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

In the early 1950s this hand written notebook was in the possession of a Mrs E. Maginnis (né Hughes) of Wallasey, in Cheshire, and belonged originally to her mother - Mrs. Kate Hughes.

From private correspondence with Frank Maginnis it appears that Kate Hughes was born in Dundalk or perhaps in nearby Castlering, in Co.Louth, Ireland, in about 1853. The "Dancing Book" was started in 1867 when she would have been about 14 years old. She married a Jones, probably at about the age of 21, that would have been in about 1874. Apparently she lived in Dundalk for most of her life, and died at the age of 85. The manuscript was passed to her daughter, then Mrs. E. Maginnis, and subsequently to her son, Frank Maginnis.

Frank Maginnis has kindly given permission for his grandmother's manuscript to be made freely available for all to enjoy on the condition that the material is not sold for profit.

In the 1950s the manuscript was researched and interpreted by the late Professor Tom Flett and his wife Joan Flett whose extensive notes I have used in the interpretations below. It must be noted that Tom was more interested in identifying any similarities to the dances in the manuscript to Scottish country dances and his analyses reflect that; however probably the vast majority of the dances notated are of English origin. This latter is not surprising bearing in mind the huge influence of the dancing seasons at Dublin Castle and other large town and country houses, which were catered for by a flourishing local industry (for which see the extent of the adverts in T. Leggett-Byrne's manual ''Terpsichore - Her Votaries and Fashions" published in 1898), and the many local and travelling dancing masters holding numerous classes in many towns and village communities to teach the very latest fashionable dances and steps.

The first problem was deciphering the first name of the dancing master Thomson. This could be: Aseh, Asch, or perhaps Arch. Searching various online census and voting records for the two former names produced no results. Searching for the last produced quite a listing. So Arch., short for Archibald, seems to be the most likely. Also two of the dances have an arch figure and here the handwriting of the word seems to be somewhat similar, see: 57. Hay Makers C.D. (scan 29), 58. Cumberland Reel C.D. (scan 29) and 63. Aeonia Pony [?] C.D. (scan 30).

There is also an illegible word after the surname which may be 'June' the month in 1867 when the Kate began her lessons.

Whether Kate wrote out the dances as she learnt them, copied them from the dancing master's notes, or whether the dancing master wrote them out for her is uncertain. The writing is quite adult, however some of the spellings are interesting although consistent, for example 'ladie' meaning 'lady' or 'ladies' and 'seceaond' meaning 'second.' It may be that the dancing book took some years to write out - however the consecutive nature of the dances notated appears to suggest that the dances were copied out from some other source, most likely the dancing masters own notes.

Who actually wrote out the manuscript does not really matter. What does matter is that it implies  that country dances and quadrilles were taught and danced in Ireland in the mid to late 1800s, and it also describes some dances which are still popular even today albeit under different labels, viz. 'ceili' and 'sets.' This is confirmed by one of the most prolific dancing masters from Dublin, T. Leggett-Byrne, in his manual ''Terpsichore - Her Votaries and Fashions" (1898) who apparently held dancing classes not only in Dublin, but also in Fermoy, Lismore, Sligo, Athlone, Parsonstown, Tullamore, and Youghal, and presumably in many other places in Ireland.all over Ireland.

This widespread activity has also been corroborated by research in the mid to late 1900s by modern Irish dancing master and researcher Breandán Breathnach.

Indeed is noteworthy that the dances listed in Kate Hughes "Dancing Book" and "Terpsichore" are not too dissimilar to those that were also popular in both England and Scotland during that period, the mid to late 1800s. This is hardly surprising since English and Scottish country dances and especially English and French quadrilles, were in fact immensely popular throughout Northern Europe right up to the First World War.

irish_dancing_lesson.jpg (29705 bytes)This widespread popularity was due almost solely to the professional travelling dancing masters, such as Arch. Thompson, who travelled to the main fashionable centres of London, Paris, and Edinburgh, etc., to learn the latest dances in order to make a living. They then brought these new dances and steps back to hold classes in barns, at schools, or up at the local 'big house' to teach to whomsoever was interested, or rather to whomsoever was prepared to pay for lessons, or failing payment to offer free food and accommodation in return for the tuition.

Indeed during this particularly turbulent era in Irish history of the 1800s, dancing and music making as a social activity was immensely popular throughout all stratas of Irish society. And it has even been reliably recorded that at 'hedge schools' dancing was one of the most popular subjects, and that if this was not offered the children showed an even greater reluctance to attend than they usually did!!

From 'A Tour of Ireland' by Arthur Young, Dublin 1780 and reprinted in 'Arthur Young's Tour of Ireland 1776-1779', edited by A.W.Hutton, 1892, London, Bell & Sons:

"Dancing is so universal among them that there are everywhere itinerant dancing-masters, to whom the cottagers pay sixpence a quarter for teaching their families. Beside the Irish jig which they can dance with a most luxuriant expression, minuets and country dances are taught; and I even heard some talk of cotillons coming in."

Also when travelling through Killarney he wrote again:

'"ll the poor people, both men and women, learnt to dance, and are exceedingly fond of the amusement. A ragged lad without shoes or stockings was seen in a mud barn, leading up a girl in the same trim for a minuet."'

The manuscript certainly predates the politically inspired creation of the Gaelic League's so-called 'ceili dance' tradition of the late 1800s - indeed few of these dances have been noted in the many dance manual collections. However it does support the most probable origin of what are now-a-days called 'set dances' - being the quadrilles imported by the English via the balls at Dublin Castle. The modern Irish 'sets' are, after-all, only the old formal quadrilles that have evolved through the folk process to incorporate traditional Irish tunes and steps. Many of the essential features of the old quadrilles remain and are easily recognised, although some of the more local Irish sets have by now evolved beyond all recognition to the originals.

It should be emphasised here that the term 'country dance' does not describe a dance as coming from the country, i.e. from country people. Rather it is a corruption of the French word 'contré' (or 'contra') meaning 'opposite.' Thus in country dancing there are two lines of dancers facing each other, each gentleman usually being 'opposite' or 'contré' to his partner. The length of such sets can range from just 3 couples to 'as many couples as will.' The "Haymaker's Jig" (or "Sir Roger d'Coverley") are typical and still popular examples.

Early 18'th and 19'th c. Irish Dance
Instruction Manuals or Manuscripts

There are but now four that are known:

  1. "A Choice Collection of Country Dances" as Printed and Sold by John and William Neal. Fifty-nine English country dances first published circa 1726 by the Neals. Original is in National Library, Dublin. This modern reprint by Jackson, Rich & George Fogg includes original text as well as modern interpretations. With music. 1990 96pgs, instruction included,written music included. To be discontinued.
    For availablity email:

  2. "A Treatise on the THEORY and PRACTICE of DANCING with an Appropriate Poem" by James P. Cassidy, Professor of Dancing, Dublin: 1810. Original in the Library of Congress.

  3. "Dancing Book" by Kate Hughes from 1867. Dances written down during lessons with dancing master Arch. Thomson.

  4. "Terpsichore - Her Votaries and Fashions" by T. Leggett-Byrne, Dublin: 1898. Original in National Library, Dublin; also one other copy known to be owned privately.


Email: Chris Brady
No. of visitors since 20-10-99: [ 141 ]
Site last modified: July 04, 2002
© Chris Brady