Irish dance and the music of time

The Irish Dancing: Cultural Politics and Identities, 1900-2000 by Barbara O’Connor (Cork University Press, €39.00/£32.00)

Many readers will remember the sense of shock, both of delight and dismay that greeted the appearance of Riverdance in an interval of the Eurovision contest. In a section usually devoted to tiresome tourist accolades for the host country, RTÉ instead broke new ground. The shows later success, and that of its imitators, has been phenomenal. Irish dance in an evening was transformed from something traditional and backward look, into something strangely vital and modern.

What on Earth had happened, many asked themselves? This is the question more or less that Barbara O’Connor sets out to answer. Her book was originally a university thesis, but it has not on the whole been completely reworked from that academic exercise into a real book. Something more in the way of digestion and recasting would have been needed to make a real book.


Nevertheless her pages are filled with materials, incidents and observations which will be of great interest to all students of Irish culture. The point about dance, as opposed to fiction or poetry, is that it is something nearly every can do. Not everyone wants to write a sonnet. But a dance with a pretty girl, or a nice man, everyone can fancy that.

This is then not so much about Irish dance, as about dance in Ireland. That is over the course of the last century she surveys the conflicts between the traditional association with the emergence of a new sense of Irish identity, and modern dance, whether in the form of the jazz or ballet.

The spirit of the one was challenged by the spread of the other. Hence the rows over dance halls as they escaped from the confines of O’Connell Street and arrive in a small village with the era of the show bands.

National identity

But dance is not just about national identity, of course, though the author deals with this is a very effective way, it is a reflection of the changing nature of the relations between the sexes. Part of the shock of Riverdance, and the revitalised traditional Irish dance is that they have become, not just more competitive (appallingly so in many ways) but also more sexualised.  Here one suspects in a crisis in the making.

This is a book that no-one interested in how we got to where we are today in Ireland should neglect to read.

This is a book that no-one interested in how we got to where we are today in Ireland should neglect to read.