St. Patrick’s Day – A Brief History & the Traditional Set Dance You Perform Today

As we come to the most Irish of all days, St. Patrick’s Day, I began to wonder a bit about the Traditional Set Dance of the same name. What does it have to do with St. Patrick, and where did it come from?

Foy School of Irish Dance, Des Moines, iowa

St. Patrick’s Day History

The history of St. Patrick takes us back to 450AD, when a young Roman citizen in Britain was captured and taken to Ireland as a slave. After years of isolation as a shepherd in the Ulster hills, Patrick was reunited with his family.

It is said that he ‘felt a calling to become a priest’, which isn’t terribly surprising as his grandfather was a Catholic priest.

The surprising part is that he returned to the pagan country where he had been a slave, “so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland and preach the gospel.” (Confession, writings of St. Patrick, 5th century)

As you know, St. Patrick’s life became the stuff of legend as he converted the pagans to Christianity. Today he is known for using the shamrock to teach the trinity and driving the snakes out of Ireland, and his holy feast day has become a world-wide celebration of all things Irish. And green.

Read More about the Colors of Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day Traditional Set Dance

St. Patrick’s Day has been described as the ‘signature step dance of the Irish diaspora.’

What is a Traditional Set Dance?

A traditional set dance is a set dance composed or arranged by the 18th century dance masters to showcase their own footwork.

Where did the song originate?

The music for St. Patrick’s Day is also known as St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning and has been played for centuries.

Historian W. H. Gratten Flood wrote that the song was played by Irish pipers at the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11, 1745, after the Irish had won the day’s battle for France.

Following that battle, the song appeared in the score of a London ballad opera in 1763, and was used as the regimental air of the Irish Legion within Napoleon’s army, as well as by Irish fighters on both sides of the American Civil War.

Where did the St. Patrick’s Day Set Dance originate?

The settings of St. Patrick’s Day are credited to Jeremiah Molyneaux of County Kerry in the early 20th century. (He also choreographed The Blackbird, another traditional set dance.)

Though the Molyneaux version of St. Patrick’s Day has been a designated Trad set for many years, the version most commonly danced today was composed by Stephen Comerford and is a shortened version of the older settings.

Recently the Molyneaux version has made a ‘reappearance’ on stages and at feiseanna. Faster steps and a more complex setting make this a challenging dance for even the most proficient dancer.

Siobhan Butler dances Jeremiah Molyneaux's St. Patrick's Day from Siobhan Butler on Vimeo.

Traditional set dance steps are not altered by individual schools, and both the Molyneaux and Comerford steps are acceptable in competition.

References if you wish to know more

Read St. Patrick’s Confessio
Terminology of Irish Dance (Amazon link)
The Complete Guide to Irish Dance (Amazon link)
Jigs to Jacobites– 4000 Years of Irish History Told Through 40 Traditional Set Dances

What Do the Celtic Knots on Irish Dance Dresses Mean?

Foy School of Irish Dance

The next time you’re at an Irish Festival or a dance competition take a few minutes to look at the dresses that surround you. While the flashy solo dresses will first catch your eye, look to the groups of matching dresses.

Young students at the Foy School of Irish Dance
The Celtic knot for the Foy School of Irish Dance is easily recognizable on the young dancers’ dresses.

Celtic Knots on Irish Dance Dresses

The Celtic knot work on the dresses tells you, at a glance, which school the dancer attends.

The Celtic Revival movement by the Gaelic League to promote Irish culture – including Irish dance, language and sport- in  1893 led to development of Irish dance ‘costumes’ for performance and competition.

Popular Irish dance legend says that each school chose their individual knot from the Book of Kells but according to Dr. John Cullinane, historian for The Irish Dancing Commission in Dublin and author of eleven books on the history of Irish Dance,

“There is no truth at all that schools had to choose Celtic knots from the Book of Kells. None what so ever.

 Each school was free to design their own Celtic designs from whatever sources or even / usually designed their own. Originally (the designs were) very broadly based on the Book of Kells  and other similar Celtic works of art –  to justify their Irishness and use on costumes .”


Can you find your Celtic knot, or a similar one, in the Book of Kells?

Is There a Purpose of the Celtic Knot on Irish Dance Dresses?

Because each school has their own knot-work dancers can be instantly recognized by their dresses, jackets, or clothes. Think of the school knot as a ‘team emblem’ that shows your pride, loyalty, and support of your school.

Printable Celtic Knots

The Foy Celtic Knot

Foy School of Irish Dance

The Foy School of Irish Dance knot is a Celtic shield knot. An ancient symbol of protection, this knot was placed near ill people or on battle shields for warding off evil spirits.

If you think about it, this is the perfect knot for wearing into your own ‘battle’ at a Feis!

The shield knot is recognized by its four distinct quadrants or corners.

References if you wish to know more:

The Meaning of Celtic Knot Symbols

The Evolution of Irish Dance Dresses (opinion article)

Order Dr. John Cullinane’s books directly by email: [email protected]



Fire, Fairies, and the Sweets of May

bluebell flowers

As an Irish dancer you’ve probably learned the ceili dance The Sweets of May. But did you ever wonder about the story behind it?

It All Begins with the Festival of Bealtaine

The Gaelic fire festival of Bealtaine (bee-awl-TAWN-neyh) marks the arrival of summer. A ‘cross-quarter day’, it marks the half-way point between between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

In Irish mythology the beginning of the summer season on May 1 was celebrated with great bonfires built on a hilltop the evening before. These fires were often built in pairs – referred to as ‘twin bonfires’- so people and cattle could pass between. This ‘purification’ by fire was only one ritual to help them transition safely into the new season, and was was especially important as animals were moved to their summer pastures at Bealtaine.

Speak Irish: Bealtaine is the Irish word for May.

The Legend Behind the Sweets of May

It is told that an old dancing master in the county of Armagh was returning home on May Eve from a céilí in the early nineteenth century (early 1800s). As he passed by a fairy rath he spied the fae performing this dance. When the dancers reached the clapping movement all the bell-shaped flowers shook on their stems, ringing in time with the tune.

Bluebell Flowers and the story of the sweets of May
When the fairies dance on May Eve bell shaped flowers, like these bluebells, ring in unison with the tune.

Inspired by the fairies the dance master is said to have created The Sweets of May or, in Irish, Aoibhneas ne Bealtaine. 

The Significance of Flowers on May Day

Guard the house with a string of primroses on the first three days of May. The fairies are said not to be able to pass over or under this string.’

~ From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC S.455:237. From Co Kerry.

While the fae may have been able to make the bluebells ring during their dance, these wee magical creatures can’t cross the yellow primrose. This symbol of the first day of spring was laid across doorsteps to encourage fairies to visit and bless the house and those living in it- but keep them from causing mischief inside!

This ritual led to the tradition of little gifts of flowers left on the door on May Day, which led to May Day baskets that you may remember with popcorn and small sweets.

References if you wish to know more:

Old Irish Customs that Survive in Modern Ireland with author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (podcast)

Field Guide to Irish Fairies (book; Amazon affiliate link)

Enough is Plenty: A Year on the Dingle Peninsula by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (book; Amazon affiliate link)

Celtic Festivals– an introduction