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Irish Song – A Window on History

Irish traditional music has existed for centuries, with songs and dance tunes passed on from generation to generation through the oral tradition. This practice of learning ‘by ear’ is still common today. Despite the number of printed tune and songbooks, students of traditional music generally learn tunes by listening to other musicians.

The traditional music that developed in Ireland first arrived with the Celts. Until the last decade or so, scholars dated the ‘arrival’ of Celtic culture in Britain and Ireland to the 6th century BC. However, recent research has given rise to the idea that Celtic culture emerged in Britain and Ireland much earlier – in the Bronze Age – suggesting its spread was the result not of invasion, as previously thought, but of a gradual migration enabled by an extensive network of contacts that existed between the peoples of Britain and Ireland and those of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Celts were originally from Europe – countries including Austria, evidenced by rich burial-site finds, Northern Italy, and even as far east as Turkey. By the middle of the 1st millennium AD, with the expansion of the Roman Empire and extensive migrations of Germanic peoples, Celtic culture had become restricted to Ireland, the western and northern parts of Great Britain (Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall), the Isle of Man, and Brittany. Between the 5th and 8th centuries, the Celtic-speaking communities in these Atlantic regions emerged as a reasonably cohesive cultural entity, with a common linguistic, religious and artistic heritage that clearly distinguished them.

spring_hill_review_jan_-_june_1907_1907_14768255862The Celts were influenced by music of the East. It is believed that the traditional Irish harp may in fact have its roots in Egypt. In ancient times the harp was one of the most popular instruments. Harpists were employed to play for chieftains and to create music for noblemen. In 1607, native Irish chieftains fled under threat of invasion, leaving the harpists to travel the land as itinerant musicians, playing where they could. One of the most famous of these harpists was Turlough O’Carolan, a blind musician and songwriter born in 1670 who travelled throughout his life from one end of Ireland to the other, composing and performing.

There are several collections of Irish folk music from the 18th century, and by the 19th century ballad printers were established in Dublin.

Like all traditional music, Irish folk music has evolved slowly, and most of the folk songs around today are less than two hundred years old. Where the oldest songs and tunes are from rural settings and come from the Celtic language tradition, the more recent songs generally come from cities and towns and are written in English.

The ultimate expression of traditional singing is an old-style called sean nós. This is usually performed solo, or very occasionally as a duet. Sean-nós singing is highly ornamented, with the voice placed towards the top of the range. A true old-style singer will vary the melody of every verse, but not to the point of interfering with the words, which are considered to have as much importance as the melody.

Non sean-nós traditional singing, even when accompanied, uses patterns of ornamentation and melodic freedom derived from sean-nós singing. It also uses a similar voice placement. This song from the Irish band Altan shows a more modern take on the traditional style.

Caoineadh is Irish for a lament. There are many laments in the Irish song repertoire, expressing sorrow and pain, often of a person lamenting for Ireland itself, having been forced to emigrate due to political or financial reasons. Laments were also used to express loss of a loved one or have their roots in war or the various economic crises caused by both partition and war. This song, Far Away in Australia, is a lament as an Irishman leaves home to seek better fortune, but like many Irish ballads is imbued with hope for the future.

The song, Mo Ghile Mear, written by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill, is a lament of the Gaelic goddess Éire for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was in exile.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley relates to the Irish Rebellion of 1778. Written by Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836-1883), it expresses a young man’s sadness at leaving his lover to join the United Irishmen, a sorrow that is cut short when she is killed by an English bullet

Other aspects of Ireland’s history are found in popular songs such as Whiskey in the Jar, which tells of the betrayal of highwayman Patrick Flemmen who was executed in 1650. This ballad became a signature song for The Dubliners in the 1960s and was even recorded by Thin Lizzy and Metallica.

If you would like more information about our Irish song workshops, contact the Music Workshop Company today.


Scottish Dance: A Rich Mix of Cultural Influence

Scotland is internationally renowned for its traditional music and dance, in particular the unmistakable sound of the highland bagpipes. But the pipes are only one aspect of Scottish music: They are often used to accompany solo and competition dancing, but music for social dancing is more likely to be performed on instruments including the accordion, fiddle and flute.

Image: James Geddes

Image: James Geddes

The folk music of Scotland, like that of other cultures, centres predominantly around songs or ballads and dancing.

