There’s been many names for the games throughout history—Tailtin Fair, Áenach Tailteann, Aonach Tailteann, Assembly of Talti, Fair of Taltiu, or Festival of Taltii—but people generally refer to this thousand-year tradition as the Tailteann Games. Held the last fortnight in July (with Lughnasa, August 1st, as the last day of celebrations,) the Tailteann Games were as multifaceted as any event could be. First off: the honoring of the dead. While Tailtiu was the first honoree, each time the games were held (which we don’t have a solid record of, but was thought to have been as often as every year for certain stretches,) the first three days were devoted to paying tribute to the honored dead, mourning and celebrating the deceased. A large funeral pyre would be lit, and mourners practiced the wailing known as caoi (we’d call it keening,) the guba, mourning chants, and cepógs, sung funeral lamentations and eulogies.
After the fires of the funeral pyre had died down, the fourth day was devoted to the law. As the Tailteann Games were a gathering together of all the varying people of Ireland with their many disputes, a formal truce was called. Then, the High King of Ireland would go about disseminating the new laws to his people. One of the stranger laws (to modern minds) in ancient Ireland was that of the tradition of what we now call Teltown Marriages. A mass marriage ceremony was performed near the end of every Tailteann Games, but the rules surrounding these marriages was a little different than a standard marriage license today. These pairings were often arranged marriages, and the couples were given more leeway than most in history: they need only stay married a year and a day, after which the couple could divorce by simply walking away from each other with no harm to either’s reputation. This law was reportedly in place until the 13th century!
And then: time to play! The rest of the two weeks of the festival were devoted to competition. While athletic competitions—including running, boxing, the long jump, the high jump, spear-throwing (aka the javelin,) archery, sword fighting, horse races, swimming…the list goes on and on—made up the bulk of the games, there were contests for those with other skills. Since Lugh is not only a warrior-god, but a craftsman-god whose realm of influence extended to the arts, the contests included music and poetry, competitions of strategy and story-telling, and many, many artisan-driven ones like goldsmithing and blacksmithing, with jewelers, weavers, and armorers competing as well. And yes, SRL dancers--there were dance competitions! While the Tailteann Games were not necessarily the first dance competitions in Ireland, they were some of the most illustrious and helped spread new and traditional dance throughout the country. Essentially, the Tailteann Games were like one huge feis!
The tradition of the Tailteann Games lasted until 1169 when the Norman Invasion and following British rule decimated the ancient Irish way of life for centuries. The last of the original games was held under Rory O’Connor, the last High King of Ireland, though there was a small resurgence during medieval times (and, of course, it’s believed that the original Tailteann Games influenced the creation of both the ancient and modern versions of the Olympics!) You might have noticed the use of the word “original” there. Don’t worry, the Tailteann Games didn’t fully die out! But you’ll have to return to the blog next week to learn about how the games have been revived in modern times.
This post is part of a series. Read our last history post, all about the holiday Lughnasa, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
411: Testimonials from Parents
Is your child interested in dance, but you’re not sure where to start? Why not Irish dance? We won’t try to convince you (check out these multiple posts in case you want some more convincing—we do have a strong case,) but thought we’d let our amazing community of parents tell you why SRL is the right choice, instead!
Looking for: exercise with purpose?
“Physically it’s helped with coordination and strength. But it’s also helped with focus and determination. And it’s given them a fun way to get their wiggles out and make new friends.”—Evelyn
Looking for: cultural enrichment?
“I’m Irish, I’m involved in the Irish community, and I thought this might be another way to engage my daughters in an activity that would be great for them and also tied to their ancestry.”—Siobhan
Looking for: a confidence boost?
“Dance has built [my dancer’s] confidence and has opened her up to experiencing new things.”—Christina
Looking for: dance that teaches life skills?
“I think Irish dance has taught [my dancer] perseverance, grace under pressure, humility and the understanding that its ok to not be ok! Do your best work and enjoy the journey.”—Christine
“I love the way the classes are structured to challenge the students just so much that also pushes them forward in their learning.”—Andrea
Looking for: a way to encourage goal-setting?
“[My dancer] is competitive and she wants to do well, but she’s a little girl who can be easily more interested in other things. Dancing with SRL and Miss Courtney has given her ways to practice at setting goals and working toward them. This was never more true than her second year when she was struggling with reading in first grade and simultaneously did poorly at a feis. Right after that, she set two goals—which she even wrote down—to get better at reading and to get better at Irish dance. By the end of that year, she had improved dramatically at both.”—Siobhan
Looking for: a unique, year- round activity?
“If your child loves to dance, they should try Irish dance. It’s different than any other style of dance…[My dancer] has been doing other types of dance for years, but Irish dance is beautiful and unique.”—Christina
Looking for: an outlet for male dancers?
“On an uncommon comparison, I often think it has similar qualities to karate with the discipline, athleticism, and focus. But, Irish dance has joy and musicality that takes it to another level; this is why I think it’s also very good for boys even though it may not be the first thing one thinks.”—Siobhan
Looking for: community and support?
“I’m amazed at the choreography [my dancer] memorizes. I was so proud that she quickly gained the confidence to participate in a public performance and also do her first feis. I enjoyed watching her teach a dance to some younger Girl Scouts at one of our meetings last year, and I love that she has volunteered to help out at SRL classes with younger children—it’s all been a great growing experience for her in many ways.”—Becca
“I wanted [my dancer] to get involved in something, but she did not want to try the traditional tap, jazz, ballet route. I got her to try a class at SRL the summer she was 4 years old and she fell in love with the dancing, the older kids, and of course Miss Courtney.”—Andrea
Looking for: options?
