From as early as the 1630s immigrants from Ireland were arriving on the shores of North America, joining the mixture of nationalities in a steady stream, and sometimes in waves, up to this very day. They brought with them a strong devotion to their native culture, appreciated their freedom to express it here in the States, and shared it generously until many colorful influences from Irish culture became part of the fabric of American and Canadian culture.
So in this month of March, designated to celebrate Irish American Heritage in the US, we’ll take a look at three aspects of American culture and how the Irish left their mark on them.
Before the American Revolution, most Irish immigrants were Protestants from Ulster, also known as Scots-Irish. They tended to settle in the Appalachian Mountains. American bluegrass, folk, country, and Western music can trace its roots back to the Celtic folk tunes they played. There are many well-known American songs that sound a lot like their Irish counterparts.
One good example is the classic Western song “The Streets of Loredo”.
Compare it to “The Unfortunate Rake” and see if you can hear the similarities.
English is a language cobbled together from several languages, and American English is especially peppered with words from other languages due to our long history of immigration. And our Irish ancestors have contributed many. Here are a few examples:
“Slew” as in “a whole slew of dancers at the céilí,” comes from the Irish word slúa which means "many."
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish Americans began to sort into two classes known then as the “lace curtain” Irish and the “shanty” Irish. The lace curtain group had prospered and joined the middle class, while the shanty Irish lived in poorer conditions. The word "shanty" comes from sean tí, Irish for “old house.”
And there were plenty of political rallies where people chanted catchy phrases. These reminded Irish immigrants of sluagh-ghairm, the yell of a crowd or a battle-cry. That’s why we call them “slogans” now.
Two more Irish words will likely sound familiar: clann which means "family," and gleann which means "valley."
There’s a book called How the Irish Invented Slang by David Cassidy, but I only mention it to let you know that it has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. Most experts in the Irish language consider it complete nonsense and an academic scam. So now you won’t fall for that one.
The Virginia Reel, a popular party dance throughout the 1800s, was influenced by English country dance and the Haymaker’s Jig, an Irish céilí dance. American square dancing, too, shows some aspects of Irish céilí and set dances.
But the Irish contribution to the most uniquely American dance form is probably the most significant. Tap dance originated when enslaved African people and Irish people saw each other’s dance moves in the 1800s. Somewhere along the line English clogging joined the mix. Then Vaudeville performers took this early fusion and refined the steps over time. Later, dancers took tap even further in movies and Broadway shows and it keeps evolving to this day.
Here’s an excellent 5-minute documentary, featuring some cool vintage dance footage, that traces the eclectic mix of cultures that gave us American tap dance.
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Irish Exercise for the New Year
Every year in January most of us renew our dedication to exercise with all the best intentions to keep it up all year long. And it’s no secret that some of us keep this resolution going past St. Patrick’s Day and some of us don’t get quite that far. It’s hard! And it’s even harder if your chosen exercise isn’t much fun.
This year to help you out with that, we thought we’d do an article on Irish dancing. There are three main types, each with different energy demands, but all danced to the best tunes in the world.
You’ve probably seen this type at Irish festivals and in Riverdance. It looks complicated and can be a little tricky at first, but if you keep at it you’ll soon get the hang of it. And then you’re skipping and stepping to jigs and reels, spinning and swirling in patterns with your classmates like a kaleidoscope. There are many schools of Irish dance throughout New York and a Google search should turn up one near you. Though most of their classes are geared towards kids age 4-18, some offer classes for adults.
To see some top-notch Irish step dancing performed by The Academy Irish Dance Company at the Dublin, Ohio, Irish festival, click here. Then give it a try yourself with this instructional video:
Translated to English, the name of this type of dance means “old style”. Compared to step dancing it’s looser, with your arms free to move about and the steps closer to the floor. This is more of a solo dance without the group patterns like step and céilí dance. When the opportunity arose a couple of years ago, Craobh Dugan hosted sean-nós teacher Rebecca McGowan from Boston to teach a live class in Utica. We hope to do that again in the future, but you can learn a few steps now from this video:
Céilí is an Irish word for “gathering or party”. So céilí dancing requires more people, ideally at least eight. The dancers' feet can be doing skips and side-sevens commonly seen in step dancing (which can really get your heart rate up) or simple walking works too. The fun part is learning the patterns and how all the people weave together like threads on a loom. In the video below, you can see a good example of The Seige of Ennis, one of the all-time favorite céilí dances. It looks complicated at first, but it’s easy to learn, especially with the help of Craobh Dugan’s céilí dance group.
Every Friday at 7:00pm the group meets at the Seton Center at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Genesee Street in Utica with plans to move to the new Irish Cultural Center of the Mohawk Valley when it’s finished later this year. You can bring your own partner or find a partner at the class. You don’t need any special shoes. Sneakers or any footwear you feel comfortable walking in will do. The classes are free and open to the public. Just to make sure nothing has come up to cancel class, we do recommend you call Jim O’Rourke (315-336-5966) before heading out.
Every year in October, Craobh Dugan members gather to eat, drink, dance, play music, and be generally merry. And we manage to squeeze a meeting in there too.
Looking back over last year, we had some wonderful successes to celebrate:
And looking ahead to the coming year we have some new projects in the works.
And before adjourning the meeting and beginning the music, we took a moment to remember our dear members who passed away this year. Both Jim O'Looney and Carl Sturtevant were long-time Craobh Dugan members and served generously as chairmen of the branch.
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