Traditional dance in Scotland has a more formal history than that of England, which is reflected in the strict conventions of Scottish reeling. Just as the music of Scotland was heavily influenced by art music from other countries, and fiddlers aspired to the same technical expertise as violinists such as Paganini, dance was, to some extent defined by the upper classes as much as by the working people.

There are four main categories of Scottish Dance:


The Country Dance

Scottish Country Dancing is mostly used at social gatherings, although it is also sometimes performed. Dancers complete each dance in sets of three, four or five couples, arranged either in two lines with the men facing the ladies, or in a square. During the course of the dance, the dancers complete a series of figures enough times to bring them back to their opening positions.

In England, the idea of the formal country dance is thought to have derived from the French contra danse, where couples dance opposite each other in a  square, round or longwise set. This originated in England during the 17th century, although its roots go back as far as the Court of Elizabeth I. In 1651, John Playford, a bookseller to the Inns of Court in London, published a collection of country dances, the tunes for which were predominantly Irish and Scottish. By 1728 the book had run to its 18th print, and it is still available in various editions today!

During the 18th century, the Scottish city of Edinburgh rose in status. Formal balls became an important part of society life. Formal dance styles were also developing in the French court, and these were held by the English and Scots to be the highest form of the art in formality, gentility and style. The French dance style called the contredanse or cotillon formed the basis of the quadrille, which superseded the country dance in 19th century England. It is also considered to be the root of some styles of ceilidh dance.

Image Flikr/k4dordy

Image Flikr/k4dordy

The Scots, inspired by influences from Europe, began to modify the country dances, introducing more intricate steps. This precision of character and virtuosic footwork and figure became the hallmark of the many Dancing Masters in Scotland at the time.

Dancing Masters were travelling teachers who taught all of the current forms of dance; country dance, minuet, highland reels and highland dancing, which was known as ‘high’ dance. They would work in grand houses, instructing both the upper class residents and the servants.

highland dancing

The Dancing Masters of 19th century Scotland were professional dancers who had generally studied ballet in either London or Paris. They would create their own dances or dance steps, often dedicated to a wealthy patron. They introduced the five ballet foot positions into both the country dance and the high dances, creating the pointed feet and straight legged positions familiar to anyone who has watched Highland Dancing.

Here’s a great clip of a country dance jig:

And here is a video of dancers in the Eightsome Reel:

Highland Dancing

Highland Dancing is a solo style of dance. It is very flamboyant and colourful and has become a very competitive art. Here is a performance of the Highland Fling:

Cape Breton Step Dancing

Another form of solo dance, Cape Breton dancing is mainly used for stage performances. It almost completely died out in Scotland, but was preserved in Nova Scotia by Scottish emigrants. Cape Breton is a hard-shoe dance similar to those danced in Ireland.

Scottish Dance has remained popular in England, though it went out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century and during the First World War. It’s slide into extinction was to some extent prevented by the determination of Mrs. Stewart of Fasnacloich and Miss Jean Milligan, who set about collecting the dances, and formed what was the become the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS). The dancing has since seen a huge resurgence thanks to the popularity of the ceilidh and various reeling societies.


Ceilidh dances are easy to learn and often look more difficult than they actually are. Musicians and fellow dancers are always happy to help beginners, and the dance is normally led by a caller who teaches the steps before it is danced. Ceilidhs are great social events and have become a popular choice of entertainment at weddings. The dances themselves are similar to those of the country dances, but less formal. They are distinct from the organised reeling balls in that they are suitable for total novices. At reeling balls, dancers are expected to have learned the dance and mastered the steps. The refinement of the art of reeling was such that clubs still exist in schools such as Eton.

Here are some examples of popular ceilidh dances:

The Gay Gordons

Formation: Dancers form couples in a circle , facing anti-clockwise with ladies on the right and gentlemen on the left.

