The word céilí (pronounced kay' lee) was used by the Scots to describe an evening of music and dancing. In 1897, the Scots of London were holding well organized Céilí evenings and representatives of the Irish Gaelic League attended some of them to get ideas on how to organize their own events. The League was so impressed by the respectable and well behaved way the Scots conducted their social evenings, that they decided to adopt their format as well as the word Céilí. On October 30, 1897 (the Celtic festival of Samhain), the London Gaelic League held the very first Irish Céilí in Bloomsbury Hall near the British Museum. The program for the first Céilí consisted of bagpipe music, some singing, dancing and refreshments. Based on the tradition that "a piper always leads into battle", a piper played the tunes The Blackbird, Money and the Old Woman, and Planxty Stafford. Several songs were sung and, before the dancing began, refreshments of tea and cakes were served. Thus, the London Irish migrants, in organizing this social evening, made a major contribution to Irish culture that was to affect the social life of Irish communities all over the world until the present day. The dances that were danced consisted of those that were popular at the time. Quadrilles and Waltzs were danced to Irish music by a company of doctors, journalists and civil servants and their wives and women (attendance was by invitation only). What we now refer to as Céilí dances were almost completely unknown outside of Kerry and Donegal and were not performed at this first Céilí. It is interesting to note that a few years later, the Irish Gaelic League banned the practice of dancing foreign dances like quadrilles in favor of more authentic Irish dances. The Gaelic League was created to restore the Irish image following the Great Famine and to preserve such cultural aspects of Irish life as their language, music, and dances. Consequently, they frowned upon the undisciplined dancing style that was often seen at a crossroad dance or in one's kitchen, and many such wild evenings were accompanied by drinking. The League instituted very rigid rules for 'proper' dancing including strictly regulated footwork (promenade step, side step and rising step), posture (holding the arms straight at the sides), and dress. As mentioned above, the old set dances or quadrilles were frowned up on and were eventually banned in favor of more authentic Irish dances. A group of dances from the Counties of Kerry and Donegal formed the core of dances we now refer to as Céilí dances. These included several 4, 8, 12, and 16-hand reels, 4-hand jigs, Rinnce Fada, Rinnce Mór, Walls of Limerick, Resin the Bow and High Caul Cap. Later, others were invented and added to them (Siege of Ennis, Bridge of Athlone, Haste to the Wedding). It wasn't until the 1930's, however, that these were referred to as Céilí dances. In 1969, 30 of these dances were published in a book entitled Ar Rinncidhe Fóirne (Our Figure Dances) which is the official publication of the Irish Dancing Commission. While set dances were frowned upon for many years, they never really died out, and since the 1970's have again become more popular than the Céilí dances. Set and Céilí dances have a common ancestry, i.e. French quadrilles, although set dances are much older. Modern set dances differ from Céilís in that, while a Céilí is one complete dance, a set dance may consist of 3-7 distinct figures with a break between each one. Figures may all be done to one type of music (e.g. reels) or a mixture of reels, jigs, hornpipes, slides and polkas. Different steps are used in set dances as well. While the promenade step is seen in sets, the side step and jig step are not. Today, one can find set dancing in almost any part of the country. Certainly, the recent popularity of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have contributed to the popularity of Irish dancing of all kinds.

The Ceili Centenary Weekend held in the Haringey Irish Centre in London, 8-9 November 1997, commemorated the first Irish ceili, which was held in London almost precisely 100 years ago. Like the very first ceili, this one included sets, ceili dances, two hands and waltzes. Appropriately, organisers Marion Cooper and Michael Keane invited Tom Quinn to host the workshops. Tom is expert on all types of Irish dances and he taught several which have probably never been seen in London before. The Mullabaun reel, from a pub high up in the mountains of Antrim (if memory serves correctly), was an intricate ceili dance with figures which were a delight to perform. The Blacktown set and Armagh Quadrilles were equally delightful. Even the simple clapping dance and the Peeler and the Goat were great fun. The three ceilis were notable for the music of the Davey family, the real stars of the weekend, particularly young Nigel on the box. His playing was breathtaking, both figuratively and literally, never flagged or wavered the whole weekend long and brought out the best in everyone's dancing. An added feature of the weekend was an open, informal competition in each of the ceilis, for old-time waltz, Morris Reel and the Sliabh Luachra set. Your correspondent is in proud possession of a medal for dancing in the set which placed second in the Sliabh Luachra competition. Life always feels a lot better after a weekend like this.