The Statue of Kilkenny and English Monarchs
Just as the history of Ireland is rife with conflict, so is the history of Irish dance. It might sound dramatic (or a little bit too much like Footloose,) but there was a time in Ireland when Irish dance was essentially banned. Well…not for everyone.
In the 14th century, the English began to feel they were losing the foothold on Irish soil they had gained in 1177 through a pact with the Normans (for more about them, see Volume I!) Scrambling, they took action by enacting the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366—35 laws banning anyone except the native Irish from partaking in Irish traditions. Among the many banned activities within the Anglo-Norman settlement were: riding horses “Irish style” (i.e. without a saddle,) listening to Irish storytellers, wearing an “Irish beard” (whatever that means,) marrying an Irish person, utilizing any Irish names or dress, and even playing any Irish games or music.
While these laws didn’t expressly forbid Irish dance in so many words, the intent was clear: Irish culture (including dance) was only for the native Irish. However, you can’t keep a dancer from dancing. The fears of the English—so close but so far away without modern air travel—had come true: their settlers had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.” In fact, these laws were so loosely enforced that they weren’t technically repealed until 1983!
Besides, it wasn’t long before those back in England began to change their tune once they saw all that impressive footwork in person. No less than Queen Elizabeth I herself became a fan of Irish dance when Sir Henry Sydney wrote to her of girls he saw dancing jigs in Galway in 1569: "They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed, and first class dancers." After receiving the letter, the Queen reportedly invited and hosted Irish dancers at court.
And Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t the only English royal who sang the praises of Irish dance. Historians have found evidence that one of her successors, James II, was greeted upon his arrival to Ireland in 1689 with Irish dancers (though the trip didn’t go so well for him after that welcome.) These were the first steps (pardon the pun) of acceptance for Irish dance that has let the tradition travel beyond Ireland’s borders to become the worldwide celebrated art form it is today.
This is Volume II of a series. Read Volume I 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.
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