Music and dance in Inishowen during the 1900s

House gatherings or ‘Big Nights’ were a popular source of entertainment in Inishowen during the 1900’s. These nights were held to celebrate weddings, christenings, emigration or the return of an emigrant. The music, singing and dancing usually went on until daybreak.

Most of the dances had a particular tune associated with them, such as ‘Maggie Pickens’ and ‘Shoe the Donkey’.

Dances and tunes popular in the area

Among the tunes commonly played throughout Inishowen were those used for dances popular in the area such as the Lancers, Highlands, Four-Hand Reel, Military Two-Step, Barn Dance, Haymakers’ Jig, Lannigan’s Ball, Maggie Pickens, Shoe the Donkey, the Polka Round and the Pin Polka.

Other dances included ‘old-fashioned’ waltzes termed the Versovienna and the Veleta. Solo pieces, songs and recitations would be performed, as well as step dances, generally hornpipes, performed by men.

Another favourite was the Cripple Dance, a dance performed in a squatting position by men in competition with each other. It was danced to the reel ‘The Swallow’s Tail’, known locally as ‘The Bonnie Fair of Carn’. Popular tunes included ‘The Stack of Barley’, ‘Showman’s Fancy’, ‘Maggie Pickens’ and ‘The Garden of Daises’. These were played at most big nights.


Musicians who came to the area also influenced the people and their music, bringing new tunes. The influence of Scottish music was very strong during the early 1900s. This was because of Inishowen’s close proximity to Scotland – Islay and the Paps of Jura can easily be seen on a clear day. Also, as Inishowen borders Derry, many local musicians bought music books and sheets in the city to find out how to read music, to learn tunes or to learn the music popular on radio at that time.

Dance bands emerged playing both traditional and popular music of the day.