The Druids and the Normans
There are many things in this vast world we don’t know the truth of: the Easter Island moai, the Nazca Lines, and even eels (hard to believe, but it’s true!) With legends reporting the earliest feis to have taken place three millennia ago, the beginnings of Irish dance fall into a similar category: a cultural marvel whose origin has been lost to time. (Okay, maybe eels are in a different category.)
While there’s no definitive answer for who the original practitioner of Irish dance really was, historians do have some educated guesses. The Druids—a learned class in early Celtic culture that was a mix of priest, teacher, doctor, judge, and even warrior—are most often credited with the earliest version of the dances we practice today. The Druidic class was highly respected in ancient Irish culture, with the word “druid” thought to have come from the Irish-Gaelic word “doire,” meaning oak tree or wisdom.
The biggest difference between modern Irish dance and Druidic performances? The Druids are believed to have danced as a form of worship. It’s thought that as early as 1600 B.C. the Druids were performing circular dances (possibly among standing stones, the most famous of which you may have heard of…Stonehenge) for a variety of reasons: to worship the sun and their namesake oak trees, as preparation for war, as a prayer for prosperity, as a courtship ritual, and even something closer to modern feis—social gathering and recreation.
But the Celts had some company knocking at the door. Ireland was invaded by the Normans in 1169 A.D., a group of Viking descendants previously settled in what is now Northern France. With their forces, the Normans brought a variety of traditions with them, including “carolling”—which is essentially a mix of Druidic circle dances (which were already similar to early French tradition,) and the singing we associate with modern caroling around the holidays.
“Carolling” led to one of the earliest known mentions of Irish dance in writing in 1413, when the Mayor of Waterford visited the Mayor of Baltimore (we've borrowed many a town name from the Irish!) and was presented with a procession of singing and dancing. While modern Irish dance is a little too athletic to expect anyone to sing while dancing, the custom of combining traditional dance and music is still carried out at most Irish dance academies. That includes us here at SRL!
This is part I of 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.
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