Music: Tunes including The Gay Gordons or Scotland the Brave, march time (2/4 or 4/4)

The Dance:

  • With right hands joined over the lady’s shoulder (the man’s arm behind her back) and left hands joined in front, walk forward four steps, starting on the right foot
  • Continuing in the same direction, without letting go of the hands, pivot on the spot and take four steps backwards
  • Repeat in the opposite direction, four steps forward, four steps backwards
  • Dropping the left hands, raise the right hand above the lady’s head. She pivots or spins on the spot
  • Join hands in a ballroom hold and polka around the room
  • Reform the circle in your couples and start again

The Flying Scotsman

Formation: Longways sets of four or more couples, men on the right and ladies on the left as viewed from the band. Couples number from nearest the band

Music: A 32 bar reel

The Dance:

  • The first lady, followed by the second and third ladies, dances across the top of the set weaving behind the first man, in front of the second man, behind the third man and across the bottom of the set back to her place
  • The same pattern is repeated by the men starting with the first man
  • The first couple join hands and gallop (slip step) down the room for four bars, then gallop up to finish at the bottom of the set
  • All couples join hands and gallop down the room, coming back to arrive in order 2, 3, 4, 1 when the dance starts again with couple number 2 now in the top place

The Music:

The music for different dances includes a variety of reels, strathspeys, hornpipes and jigs.

Reels, strathspeys and most hornpipes are counted in four, that is, they have four beats to a bar. Jigs and waltzes are in three, although the speed, style and dance for a jig is completely different to a waltz. The sound of the strathspey is very different to that of the reel or hornpipe.

Reels are played quickly, with all the fast notes having the same rhythm. Hornpipes and strathspeys are usually slower. The main feature of a hornpipe is it’s dotted rhythm where the strathspey uses the Scotch snap, a clipped short/long dotted rhythm. Sections of the music will be repeated and the tune structured to fit the number of bars required to make the dance work. The name of the dance is often the same as the name of the tune, for example, The Dashing White Sergeant is both the name of the dance and the tune that accompanies it. This tune, a reel, will be played at the top of the dance and then followed by other reels of a similar structure, sometimes coming back to finish with the first tune within the strict structure of bars.

Here’s a video of a strathspey dance. You can see the hop movement that accompanies the scotch snap rhythms in the tune.

November 30th is St. Andrew’s Day; a perfect opportunity to explore Scottish culture. If you would like to talk to us about booking one of our Scottish Dance Workshops, please contact the Music Workshop Team.

English Folk Dance – Swords, Sticks and Ribbons

There is a huge variety of dance associated with English folk music, some of it quite alien to modern culture. Folk music was either written as song or for dancing, and the dances have deep roots in the social history of England, as well as offering an insight into agriculture, industry and cultural diversity.


Our English Folk and Ceilidh workshops at the Music Workshop Company explore the music of England through dance and song.

Ceilidh, an accessible social dance typical of Ireland, Scotland and England, in which participants learn the patterns and steps of traditional dances from a caller, has recently become popular for weddings and parties, but there is much more to folk dance than a good old barn dance.

On the first of May, May Day, celebrations were typically held to mark the arrival of spring. A young girl from the town or village would be selected as May Queen, and crowned to preside over the party, a bit like the Prom Queen at a modern high-school. A maypole decorated with garlands of flowers would form the centre of a dance, and dancers would circle the pole to music.

Later, long coloured ribbons were attached to the top of the pole, and the traditional and recognisable maypole dance was born. Each dancer would hold one length of ribbon, and they would weave in and out around the pole, in complex patterns, until the ribbons had been wound onto the pole. They would then reverse the dance to unwind the ribbons. The maypole was a source of huge local pride and competition, and it was common for one village to play a prank on another by stealing the top half of their maypole the night before May Day!


Maypoles and maypole dancing were declared illegal during the reign of Edward VI as the Reformation took hold, and the practice was seen as idolatrous and therefore immoral. Many poles were destroyed, including the famous Cornhill May Pole of London, and the maypole at Castle Bytham in Lincolnshire was cut in half for use as a ladder. The practice was reinstated under Mary I, but never became as popular or widespread as it had been.

Morris_dancing_outside_the_Gerneral_Havelock,_HastingsMorris dance is a form of rhythmic stepping dance, performed to traditional regional tunes. It is unclear where the dance got its name, although it’s possible it arose as part of the 15th Century fashion for “Moorish” spectacle. The dances have similarities with Italian folk dance. The dancers often wear costumes decked with colourful ribbons and tie small bells around their ankles for a percussive sound, and it was traditional for some dance teams to black-up their faces. It is unclear whether this is a reference to the Moors, miners or a common disguise used by beggars.

Morris dancers from the Cotswolds use handkerchiefs and wooden sticks as part of the dance, whereas Rapper Morris Men from Northumberland use short, flexible steel swords, blurring the line between Morris dancing and Sword Dancing.