“Irish dance is great because it is completely up to you and your dancer as to how involved you want to be. Competition and performances are optional or you can choose to compete every weekend if you want. It’s a unique skill to have and fun to get to show it off!”—Jill L.
If you’re looking for it for your dancer, SRL has it! While classes run on a school year schedule from September to June, we have a special offer to let new dancers get a taste before they sign up in the fall! SRL’s Intro to Irish Dance Summer Camp sign-ups are now open for new dancers 2-12, with two sessions available at work-friendly drop off times for parents. Learn more about the program here, or feel free to reach out to our Office Manager, Devon, at 860-385-1107 or shoot her an email at email@example.com. She’s happy to help!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last 411 post—tons of testimonials from dancers!— here. Also: check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Irish History: Volume IX
You can call it Lughnasa, or Lughnasadh, or even Lúnasa (also Gaeilge for August, all pronounced (roughly) loo-nas-sa,) but the truth of it will have everyone excited for Halloween already hooked: it’s a harvest festival! Lughnasa, named after the god-hero of early Irish mythology, Lugh, is one of the four fire festivals of ancient Ireland (along with Imbolc, Beltane, and Samhain) and falls between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. This pagan holiday marked the beginning of the harvest season, and thus a time of plenty before winter, for the largely agrarian ancient Irelanders. Though this holiday was technically yesterday this year (the dates can shift, but it’s usually the closest Sunday to August 1st) we’re here to tell you about the ways people once celebrated!
Legend states that Lugh (check out another story on the blog about him here) founded the holiday on the occasion of his foster-mother’s death. Tailtiu (whose name shows up with many pronunciations, we’ll let you take your best shot) was an earth goddess said to have died after clearing the land of Ireland for agricultural purposes, and is associated with dying vegetation’s ability to create new life and then sustain it. Lugh’s idea of a proper funeral is a little different from ours today—he decided to honor his foster mother with, well, an Irish version of the Olympics? We’ll explore the now-called Tailteann Games in another post, but, fun fact: the custom of funerary games was actually a relatively common amongst ancient civilizations!
Blueberry pie shared the table with all sorts of treats, though in a special place of honor was usually a sacrificed bull (first meat given to the gods, of course) that would feed the whole community. The feasting was often paired with a ritual dance-play that tells the story of Lugh, who as a sun-god helps determine the quality of each year’s harvest, honoring his work for the betterment of mankind, fitting for a poet-warrior. Like other fire festivals, the pagan Irish viewed this time of year as a struggle between gods: Lugh, who wants to distribute the harvest to his people, and Crom Dubh (meaning “dark, crooked one,” the holiday is even sometimes called “Crom Dugh Sunday”) an ancient god figure who wants to hoard the goods for himself. Sometimes the harvest is represented by a female figure named Eithne (Lugh’s mother)—most likely the origin of the corn maidens! Don’t worry—Lugh always wins. These large gatherings also helped spread the prevalence of the tradition of matchmaking on Lughnasa, (remember our Fun Fact about Teltown Marriages? that’s where the first Lughnasa celebration was held, in Co. Meath) but, that was common for any Irish festival as it brought together farming communities whose large tracts of land often kept them secluded from the larger community.
While feats of athleticism are at the root of the holiday, a festival and many celebratory traditions that don’t necessarily make you break sweat grew up around the games. To start: what would a harvest festival be without some celebration of said harvest? Records speak of a ceremonial cutting of the first corn and first fruits of the harvest season as one of the most pervasive customs across the country. While the first of the harvest was offered to the communal bonfire (remember—fire festival!) as a sacrifice to the gods, husks of corn, wheat, or barley were used to create corn dollies—though these weren’t really just dolls! The corn maidens were carefully crafted with least blemished sheaves so they would last the winter, supposedly protecting the household. Some stories even report that once the long winter has passed, the corn dolly would be returned to her place in the earth to bless the new agricultural year. As for fruit: bilberries (we’d call them blueberries) are such a popular Lughnasa treat that the holiday is sometimes referred to as “Bilberry Sunday!” It was believed that the more blueberries there were, the better the following harvest.
But the traditions don’t end there: as the years went on and Christianity spread across the pagan communities, it became common for the Irish to celebrate with small pilgrimages. Till this day, people take to the hills and mountains for hikes in honor of the season, as well as gravitating toward holy wells to pray. In particular, penitents flock to Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, said to be the site of Saint Patrick’s 40 day fasting on the same mountain in 441 A.D.—a mass is even held there each year, with thousands of pilgrims in attendance. Holy wells dot the Irish countryside and are still a popular destination on any of the fire festival turned Christian tradition days. The wells are often decorated in garlands of late-summer greenery and pieces of the harvest (another use for corn husks!) These traditions have given Lughnasa yet more names: “Garland Sunday” or “Reek Sunday” (reek, by the way, means “high hill” in Ireland.)
However you feel like celebrating summer winding down—blueberry tarts, creepy dolls, a big meal, setting up your friend with that nice, single coworker of yours, hiking, prayer--Lughnasa Shona!
This post is part of a series. Read our last Irish history post, all about the spring fire festival of Beltane, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Find all of our latest news on our Scoil Rince Luimni Facebook page!