In modern usage, a céilidh or ceilidh (English pronunciation: /ˈkeɪlɪ/) is a traditional Gaelic social gathering, which usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing. It originated in Ireland, but is now common throughout the Irish and Scottish diasporas. In Scottish Gaelic it is spelled cèilidh (Scottish Gaelic pronunciation: [ˈkʲʰeːli]) and in Irish it is spelled céilí (Irish pronunciation: [ˈceːlʲiː]).



The term is derived from the Old Irish céle (singular) meaning "companion". It later became céilidhe and céilidh. However, in Scottish Gaelic reformed spelling it is now spelled as cèilidh (plural cèilidhean) and in Irish reformed spelling as céilí (plural céilithe).


Originally, a ceilidh was a social gathering of any sort, and did not necessarily involve dancing.

The 'ceilidh' is a literary entertainment where stories and tales, poems and ballads, are rehearsed and recited, and songs are sung, conundrums are put, proverbs are quoted, and many other literary matters are related and discussed
Carmichael, AlexanderCarmina Gadelica, 1900, tome I, p. xxviii.[1].
The ceilidh of the Western Hebrides corresponds to the veillée of Lower Brittany […], and to similar story-telling festivals which formerly flourished among all the Celtic peoples
—Wentz, W. Y. Evans, The Fairy-faith in Celtic countries, Oxford University Press, 1911, p.32.

In more recent decades, the dancing portion of the event has usurped the older meanings of the term, though the tradition of guests performing music, song, story telling and poetry still persists in some areas.

Modern ceilidhs

Céilidhs facilitated courting and prospects of marriage for young people and, although discos and nightclubs have displaced céilidhs to a considerable extent, they are still an important and popular social outlet in rural parts of Ireland and Scotland, especially in the Gaelic-speaking regions. Céilidhs are sometimes held on a smaller scale in private or public houses, for example in remote rural hinterlands and during busy festivals. It is common for some clubs and institutions such as sports clubs, schools and universities and even employers to arrange céilidhs on a regular or at least annual basis. The formality of these can vary. Some mix modern pop music with a Scottish country dancing band and dress codes range from compulsory highland dress to informal. Knowledge and use of the basic dance steps is not always strictly necessary, and dances often alternate with songs, poetry recitals, story telling and other types of "party pieces".

Céilidh music may be provided by an assortment of fiddle, flute, tin whistle, accordion, bodhrán, and in more recent times also drums, guitar and electric bass guitar. The music is cheerful and lively, and the basic steps can be learned easily; a short instructional session is often provided for new dancers before the start of the dance itself. In Ireland the first céilidh band was put together in 1926 by Séamus Clandillon, Radio Éireann's director of Music, in order to have dance music for his studio-based programmes.[1]

Dancing at céilidhs is usually in the form of céilidh dances, set dances or couple dances. A "Set" consists of four couples, with each pair of couples facing another in a square or rectangular formation. Each couple exchanges position with the facing couple, and also facing couples exchange partners, while all the time keeping in step with the beat of the music.

However, about half of the dances in the modern Scots céilidh are couple dances performed in a ring. These can be performed by fixed couples or in the more sociable "progressive" manner, with the lady moving to the next gentleman in the ring at or near the end of each repetition of the steps. In Ireland, the similar style of dance is called céili dance or fíor (true) céili dance. Some of the dances are named after famous regiments, historical battles and events, others after items of daily rural life. The "Gay Gordons", "Siege of Ennis", "The Walls of Limerick" and "The Stack of Barley" are popular dances in this genre.

Step dancing is another form of dancing often performed at céilidhs, the form that was popularised in the 1990s by the world-famous Riverdance ensemble. Whereas Set dancing involves all present, whatever their skill, Step dancing is usually reserved for show, being performed only by the most talented of dancers.

The céilidh has been internationalised by the Scottish and Irish diasporas in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, where local céilidhs and traditional music competitions are held. In recent years, céilidh and traditional music competitions have been frequently won by descendants of emigrants.

Modern Scottish cèilidh

Privately organised cèilidhs are now extremely common in Scotland, where bands are hired, usually for evening entertainment for a wedding, birthday party or other celebratory event. These bands vary in size, although are commonly made up of between 2 and 6 players. The appeal of the Scottish cèilidh is by no means limited to the younger generation, and dances vary in speed and complexity in order to accommodate most age groups and levels of ability. Most Private Schools in Scotland will also hold ceilidhs on a fairly regular basis.

