IRISH 19'th Century Dance

Kate Hughes' "Dancing Book,"
Dundalk, 1867

Arch. Thomson - Dancing Master


All notes are by the late Professor Tom Flett, whose wife Mrs. Joan Flett, kindly gave me full access to her husband’s extensive interpretative notes on the manuscript. These notes compare many of the dances in the manuscript with contemporary published sources. Additional notes in italics are by Chris Brady.
Frank Maginnis, Joan Flett, Chris Brady - 2002

Preface # Introduction # List of Dances

Grand March # Reels # Quadrilles # Country Dances # Circle Dances


The notebook contains instructions for eight sets of Quadrilles, namely the First Set, Caledonians, Prince Imperial [this is a country dance, the quadrille Princess Alexandria is probably meant here], Royal [or Regal?] Balmoral, Parisian, Les Quadrilles des Dames, New Caledonian, and the Mazurka Quadrille. Of these, the First Set, Caledonians, and the Mazurka Quadrille have been published by Allan, the first two with only slight differences. The notebook gives four figures for the Mazurka Quadrille, while Allan gives only three, and there the differences between the notebook and Allan are greater.

The figures in the New Caledonian Quadrilles are alternately in reel and strathspey times. The strathspey figures contain "two couples perform the Highland Schottische, turning to appropriate places on the second part." Two of the three reel figures contain reels of four [or 'heys' - dances where the dancers pass each other by whilst weaving around in a figure of eight type movement interspersed with stepping or dancing on the spot], the second (and possibly the first) of which begins in line.

There are also twelve single-figure set dances of quadrille type, namely Les Lanciers, La Russe, Manfriana, New Petronella, La Belle France, Lord Deas, Waltz Cotillion, La Genattiana [or Gavottiana?], Assembly Reel, Basquaneth [Bas Quadrille?], Phonican [or Phoulcan or perhaps  an attempt to write Phoenix?], Circassian Quadrille (but not as per the figure of Circassian Circle used as a quadrille) of which four are given in the following pages.


The notebook contains instructions for 54 country or 'contre' dances. Of these, approximately 16 dances having the same titles, but not necessarily the same figures, as published by the R.S.C.D.S., 20 by Allan, and others by Kerr and Lowe.

There is some doubt about the meanings of three of the figures which occur frequently, namely 'swing four', and 'rights and lefts,' each performed by two couples, and 'swing in the centre,' performed by two people. All three are 8 bars in length.

'Swing four' could be either '4 hands round,' or '4 hands across.' The term '4 hands round' does not occur in the country dances, though 'six hands round' is fairly frequent. However, '4 hands half round' occurs in the square dances (e.g. Quadrilles First Set - Fourth Figure), and in one dance, Manfriana, occurs together with 'swing four'. On the other hand, a full description of '4 hands across' is given in The Heather Bell C.D., without giving the figure a name. It would seem therefore that 'swing four' is 'four hands across', and there are many verifications by comparison of the published dances with the versions in the notebook. These will be noted at the appropriate place. [Could ‘swing four’ be what is now termed a ‘Little Christmas’?].

There is the usual doubt as to the meaning of 'rights and lefts.' Since it occurs extensively in the quadrilles, and since the country dances appear mainly to be of late date, it would be reasonable to assume that the quadrille figure is implied here, but the use of the 'chain figure of four' causes no difficulties.

The interpretation of 'swing in the centre' presents much more difficulty. It occurs in only two of the published dances. But the instructions of one of these, Rory O'More, in no way corresponds to the published instructions, and we are left with the second, Queen Victoria C.D. This is published by Allan and Kerr, both versions being the same, and there the first 8 bars are 'top couple turn once round with the right hands, then with the left.' This meaning seems to fit elsewhere, and so we can adopt it.

It should be observed that [if] 'swing four = 4 hands across' implies that '3 people swing' be interpreted as 'right hands to the centre, left hands back'. The latter figure does not occur in old country dances, but seems fairly frequent in this set.


Included are two dances which do not belong to either 'square' or 'contre' dance types, namely the Reel of Eight, and the Hullachan [Reel], both of which are published, in different forms, by Allan. The second should also be compared with The Duchess of Sutherland’s New Highland Reel in the Ballroom Annual, 1844. It should be noted that in the Reel of Eight the notebook writes "all rights and lefts, or Grand Chain," whilst elsewhere it writes "Grand Chain" only. This "Reel of Eight" is particularly interesting since it antedates the usual Scottish Eightsome Reels [and Northumberland Eightsome Reel].


Finally there are three circle dances, Circassian Circle (given under Contree Dances), Hibernian Circle, and Virginian Circle; also The German Schottische, and two versions of the Grand March.


Also included are a small number of Sicilian Circle-type dances. The formation of these is as a large circle with each couple facing another couple whilst one of the couples faces clockwise round the circle whilst the other faces counter-clockwise. It is interesting that it has been found in Ireland because it requires a larger number of dancers than for a Quadrille. The implication is that this was danced in a larger ballroom than the average large country house would possess.

Sicilian Circle dances are very rare in Scottish Country Dancing. However the forerunner is the Big Circle Dances of Appalachia or what English dance researcher Cecil Sharp called 'Running Set.' The formation appears in some modern Irish ceili dances albeit straightened out as in the Siege of Ennis but were and still are common in English country and folk dancing. Whereas a single Quadrille aka Set or Half-Set would fit comfortably into the main room of a traditional Irish cottage, there would have been little room for any dance in Sicilian Circle formation or any other Circle or Longways Country Dance or even a Grand March for that matter - which probably explains why the Sets and Half-Sets have survived in the country areas of Ireland whereas all the other formations were simply forgotten and died out.

In the modern notes after the notation for each dance references maybe made to the following contemporary dance manuals. Many thanks to Mrs. Joan Flett for supplying this information:

Allan refers to: "New Reference Guide to the Ballroom, with a few hints on Drawing Room Etiquette," by W.E. Allan, Glasgow and Edinburgh. No specific date but c. 19’th, reprinted several times.
Kerr refers to: "Collection of Reel and Strathspeys," music together with 22 country dances described by James Orr Robertson. Glasgow. No date, but most likely c. 19'th.
Lowe refers to: "Lowe’s Ball-Conductor and Assembly Guide," 3rd. edition, by J. R. J. and J. S. Lowe. No date but c. 1830?
Wallace refers to: "People’s Edition of the Excelsior Manual of Dancing," by J. F. Wallace. Glasgow. No date, c 1881.
Latimer refers to: "A Bouquet of Old Time Dances," compiled by A. J. Latimer. London. 1948. The 1895 version is referred to in the context of this notebook.
Other references are to the modern R.S.C.D.S. (Royal Scottish Country Dance Society) books, e.g. RSCDS 1-5 means RSCDS Book 1, dance no. 5.
Ion C.B. Jamieson, was one of the founder members of the Scottish Country Dance Society, actively collected dances as they were being danced in the Borders during the 1920s. An interesting presentation of his work can be found in The Border Dance Book by Elizabeth MacLachlan.

Now that hundreds of old dance manuals have been put online by the Library of Congress and other private individuals it would be an interesting excercise to compare the dances in this manuscript with the English, French, German and American versions - if any.

Library of Congress


American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals


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