This thesis examines traditional Irish dance as a locus of cultural memory, inscribed on the body. The native people of Ireland experienced invasion and oppression for nearly a millennium, beginning with Viking invasions at the end of the 8th century and ending in the 1940s, when the British finally departed Ireland, now an independent country. During the years of English rule, the British imposed harsh laws and sought to eradicate all vestiges of Irish culture in an attempt to diminish Irish identity. Through the ages, the definition of what it means to be Irish has changed widely, frequently resulting in revolt against invaders and internal armed conflicts. Physical alterations of the Irish body also occurred, though in a more representational context than a literal one. Traditional Irish dance grappled with how to present the Irish body, endeavoring to use it in way that overcame the cultural traumas of invasion and suppression. When Ireland began reclaiming its identity in the twentieth century, it soon became clear that dance had been profoundly affected by the traumatic oppression. Interestingly, the emerging dance form that became codified as distinctively Irish dance both reflects the history of suppression and seems to repeat the oppression, as if the living body were caught up in traumatic repetition. Traumatic experiences have shaped the collective and individual Irish bodies, and dance performance highlights a culture that is continually repeating its oppressive past in an attempt to find a cure from that traumatic heritage. By examining the solo dance tradition, Irish dance becomes a fertile field for studying the qualities of an embodied dance form that, in this case, performs a cultural history marked by oppression and traumatic repetition. As developed under the Gaelic League and the Irish Dancing Commission, traditional Irish dance reflected a rather proscribed art form, meant to specifically embody certain qualities of "Irishness." Looking back to pre-invasion Ireland, they intended to display the distinct, pure Irish identity of the past; instead, they continued the pattern of control and suppression. However, Ireland and Irish dance have grown beyond those early structures of traumatic repetition. In 1994, Riverdance grabbed worldwide attention as it presented Irish dance in a new context, with movements that broke from proscribed forms and expressed a non-traumatic Irish identity. Riverdance and the ensuing global craze for Ireland demonstrate a cultural artifact that has successfully stepped from the past into the dynamic present. While still acknowledging and preserving its original roots, the traumas of the past have been healed through embodied representation.



College and Department

Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature



Date Submitted


Document Type





dance, trauma, Ireland