Links with Scotland: Donegal
Donegal has a strong and unique link with Scotland, which began with the movement of the Gaelic Scots of Ulster in the 5th and 6th Centuries. This migration gave Scotland her name, her initial experience of Christianity and her ancient tongue, which still survives today, in the North and West of Scotland. The establishment of the estates in Ireland under James VI reversed the migration and Calvinist workers from the lowlands moved with their landlords to their new lands in Ulster. This migration also brought the fundamental Presbyterian beliefs that are still prevalent in the six counties today. The migration reversed again in the latter half of the 18th century with the improvements in Scottish lowland agriculture and the need to feed the growing populations in the expanding industrialised towns. The introduction of cheap crossings between Ulster and Scotland in the 1820's and the attraction of plentiful and comparatively well paid work attracted many workers from the poorer areas of Ulster, and in particular Donegal. The migration was fuelled by the potato famine, the subdivision of family land and the mass evictions during the land wars of the 1880's. Today the Scots still make a significant contribution to the populace and economy of Donegal and the music and dance traditions of the North West have developed with this Scottish influence to produce a tradition that is unique in Ireland.
Dancing was one of the main social outlets for the people of Donegal through the generations and the focal point for the dancing were the houses followed by the schools, barns and crossroads. This was how the dancing remained until the 1930's and the introduction of the Dance Hall Acts which allowed dancing only in Parish Halls. This move was supported by the Roman Catholic Church, which saw dancing as associated with lewd behaviour and drinking. Dancing in the hall was far more controllable. One character Fr. McFadden of Gweedore was well known for breaking up illegal house dances and burning fiddles. Traditional dancing as a major social activity died out in Donegal by the end of the 1960's with the influx of other types of music and activities. The music continued to be played separately from the dancing in pubs and began to change in rhythm and pace as the constraints of dancing were lifted. The music in pub sessions today is often played much faster than it would have been for dancing. The old dances were extremely popular and were danced regularly in cottages, schools barns and crossroads. In Donegal however the dance masters were not as important as in other counties because the fiddle was passed on from father to son and the mother passed on dances to all the children. The transmission of local dances seems to be to the credit of the women of Donegal. Dancing is enjoying a revival in Donegal but there is now an emphasis on learning sets and dances from all over Ireland. There is a real danger of the local and regional flavour of dances being lost but this risk is also encouraging people to research old dances and bring them back to popularity. There are three main dancing types in Donegal:
The Highland, which is unique in its popularity in Donegal, originated from a schottische, which is dance of German origin but was particularly popular in Scotland. This is not surprising considering the links between Scotland and Donegal that are still strong today. The term Highland is used to describe both the dance and the tune that is played to accompany it. This dance in 4/4 time is a couple dance, where the first part of the tune is danced side by side with the emphasis on footwork and the second half face to face. There were two versions, the Highland Beag, which is the normal Highland and the Highland Garbh, which has extra steps for a third dancer. The Barndance is also in 4/4 time and has a similar rhythm to a Highland. In Donegal they were called Germans from the name German Schottische in the dance collections that were popular. The dance involved side by side and face to face and was different to a Highland. The Mazurka, which is of Polish origin, is well regarded as a Donegal form and is celebrated in the number of fiddle tunes that cover this form. It is interesting to note that a group dance called the Mazurka Set is said to be of County Clare origin but has six figures danced to reels. The Clap Dance was as the name suggests involved clapping. Two people would face each other and during accented notes in the second bar of the tune, dancers would clap each others palms in time to the music. In Donegal it was typically danced to the hornpipe The Soldiers Joy. The Kitty O Connor was danced to a marching tune and is particularly known in the north west. During this dance the couple alternate between face to face waltzing and side by side marching. The Corn Rigs was also a dance in its own right as well as being used for dancing a highland. There are three versions known in Donegal.
Group or Set dancing:
Set dancing was common in Donegal, as in other parts of the country, and was usually made up of four couples facing each other forming a square. The sets were often of up to six parts or figures with a variety of tunes depending on the set, but reels were most popular in Donegal. The reel is historically of Scottish origin so it is not surprising that these tunes are popular considering the links Donegal has with Scotland. There were two group dances popular at the time, which were thought to be German in origin, the Allamande and Cotillion. Set dancing today tends to focus on the approved sets and two have connections with Donegal, The Tory Island Set which has five figures (the first is a slide in 12/8 followed by three polkas and finally another slide). This is historically a Donegal set and interestingly uses slides that would normally be associated with the Kerry area of the county. The second set is called the Donegal Set which again has five figures (the first is a jig followed by a polka, another jig, another polka and finishing with a single reel). The tunes that were most likely to be played were the ones known by the musicians playing at the dance at the time.
Solo dances were often done on a door taken off its hinges or on the stone flag floor. In other parts of the county a hollow under a flag was filled with animal skulls to increase the resonance of the feet. A sword dance was danced in Donegal, which was played to a highland. Fire tongs, or a bow crossing a fiddle, were often used instead of swords. Maggie Pickle or Maggie Pickens was also danced as an imitation sword dance. It was so popular that many local variations were danced with some having up to 24 different parts. Solo dancing was rarely a significant part of the house dance and was often used to as a break between sets or couple dances or as a show or spectacle if someone present was known as a good solo dancer.
The old singing tradition in Donegal or Seán Stíl as it is called in the local dialect, reflects the geographical and cultural uniqueness of the county. The songs of Donegal concerned the lives and loves of normal people and were often the only way that news of a particular tragedy or loss would become more widely known. The coastal situation of Donegal meant that many songs concerned mythical stories of the sea or fishing tragedies and the mass emigration of people from the County provided many more examples of sad stories of lost relatives. Love songs and songs of merriment were also common. The movement of Donegal people to The Lagan, Scotland and USA meant that on their return they brought with them many traditional songs in the English language. These became a popular addition to the tradition and were often preferred to the old Irish songs. The Flower of Sweet Strabane, The Banks of The Bann, Lovely Derry on the banks of the Foyle, Lagan Love and The Green Hills of Antrim are all examples of songs that were brought to Donegal by returning emigrants. Macaronic songs combining singing in both Irish and English were also prevalent. The old style of Donegal is less ornamented than that of Connemara and helps in the understanding of the words of the song.