Public céilidhs are also held. Universities in Scotland hold regular cèilidhs, with the University of Edinburgh providing a number of ones for students throughout each term, especially the long-running Highland Annual, the oldest cèilidh in Edinburgh, organized by the Highland Society.

Some cèilidh bands intersperse cèilidh dancing with a DJ playing disco music in order to broaden the appeal of the evening's entertainment.

English ceilidh

What is now called English ceilidh (sometimes abbreviated to eCeilidh) has many things in common with the Scottish/Irish social dance traditions and can be considered part of English Country Dance and thus related to Contra, which often has a similar high-energy feel. The dance figures are similar but tunes used tend to be slower and accentuate the beat, so dancers will often use a skip, step hop or rant step (hop on left twice, step on right, hop on right twice, step on left) rather than the smoother motion seen in Ireland and Scotland, or the walking in Contra. There is often a 'spot' halfway through the evening to give the band a rest, often involving the local Morris side. Like barn dances, English ceilidhs always use a caller who calls the dance figures the dancers need to make. Callers and Bands are often booked independently of each other, usually the caller choosing which dances fit best with the band's repertoire of music and in consideration of the occasion and experience level of the dancers. Most of the dances involve couples staying together for the whole dance, though people often change partners after every one or two dances.

At English ceilidh events, it is not uncommon to find bands making the most of the English tradition (Old Swan Band for example) or to find many bands picking up strong influences from other forms of music, for example ska for Whapweasel, French traditional for Token Women, Welsh traditional for Twm Twp, Jazz for Chalktown or Florida, Funk Fusion for Ceilidhography, Rock for Peeping Tom, Aardvark Ceilidh Band, Touchstone and Tickled Pink, West African and Indian for Boka Halat and self-penned material for Climax Ceilidh Band.

Cultural references

  • In the 1945 film I Know Where I'm Going! the characters attend a céilidh.
  • In the 1983 film Local Hero the characters are shown at a céilidh.
  • The 1987 song When New York Was Irish by Terence Winch mentions céilidhs.[2]
  • The 1990 film The Field features a céilidh.
  • A 1992 song by the group Black 47 is titled "Funky Céilí". In concert, popular Irish dancer Michelle Sheets dances live to the song during local shows in the New York City area.
  • Danny Boyle's 1994 film Shallow Grave features Ewan McGregor and Kerry Fox at a céilidh.
  • In the 1997 film Titanic the third class passengers hold a céilidh which Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's characters attend.
  • In the 2000 - 2005 BBC TV series Monarch of the Glen the characters are shown at a céilidh
  • In 2002's The Magdalene Sisters a céilidh is portrayed.
  • The characters in the 2003 film The Boys from County Clare participate in a céilidh band competition.
  • In the 2006 film The Wind That Shakes The Barley, the characters are shown at a céilidh.
  • The popular Celtic musical team Celtic Woman describes a céilidh in their popular tour song "At The Céilí," a live recording of which appears on their 2007 album Celtic Woman: A New Journey.
  • Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan features the song "Céilidh Cowboy" on his The Crock Of Gold album.
  • The Richard Thompson song "Johnny's Far Away" describes a couple who are unfaithful while the husband travels with a céilidh band.
  • The band Real McKenzies song "Céilidh" describes the practice.
  • The word "Ceili" in the name of the band Ceili Rain is explicitly meant to invoke the céilidh spirit.
  • The Philadelphia Céilí Group is a music organization known for its traditional Irish music and dance festivals.
  • The 2011 movie The Guard, the main character takes his dying mother to see a a ceilidh band.

See also


  1. ^ de Buitléar, Éamon (2004). A Life in the Wild. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan. pp. 83. 
  2. ^ http://www.irishsongs.com/lyrics.php?Action=view&Song_id=374


  • John Cullinane: Aspects of the History of Irish Céilí Dancing, The Central Remedial Clinic, Clontarf, Dublin 3,(1998), ISBN 0-952-79522-1
  • An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha: Ár Rincí Fóirne-Thirty Popular Céilí Dances, Westside Press (2003)
  • J. G. O' Keeffe, Art O' Brien: A Handbook of Irish Dances, 1. Edition, Gill & Son Ltd., (1902)[2]
  • Helen Brennan: The Story of Irish Dance, Mount Eagle Publications Ltd., 1999 ISBN 0-86322-244-7

External links

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