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  • Writer's pictureWilde Irishe

Sword Dance of the Irish Kern

Updated: May 3, 2020

The kern in Elizabethan Ireland were said to have a sword dance peculiar to them. What can we learn of its nature?

Lord Deputy Mountjoy takes in a postprandial sword dance.
Lord Deputy Mountjoy takes in a postprandial sword dance.

Over the past 600 years, sword dances have been known across Europe, notably within the confines of the old Holy Roman Empire, as well as in northern Spain and England. Developing in the late Middle Ages, they were often associated with guilds. They are found in three varieties: 1. Solo dances over crossed swords, such as the Highland “Ghillie-Callum.” 2. Mock-battle or “pyrrhic” dances, including many forms of stick dance, such as Bouffons or Mattachins, as described by Thoinot Arbeau in 1588. 3. Hilt-and-point or linking sword dances, such as Yorkshire long sword. The last two types may be accompanied by folk-drama elements, the swords often linked ultimately into a “rose” which was sometimes used to “behead” the captain, or raise him as on a platform.

Sword dance to the sound of the bagpipe.  English, 14th century.
Sword dance to the sound of the bagpipe. English, 14th century.

The Irish Sword Dance Described

In his Itinerary (1617), Fynes Moryson recalls his time as Lord Mountjoy’s secretary during Tyrone’s Rebellion. He says the native Irish “daunse a bout a fyer (Comonly in the midst of a roome) holding withes in their hands, and by certayne straynes drawing one another into the fyre and also the Matachine daunse with naked swords which they make to meete in diuers comely postures, and this I haue seen them often daunse before the lord Deputy in the houses of diuers Irish lordes, and it seemed to me a dangerous sport, to see so many naked swordes so neere the Lord Deputy and the cheefe Commanders of the Army in the handes of the Irish kerne, who had either lately beene or were not vnlike to proue Rebells.” (Had Moryson heard of the foiled plot to assassinate King John III of Sweden? In 1573, the performance of a sword dance by Scottish mercenaries before the king in Stolkholm castle was used as part of a plot, since the dancing conspirators could bare their swords in proximity to the king without arousing suspicion.) In his Discourse of the mere Irish of Ireland (1607-08), Palesman Hugh Collier lists “Customes of the Irishry . . . which may prove dangerous in suddaine attemptes.” He says “some are proper to their kierne, as dauncing with naked swordes, some to their Musitianes and mintrelles as their Bagg pipes,” and he would forbid them all as being “plaine inhabillmentes for suddaine assaultes, and surprises, especially those sword daunces . . .”

Sword and gad (?) dancers, bone book cover with Fitzgerald arms, 1621
Sword and withy(?) dancers, on a bone book cover with Fitzgerald arms, 1621

Irish Sources for the Rince an Chlaidhimh

The sword (claíomh) and withy (gad) dances Moryson referred to remained popular in the late 17th century. In a poem titled Caoineadh, Domhnall Garb Ó Súilleabháin describes social customs in an Irish chieftain’s house: Rinnce an ghadairigh ag aicme den chóip sin Rinnce an chlaidhimh do dhlighe gach ordeir, Rinnce treasach le malartaibh ceolta Is rinse fada le racaireacht ógbhan. (The withy dance by some of the company The sword dance with commands order The dance in ranks with changed tempo And the long dance with the sporting of maidens.) Poet Dháibhidh Uí Bhruadair describes the sword and withy dances (rince an chlaidhimh is rince an ghadaraidh) being danced within the town gates when James II succeeded to the throne of England in 1685. These dances had normally been confined to the territory of the “Wilde Irish,” outside the walls.

