The gramophone record has played a significant part in the development of Irish dance music since the very beginnings of sound recording.
In the early years, from the late 1890s until the early 1920s, national stereotyping weighed heavily on the policies of the established record companies. Within the world of show business, there was a pervasive mythology about the ethnicity of the jig being Irish, the reel being Scottish and the hornpipe being English. These national stereotypes were the invention the theatre for the upper-class during the eighteenth century, and they were compounded in the popular music halls and variety theatres of the nineteenth century. "Did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman?'. The early record industry on both sides of the Atlantic was tied to the values of show business, and quite naturally it perpetuated these ideas in its catalogues. Thus companies issued 'Irish' records directed at a general, rather than a specifically Irish, buying public performed by established and well-tried stage and studio artists. The repertory consisted of comic songs, sketches, sentimental and patriotic parlour ballads and Tin Pan Alley material with such bizarre titles as When the Yiddisher Band Played an Irish Tune and Play Something Irish in Ragtime. Nondescript instrumental medleys were usually labelled as Jigs & Reels, and the coupling of The Irish Washerwoman and Miss McLeod's Reel on opposite sides of one record became a cliché within the business. Needless to say, the studio musicians had no concept of Irish traditional dance music beyond their ability to play whatever sheet music was put up before them. Apart from some obscure early examples by Thomas Garaghan, Patsy Touhey and James C. McAuliffe, the first two at least being professional union pipers in the theatre, the nearest any records came to Irish traditional music before the Great War were made by non-Irish musicians, namely, John Kimmel, a German-American accordeon player from Brooklyn, and a number of Scottish accordeon players, Peter and Dan Wyper, Pamby Dick, A. J. Scott and James Brown among them, who included Irish material in their recorded repertoires. The main body of genuine Irish dance-music recording was begun in 1916, when a New York music seller and travel agent, Ellen O'Byrne de Witt, contracted Columbia Records to produce a record of accordeon and banjo duets by Eddie Herborn and James Wheeler, thereby alerting the record industry to the needs of the Irish immigrant population in America. The timing was scarcely accidental, at a time of rising national consciousness in the wake of the Easter Rising. Nationalist anticipation of independence, expressed significantly as far as Irish music was concerned in the formation of the M. & C. New Republic Irish Record Company in New York in 1921, was thwarted by the unexpected outbreak of civil war in Ireland. By 1922, however, the major American record companies were pursuing an Irish immigrant market, and shortly after that date Columbia and Victor each launched an extensive Irish series. At home in Ireland, even after the establishment of the Free State, there was no independent Irish record industry. Irish records were, in fact, issued by British companies, initially in their domestic lists and later in catalogue supplements aimed at the Irish trade. These labels called largely upon American source material, which included many recordings by immigrants recently over from rural Ireland, who were finding new semi-professional outlets for their music-making in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. The earliest home-produced recordings, made in London in the 1920s, were of a different nature, being of musicians closely associated with the Gaelic League, such as Billy Andrews, Liam Walsh, Seamus O'Mahoney and Leo Rowsome, and were aimed at the Gaelic revivalist minority of the Irish public. While some provincial and rural musicians were recorded in Dublin in 1929, 1930 and 1931, recordings from America, especially those of Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and Hugh Gillespie on Decca, continued to dominate the catalogues and popular taste into the late 1930s. However, as a consequence of the economic war with Britain and the national policy of promoting Irish manufacture, EMI (Ireland) Ltd. was formed as a breakaway from its British parent company in 1936, and, in its initial burst of cultural independence, explored native talent, calling on east coast and Midlands musicians within easy reach of studios in Dublin, who had previously proved themselves on 2RN national radio. The source of early twentieth-century Irish instrumental music and dance was in the house-dancing tradition of rural Ireland that had taken shape in the 1870s and 1880s. Many of those who recorded in America, and later in Ireland, came from that background, and they had played for the sets, couple dances and solo stepdances that comprised the bulk of the rural dance repertory. To some extent this dance repertory was transported by emigrants to America, and immediately after the Great War was promoted alongside American dancing in the new Irish-American dance halls and by the County Associations in the northern cities. On this side of the Atlantic the situation was different. Domestic music-making and dancing flourished in rural Ireland into the 1940s, but, in the towns and cities, in the media and in public life, Irish dancing was the province of the Gaelic League. Irish figure dancing, having been invented within the Gaelic League in London in 1898, was promoted initially as dancing for competition and as the social dance for the League's limited membership. In the 1920s, however, in the face of the world-wide phenomenon of commercial dance halls, ceilidh or Irish dancing, as figure dancing was then more commonly called, was presented by the League to a wider Irish dancing public in Ireland as an alternative to the intrusion of what they called 'jazz'. In America, the Irish nationalist movement accepted mainstream American dancing at its social events, and there was no ideological embargo on native Irish musicians playing waltzes, one-steps and foxtrots and adopting American instruments and band formations. In London, however, Irish nationalists felt quite differently about the culture of the host nation, and the party line disapproved of the rural dance repertory from back home, because it was believed to have been of British origin, and thus the Gaelic League repertory prevailed among the London-Irish and the Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester-Irish. While a majority of records in the Irish lists were of dance tunes, the record companies did not generally tailor their issues for an Irish dancing public, and the industry appears to have had little knowledge of the dancing habits of its Irish customers. Once it was realised that there was a pool of talent available and that some musicians had exposure and reputations within their own community, they were engaged to do their stuff, whatever it might be. The standard format was selections of jigs, reels and hornpipes played in the style, rhythm and tempo and with any idiosyncrasies favoured by the performer. In America, some couple dances, most notably the Varsouviana, the Stack of Barley, the barndance and the Highland Schottische, which had made a successful journey from the Irish rural kitchen to the American urban dance hall, were represented on record, and Patrick McNamara, Joseph O'Leary and Dan Sullivan recorded selections for the Cashel Set and the Irish Dance Set. However, there was a remarkable absence of ceilidh dance titles in the record lists on both sides of the Atlantic, with an odd exception or two, until Liam Walsh recorded The Walls of Limerick, The Haymakers' Jig, The Fairy Reel and Roghe an Fhile and Frank Lee recorded The Siege of Ennis, The Walls of Limerick, The Waves of Tory and The Bridge of Athlone in London in 1933 and 1935 respectively. Similarly, the stepdance repertory of the Gaelic League was unrepresented until the Comerford Trio from Dublin recorded for British Decca in 1932, earlier recordings of the The Blackbird, St. Patrick's Day and Jockey to the Fair, for example, having been unsuitable in terms of tempo and the number of bars required for stepdancers of the Gaelic revival. In the absence of a retrospective survey of how record buyers used the records they bought, the circumstantial evidence points to records having been produced and used largely for listening to or for other domestic recreation. Records in strict dance tempo, notably by Fred Hanna's Band and the Gallowglass Ceili Band, appeared only at the end of the 78 rpm era. There is a persistent misconception that Irish dance music, as we know it today, is archaic, but the present forms most probably date only from as late as the eighteenth century. The flowering, however - the great surge of creative energy that accompanied the improved economic and social conditions in rural Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century - is comparatively recent.