Irish instrumental music is by and large dance music, at least until comparatively recently. Now, except for isolated communities of interest, it’s mostly listening music, notwithstanding the vestigial audience participation – hand clapping, foot stomping, thigh slapping, etc.
Arthur Young wrote in A Tour of Ireland (1776-1779): “Dancing is very general among the poor people. Almost universal in every cabbin. Dancing masters of their own rank travel through the country from cabbin to cabbin, with a piper or blind fiddler; and the pay is six pence a quarter. It is an absolute system of education. Weddings are always celebrated with much dancing.”
For a counterpoint: William Thackeray wrote in his Irish Sketch Book (1843): “Anything more lugubrious than the drone of the pipe, or the jig danced to it, or the countenances of the dancers and musicians, I never saw. Round each set of dancers the people formed a ring; the toes went in, and the toes went out; then there came certain mystic figures of hands across and so forth. I never saw less grace or seemingly less enjoyment – no, not even in a quadrille.”
Today we bring you a study of Irish Tune types – jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, marches, mazurkas (OK – that one started out in Poland, but mazurkas arrived in Britain and then Ireland by 1830), waltzes, planxtys, and slow airs.