The Visual & Material Culture
of Irish Dance
This print illustrates an Irish dancing master plying his trade at a holiday gathering. His dress is characteristic of the profession: knee breeches, a tailcoat, walking stick and a Carolan hat. His appearance in the midst of the unruly scene signifies civility and sophistication. "New Year's Eve in Ireland," The Graphic (London), 15 Jan. 1870.
The class costume, a practice invented in the early 1920s, signaled allegiance within a particular dancing school and within the Irish community more broadly. Its genesis illustrated the "Gaelic Idea," a central tenet of Irish step dance posited by the Gaelic League. It stated that the teaching of Irish dance instilled the idea of mutual dependence and cooperation. Peter Smith Class Costume | c. 1980s | Private Collection, Gift of Kathleen Ronan, New Jersey, USA | Irish/American Manufacture
These photographs feature Kathleen Jones Carew, director of the Mulkerin School of Irish Dance in Milford, CT, USA wearing her class costume c.1960. Kathy danced for the Mulkerin School of Irish Dance, started under her mother, Kathleen Mulkerin Jones. The Mulkerin School was the first school of Irish dance started in Connecticut. Mulkerin School Archives | Milford, Conn. USA
The solo costume reflects the rising emphasis of competition in Irish dancing culture. It has been posited (Cullinane, 1995) that solo costumes were invented as a way to preclude bias in competition due to a school affiliation. Portrait of Irish-American dancer in solo costume (of Irish manufacture), c. 1990 | Private Collection, Conn. USA
The austerity of this class costume reflects a nation struggling with the effects of immigration, poverty, and a culture of censorship and isolationism. A state-enforced clothes rationing scheme further hindered the making of items like dancing costume in the mid-late 1940s. "Ms. Cogan at a Feis in Kanturk | 1946 | The Cork Examiner
This painting features Aran Islanders, the inhabitants of a chain of small islands off the western coast of Ireland. Their customs and dress habits fascinated artists and poets in the early 20th c. and informed Irish dancing costume. "The Country Dance" | 1918 | Sean Keating | Limerick City Art Gallery
The rise of Riverdance in 1995 created professional opportunities for dancers and introduced high stage culture to the art form. Consequently, dance costumes became "flashier" incorporating new textiles, such as sequin stretch knit. Photograph of a dancer at a New Haven feis, Conn. USA | 2007 | Photo by the author
Lace making was introduced in Ireland in the seventeenth century, however, it wasn't popularized until the Great Famine (1845-52), when it was promoted by wealthy women of means as a vocation for women and children. Lace was introduced to the dancing costume in the early 20th c. as way to promote local industry and foster national pride. Photograph of Convent of Mercy Lace School | 1912 | Fergus O'Connor Collection, NLI
The first school costumes to emerge in the late 1920s-early 1930s bore the distinctive influence of military uniform. The early years of Revival style Irish dance, the dominant form with which most are familiar today, are intimately entwined with the struggle for independence and the foundation of the Free State.
A drummer from the massed piping bands of The Royal Irish, Ulster and Inniskilling Fusiliers assists an Irish dancer from the Women's Royal Army Corp with preparations for a performance in 1964. Both drummer and dancer are soldiers, however, the dancer's appearance is hyper-feminized, thereby diminishing the viewer's perception of her as a soldier.
This 1845 painting, "Dance of the Haymakers," by the American painter William Sydney Mount is likely a depiction of an Irish dance in an American rural context. The existence of Irish dancing in America has been documented at least since the 18th century with early waves of Irish emigration from Ulster.
In the 1980s a trend of hand painting costumes became popular, giving dancers with less embroidery skill, or less money to purchase machine embroidered dresses, the opportunity to participate in ornately embellished costume practice. This costume was hand painted and worn to the World's c.1982 by Irish-American dancer and now photographer Kate Ronan. Her mother, Nora, of Ballinobeg, County Kerry, sewed the costume.
This advertisement for leading costume producer Eire Designs of Belfast draws a clear association between the importance of appearance and the culture of winning in Irish dance. The rise of the "brand name" dancing costume represents a significant culture shift from rural and "homespun" to urban and cosmopolitan.