The Long-Sword Dance is a traditional Yorkshire dance, using long, rigid wooden or metal swords. These dances came from the mills, the mines and in the case of sword dances, from military training exercises. They were danced in village teams.

Clogging, or English clog dancing is yet another form of traditional dance. Developed during the Industrial Revolution, it is thought to have come initially from the Lancashire cotton mills. Wooden-soled shoes were preferred in the mills, as the floors were kept wet to provide the humidity needed for spinning cotton. Workers would tap their feet in time with their machines in order to keep their feet warm. On breaks they would have competitions to see who could make the best rhythmic patterns.

Clogging is still a popular competition dance in modern traditional music circles. The dancer uses the heel and toe of the shoes musically to create rhythmic patterns on the floor. Clog dancing styles exist in Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire and contain a wide array of techniques and rhythms.

Here’s a great short video of the Unthank sisters performing a traditional clog dance from Northumberland to some rather untraditional instrumentation…

The barn dance is a social tradition. This is the dance where everyone joins in, dancing together, like the Gaelic Ceilidh. Many traditional dances are based around introducing the men and women, so often dancers will start the dance with one partner and dance with many others during the set. These dances would facilitate the courtship and marriage of young people. In England the dances evolved slightly differently from the Irish and Scottish counterparts, using a slower tempo of tune and different variants of a step-hop step depending on region.

If you would like to find out more about English Dance from your region, contact the English Folk Dance and Song Society, who hold an extensive archive of tunes and information. Contact the Music Workshop Company to book one of our English Song and Dance Workshops.


Pass the Spoons

We love unusual instruments at the Music Workshop Company. This month’s blog is by professional percussionist and workshop leader Jo May, who specialises in workshops teaching the spoons. Jo trained at the Royal College of Music and has performed with orchestras including the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She explains how she came to play the spoons and why a Spoons workshop offers an easy introduction to music for any child.


“For the last few years, I’ve been running Spoons Workshops in schools, and for festivals, parties and events. That’s spoon playing, not spoon making!

I first became interested in playing the spoons whilst playing in a folk band. We were learning a song, and I’m not sure why, but it really felt as if it was calling out for spoons. I found a tuition video by a fantastic American musician and historian called David Holt. I learnt some of the basics and went on from there.

There are spoon playing traditions in many different countries around the world, including Ireland, America, Turkey and Russia. I think it’s a tradition that’s been dying out recently in this country but there are still plenty of spoon players around and I’m really keen to encourage more people to play. Often when I’m running workshops people will say, “Hey! My grandad/uncle/great grandma used to play the spoons.”

Spoons are great fun to play and obviously we have them in our homes, so they’re very accessible and very portable too.

I started just using ordinary stainless steel spoons from the kitchen but I love experimenting with different types of spoons now. I’ve built up a collection from rummaging around in junk shops, hardware shops and kitchen shops, as well as searching for spoons that have been made specifically for playing. In workshops, I have an assortment of spoons for participants to try out:

  • ordinary stainless steel ones
  • assorted wooden ones carved especially for playing (some with finger grooves)
  • aluminium ones made from de-activated bombs in Laos
  • a few different sized/coloured plastic measuring spoons recently acquired from rooting around a kitchen shop… (the largest ones make great bass spoons!)
  • a selection of smaller wooden and metal spoons for smaller fingers
  • an assortment of joined-up spoons for younger children and anyone who has difficulty with the grip


I usually run my Spoon Workshops with accompaniment from a guitarist or fiddler. It’s brilliant to have a tune to work with. I also run sessions without accompaniment, and they usually involve more singing. I teach some basic techniques and we usually work on a little routine to go with a tune or song; maybe a folk song, a well-known tune or an old-time music hall song. And it’s always great to end the day with a performance from some of the participants.

I find that spoon playing is brilliant for co-ordination, particularly fine motor skills. I often try to involve movement and singing too, stamping your feet, singing and moving in time with the music whilst playing the spoons is a lot to think about. It’s also great for improving rhythm, teamwork, creativity, listening, performance, confidence and focus.

Most of all, spoon playing is fun and really open to anyone. Many children go home and show their families how to play, which is brilliant. There’s no need to go out and buy expensive, large instruments, just head to the cutlery drawer.”

To enquire about a Spoons Workshop, contact the Music Workshop Company today.










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