Dramatic Performances

In the reign of young Edward VI, Royal entertainments at Court included a Masque of Irishmen in 1551, for which three shillings was paid “For the hier of an yrishe bagpipe plaier.” Over Christmas 1553, expenses for the Lord of Misrule festivities included a “garment of russet damask” for the “Lord of Misrule’s minstrel—the Iryishe bagpyper.” This piper may have been part of the intended cast of William Baldwin’s lost Irish Play of the State of Ireland, slated for performance in 1553, but possibly never seen prior to the king’s premature death in July. His bagpipe was not exclusively an Irish instrument, but in the form of the mouth-blown píb mhór it was considered characteristic of Ireland, where it provided the military music of the kern. The play itself does not survive but the properties made for it are listed in the Revels Accounts:

Masquer per above list (a la Inigo Jones)
Masquer per above list (a la Inigo Jones)

The provision of six sets of clothing for “Irish keyrens,” with a wooden sword and dart for each, is suggestive that a sword dance was to have been performed, quite likely to the music of the “Iryishe bagpyper.” In Ben Johnson’s Irish Masque at Court, Christmas 1613, three named Irish footmen precede their Anglo-Irish lords on stage, brabbling in heavy accented English for the King’s attention. With their numbers made up to six men and six boys, they then dance to “bagpipe and other rude music.” This is not a sword dance, but the numbers (six and six) are interesting, as is the accompaniment of a bagpipe. “At my Lord Barries in Ireland,” Christmas 1632, a dramatic sword dance was performed by what were probably five or six servants posing for the masque as Irish kern “Attired in Cassocks, Bases, Helmetts, their swords drawn.” Written by John Clavell, this was in fact a dramatic performace with dialogue still preserved, with a lady dressed as “Peace” rushing on stage pursued by the bloodthirsty kern, who are only stopped by the entry of the god Mars. “Mars leades on the sword dance into which they all ioyn. That finished Mars goes upp to the chief Lady layes his Sourd att her feete and takes her out to dance. The rest follow by his example laying poynt to hilt, hauing danced some few dances they taking vp their sowrds, they dance their warlike mask done with many pretty changes. That done Mars leads them all off.” So, having done a sword dance, they lay the swords down and dance with the ladies (—the audience participation part of a masque, called the ‘revels’), then repeat the sword dance and exit. It is interesting that the swords are laid “poynt to hilt” (in a circle?), since Hilt-and-Point is the general description of the third common type of European sword dance. However, this sword dance is said to be “done with many pretty changes”—like Fynes Moryson’s description above, of swords which “they make to meet in diuers comely postures.” It seems in fact to have been a pyrrhic, or mock-battle dance.

Droghedy’s March: Relic of the Irish Sword Dance?

A lost traditional Irish dance from county Wexford was called Droghedy’s March and is described in 1812 by Patrick Kennedy in The Banks of the Boro. He calls it a “war‑dance” and gives a descriptive account of “the fantastic manner in which it is danced.” “The tune called Droghedy’s March was occasionally danced to among the hornpipes, by a performer furnished with a short cudgel in each hand, which he brandished and clashed in harmony with the tune. But we had the good fortune to see it performed in a complete fashion on the borders of the barony of Bargy, in the old manor-house of Coolcul, whose young men, joined by the stout servants and labourers on the farms, were well able, in country parlance, to clear a fair. Amongst these the present chronicler was initiated into the mysteries of mumming, and was taught to bear his part in that relic of the Pyrrhic or Druidic dance, “Droghedy’s March.” We practiced it in one of the great parlours, and this was the style of its execution: six men or boys stood in line, at reasonable distance apart, and six others stood opposite them, all armed as described. When the music began, feet, and arms, and sticks commenced to keep time. Each dancer, swaying his body to the right and left, described an upright figure of 8 with the fists, both of them following the same direction, the ends of the sticks following the same figure, of course. In these movements no noise was made, but at certain bars the arms moved rapidly up and down, the upper and lower halves of the right-hand stick striking the lower half of the left-hand stick in the descent of the right arm, and the upper half of it in the ascent, and vice versa. At the proper point of the march each man commenced a kind of fencing with his vis-a-vis, and the clangs of the cudgels coincided with the beats of the music and the movements of the feet. Then commenced the involutions, evolutions, interlacings and unwindings, every one striking at the person with whom the movement brought him face to face, and the sounds of the sticks supplying the hoochings in the reels.... The steps, which we have forgotten, could not have been difficult, for we mastered them.....This war-dance is (or was) performed to a martial tune resembling Brian Boru’s march…” Perhaps not surprisingly considering the Wexford locale, this description also calls to mind that type of English Morris dance that still uses short cudgels. It may have been related to the dancing of today’s Wexford Mummers. Though it seems closer in some respects to the broader body of European sword dances.

