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Irish dancing is alive and kicking | Insight Guides Blog

Irish dancing is alive and kicking

Irish dancing in the King's Head pub, Galway
Irish dancing in the King's Head pub, Galway

As we continue our journey throughout Ireland, we focus on one of its biggest exports of recent years, namely Irish dancing. All over Ireland you will encounter free live music, often in pubs, part of a long tradition of community entertainment. Step-dancing is booming post-Riverdance, and the easier, barn-dance-like set dancing is enjoyed by many.

Irish dancing was reinvented by Riverdance in 1994 when its Chicago-born star Michael Flatley undid 150 years of repression, and Irish dance suddenly became sexy again. The Irish have always been known for loving to dance. Because most Irish cottages had earth floors up until the late 19th century, dancers used wooden platforms or danced on barrel tops, or even, on occasion, the kitchen table, so that the noise of their feet tapping could serve as a drumbeat to the music. Even today the sound of an Irish dancer is an integral part of the performance.

This fast-moving, fleet-footed style of dancing is known as step dan­cing and is not to be confused with set dancing. Set dancing consists of four couples dancing in a square, and is essentially the French quadrille, adapted to Irish music and steps. It is easy to pick up, and it is more fun to do it than to watch. Free lessons are often given for visitors before a session, usually held in a pub or community hall.

Certain bars are known for set dancing, including The Abbey Hotel (Ballyvourney, County Cork;, The Bridge Bar (Portmagee, County Kerry;, Hayden’s Hotel (Ballinasloe, County Galway;, Ostán Loch Altan (Gortahork, County Donegal; and Vaughan’s Barn (Kilfenora, County Clare; See for other venues. The same website also lists local ceilidh, often in a parish hall,where you will experience a simple, authentically Irish occasion, with singing and set dancing. The most likely place to find a Riverdance-­style step dancing show is at a cabaret night but avoid those organised purely for tourists.

As part of the 2013 Gathering celebrations, people will be flocking to the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin on 21 July to join original Riverdance castmembers in an attempt to break the World Record for Riverdance line dancing. The current record stands at 652 dancers, and was set in Nashville, Tennessee. We think the record is there for the taking!

Our American readers who can't travel to Ireland but want to discover Irish dancing should check out the World Irish Dancing Championship, held in Boston to facilitate the many American participants. It attracts some 4,500 competitors and supporters from 32 countries. Small fortunes are spent on costumes, wigs and tuition (see   


Plan your trip to Ireland


Insight Guide Ireland

For practical advice on how to plan a trip to Ireland, visit our Ireland destination guide or browse our Ireland guide books.



Articles about Ireland...


• An introduction and where to start your trip to Ireland...


From the Giant's Causeway to the Aran Islands, see our top 10 Irish attractions


• The Gaeltacht and interest in the Irish language


• Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Heaney – Irish literature and literary festivals


• Walking enthusiasts should take a look at our top 10 hikes in Ireland

This July we're exploring Ireland as our destination of the month. For more updates keep following the Insight blog, or check us out on Twitter @InsightGuides or on our Insight Facebook page, or why not look at some lovely travel photography on Pinterest.

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