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

Spring and the Tradition of St. Brigid’s Cross

Spring and the Tradition of St. Brigid's Cross

Spring comes early to Ireland. As I walked through the parklands in mid-January daffodils had pushed through the soil, their bright blooms still hidden but preparing for debut.

The Gaelic festival of Imbolc (i-MOLG) marks the beginning of spring. Set half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, celebrations are usually held February 1.

Speak Irish The word for spring in Irish is earrach (arrock)

Originally a Celtic festival, it became Christianized as the festival of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland who is thought to be based on the Brigid the Celtic goddess.

Though Bidgid has quite a few miracles attributed to her, not the least of which was the expansion of her cloak to cover the land to build her convent, her name is most associated with the St. Brigid’s Cross.

Saint Brigid's cross

The Story of St. Brigid’s Cross

There was an old pagan Chieftain who lay delirious on his deathbed in Kildare (some tales say this was her father) and his servants summoned Brigid to his beside in the hope that the saintly woman might calm his restless spirit.

Brigid is said to have sat by his bed, consoling and soothing him and it is here that she picked up rushes from the floor and began weaving them into the distinctive cross pattern.

Whilst she weaved, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick Chieftain and it is thought her calming words brought peace to his soul. He was so captivated by her words that the old Chieftain requested he be baptized as a Christian just before his passing.

Since that day, and for the centuries that followed, it has been customary on the eve of her Feast Day for the Irish people to weave a St. Brigid’s Cross of rushes and place it inside the house over the door.

Traditions of St. Brigid’s Cross

Woven on the eve of the festival, January 31, St. Brigid’s crosses are traditionally hung by the door and in the rafters to protect a home from fire and evil.

Some traditions state that a new cross is to be woven each year, with the old one burned to keep fire from the house, but many homes will have several crosses preserved in the ceiling or roof.

How to Weave a St. Brigid’s Cross

While fresh rushes, pulled, not cut, are used to create a traditional St. Brigid’s Cross, plastic straws can be used.

I’ve taken these directions from Scoil Bhride (St. Brigid’s School) in Portlaois, Ireland.

You Will Need

  • 16 Reeds (or Straws)
  • 4 small rubber bands
  • Scissors

What to Do

  1. Hold one of the reeds vertically. Fold a second reed in half as in the diagram.
  2. Place the first vertical reed in the centre of the folded second reed.
  3. Hold the centre overlap tightly between thumb and forefinger.
  4. Turn the two rushes held together 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the open ends of the second reed are pointing vertically upwards.
  5. Fold a third reed in half and over both parts of the second reed to lie horizontally from left to right against the first straw. Hold tight.
  6. Holding the centre tightly, turn the three reeds 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the open ends of the third reed are pointing upwards.
  7. Fold a new reed in half over and across all the rushes pointing upwards.
  8. Repeat the process of rotating all the rushes 90 degrees anti-clockwise, adding a new folded reed each time until all rushes have been used up to make the cross.
  9. Secure the arms of the cross with elastic bands. Trim the ends to make them all the same length. The St Bridget’s Cross is now ready to hang.

References if you wish to know more

Learn the story of St. Brigid

Celtic Festivals– and introduction

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

Irish Christmas Traditions to Celebrate at Home

Christmas is magical no matter where you live, but these Irish traditions make the holiday a wee bit more special.

Say Merry Christmas in Irish : Nollaig Shona Duit
Speak Irish Merry Christmas in Irish is Nollaig (nol-ag) Shona (hona) Duit (gwit)

Christmas Traditions from Ireland

Light a Candle in the Window on Christmas Eve
A thick, tall candle in the window symbolizes a sign of welcome for Mary & Joseph – though families will now mention that it is helpful for Santa, too. (For safety use an electric candle for this.)

Place a Holly Wreath on Your Front Door
Holly flourishes in Ireland around the holidays and, with its bright colored berries, provided cheery decorations for even the poorest families. Though the Christmas tree is now center-stage, it is rare to find an Irish house without holly.

Decorate on schedule. Decorations were traditionally put up on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and taken down on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany. It was considered bad luck to take decorations down before this date.

A special celebration for the ladies. The “Little Christmas” on January 6 (Feast of the Epiphany) is set aside for the women after all the work of the traditional 12 days of Christmas. Men take over family and home duties for the day.

Not just a fruit cake. A traditional Irish Christmas Cake is a rich cake of fruits and nuts soaked in whiskey. This cake takes 6-8 weeks to make as it is continually ‘fed’ whiskey weekly.

Want to make your own Christmas cake? Here’s a great recipe.

Would you rather buy your Irish Christmas cake? Order one here.

Read James Joyce’s Story, “The Dead”
A short story from Joyce’s Collection “Dubliners“, the tale is rather like and Irish version of “The Christmas Carol” in which a group of Dubliners gather together post-Christmas with reflections of past, present, and future.

References if you wish to know more

Christmas at the House on an Irish Hillside by Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a charming tale of life at the end of the Dingle Peninsula during Christmas time. (Kindle book; Amazon link)

Have a Christmas Hamper shipped to you! The Season Selection and the Irish Christmas Hamper both offer huge baskets of tasty Irish treats specifically for the holiday season. (via The Irish Store)

Read More Articles About Irish Culture