Arbeau’s Mattachins of 1588

Droghedy’s March also sounds a bit like Moryson’s “Matachine daunse” where opposing swords are made to meet in “comely postures.” Droghedy's was a mock-battle or pyrrhic dance, though the swords had been replaced with sticks, one in each hand. However the movement of the sticks in figure eights up and down is much like the Mattachine sword dance described by Fynes Moryson’s contemporary Arbeau in 1588. Arbeau explains that the Bouffons or Mattachins (mattacini, mattacino), was considered to be a truly antique dance, in which “Roman priests would be dressed in painted robes, richly embroidered with gold and covered with brazen armor with rich baldrics and pointed caps, swords at their sides, little sticks or Javelins in their right hands and bucklers in the left (which was said to have come down from heaven) and danced to the sound of the tibiae and made martial gestures.”

Arbeau describes the main steps of the Mattachine sword dance as: • single left • double left • simple right • double right These steps were accompanied by six sword gestures: 1) Feinte ... dancer jumps on both feet holding his sword without touching anything with it. 2) Estocade ... dancer draws back his sword and thrusts it forward as to strike that of his companion. 3) Taille Haute ... Cutting downwards from Right to Left towards his companion. 4) Revers Haut ... same as above except Left to Right motion. 5) Taille Basse ... same as #3 except upwards. 6) Revers Bas ... same as # 5 except Left to Right.

Arbeau's six sword gestures for Bouffons or Mattichins, 1588
Arbeau's six sword gestures for Bouffons or Mattichins, 1588

Numbers 3 through 6 above are equivalent to cuts number 1, 2, 3 and 4 from the broadsword and saber exercise, and done in succession they describe a continuous figure eight, as referred to in Droghedy’s March. While involving the mock combat of Arbeau’s Mattachins, Droghedy’s March also added “involutions, evolutions, interlacings and unwindings”—movements characteristic of Hilt-and-Point sword dancing. There is just a hint of this Hilt-and-Point in the kern's sword dance at Lord Barrymore’s in 1632, with the dancers “laying poynt to hilt” when setting their swords down. There is a vigorous sword dance that combines these features of mock combat with Hilt-and-Point movements, and it is found on the Croatian island of Korčula. The islanders maintain the dance is 400 years old, and it is performed by intergenerational family groups and taken very seriously. Korčula was part of the Venetian “Oltremarini,” or overseas possessions, and lay on the front line with the Ottoman Turks. The dancers use the schiavona basket hilt sword, with which the Slavonic soldiers of Venice’s Oltremarini were armed, and the dance has a very 17th century air, with the large field drum, large short-staffed banner kept in constant motion by the ensign with one hand, and bagpipe accompaniment.


The sword dance of the Irish kern was a pyrrhic or mock-combat dance. We can say the bagpipe was used, and that the numbers involved ranged from six to twelve. Moryson had no problem equating it to the Matachine dance, which is extraordinarily well documented by the contemporary French author Arbeau. Sword dance types are pan-European, a fact that may argue for great antiquity, though they cannot be traced further back than the late middle ages. The evidence for evolutions and involutions of the Hilt-and-Point type is based on the hint in the 1632 performance at Lord Barrymore’s, and later sword-type dances performed in Ireland.

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May 01, 2020

This is a fantastic article. Having read the account of the Irish sword dancers before, I immediately thought of the Scottish highlanders' swords dance, which was historically a dance exclusively reserved for male performers only. The Russian Slavs also have a type of sword dance where a single dancer holds two long scimitars, and whirs them about in circles and eights with footwork. Glad to see that Ireland's dancing was once more than the straight-backed, armless Riverdancing of modern-day. Also, like many kung fu form and karate katas, is the idea that a pyrrhic dances may have been a vehicle for preserving and practicing martial forms and swordplay; keeping the men sharp for real battles. If this was the…

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