Insular Dance - the Dance
of the Fer Cengail?"
and illustrations reproduced from the Summer 2005 issue of Archaeology Ireland
NB When I use the term "figure" I am referring to a dance figure; that
is, a discrete section within a dance, as opposed to an "illustration"
within this article or an artist’s "pattern" that I am interpreting.
It may be tempting to dismiss this article as nonsensical wishful
thinking so I have to grab your attention quickly. Consider
Illustrations 1 and 2. The dance and the roundel both feature three
persons with their legs over their arms. A strange dance, a strange
pattern, both have good pedigrees and provenance. Are they related
somehow? I am convinced that there is a connection and over the past
twelve years I have compiled some intriguing evidence to support this
The hopping part of the Wyresdale Greensleeves Dance
Professor F.Henry's drawing of a
roundel in the Book of Kells
The interpretation of Insular Art may only be possible if the
researcher has particular specialist background knowledge. This article
came about because I had specialist knowledge about traditional dance
in general and one dance in particular – the Wyresdale Greensleeves
Dance. Wyresdale is an area in North Lancashire and this reputedly
ancient men's dance was observed and noted down there by Cecil Sharp
, the father of folk song and dance collecting, in 1910. It can be
shown that the dance was present in the area in 1789, thanks to a note
in a fiddler's tune book. Nothing else is known of its history locally,
other than that it was handed down from father to son amongst the
upland shepherds of the Forest of Bowland, which surrounds Upper
dance is done by three or four men and the part that I will be
discussing here is shown in Illustration1. When the dancers are
joined in this leg-over-arm pose they hop round in a circle, in time
with the tune Greensleeves played as a jig in 6/8 time.
in the 1970s when I first learned this dance I happened to come across
George Bain's version  of the three-man roundel (one of six) from
the first page of St. Mark in the Book of Kells. Bain's version is in
fact incorrect so Illustration2 is Françoise Henry's
correct, although simplified, line drawing . I was immediately
struck by the similarities between the roundel and the dance. The
roundel shows three men with their legs over their arms in a country
dancing star formation rather than the circle formation of the
Wyresdale Dance. The roundel could be interpreted as a plan view of a
dance figure but with the men's bodies flattened onto the page in a
developed convention. Can this figure be danced?
Yes it can, except that the men in the roundel have their left legs
over their right arms, which is physically impossible whilst standing
in star formation. Right leg over right arm is possible. We would have
to accept this as an artist’s mistake or joke. Illustration 3
dancers in the formation described. The only alternative to a dance
interpretation of the roundel is that it is a decorative pattern with
no significance. However, there is further compelling evidence to
suggest that this is not the case. In this article I can only deal with
the essence of my theory.
dance interpretation of the Book of Kells Roundel
If Françoise Henry had
known about the Wyresdale Dance she may have followed this line of
reasoning before I did. In her book, ‘Celtic Art During the Viking
Invasions’, she includes an illustration of Insular patterns related to
Two of her examples are shown in Illustration 4.
Françoise Henry's line drawings
of the Togherstown Bronze Mount and a pattern on the Kells Market Cross
on my theory and dance interpretation, the Togherstown Bronze and the
Kells Market Cross patterns suggest another 3- or 4- man dance figure.
The wrist-hold shown in the Book of Kells roundel has to be adopted to
stabilise the hop-round – see Illustration 5.
When danced in public this
is a very spectacular figure.
dance interpretation of the Togherstown Bronze
their book, ‘The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland’, J. Romily
Allen and Joseph Anderson  provided another pattern for
interpretation. Illustration 6 is the swastika pattern from a grave
slab at Meigle in Perthshire. Clearly it is closely related to the
Kells Market Cross pattern and also to the Togherstown bronze. This
pattern can also be interpreted as a dance figure by applying the same
rules as mentioned above. The result is shown in Illustration 7.
evening at a dance practice I tried an experiment with an interlocking
ankle hold. It worked well with three men but not quite so well with
four. We held hands in a circle, made a lock with our right ankles and
feet, then hopped round. We found that we could let go with our hands
and rely on the ankle lock to keep us together. It was a few months
before I realised that the four-man square on a cross-shaft from
Banagher, now in the National Museum in Dublin, could be a
representation of this figure that I thought I had invented – see Illustrations 8 and 9.
A swastika pattern on a grave slab at Meigle in Perthshire
A dance interpretation of the Meigle Swastika pattern
A pattern on the Banagher Cross Shaft
A dance interpretation of the Banagher Pattern
As a result of the interpretations, we now have
the Wyresdale dance figure, the Book of Kells dance figure, the
Togherstown/Kells Market Cross dance figure, the Meigle dance figure
and the Banagher dance figure. Are these interpretations valid? To find
one potential dance interpretation is curious. To find two is
surprising. To find three and perhaps four is, I think, beyond
One of my main terpsichorean interests is
Hilt-and-Point Sword Dance. This dance style is pan-European. It is
characterised by each of the dancers holding the hilt of their own
sword (often a metal or wooden substitute) and the point of their
neighbour’s sword, thus forming a circle. Sometimes the "swords" are
interwoven in a self supporting five, six or seven-sword star or lock
and held aloft. Traditions are known from Papa Stour in the Shetlands,
to Seville in Spain, to Salzburg in Austria. There is also a record of
it being danced by Irish kerns around 1600. In England it was very
common in Yorkshire and a little further north on Tyneside a variant
called Rapper Dancing evolved among the coal miners.
For six years I was a member of a Rapper team and
observed and took part in the process of dance design and showmanship.
The main purpose of a sword dance is to entertain an audience (within
certain rules imposed by the tradition). The dance is a series of
clever, surprising figures performed with speed, agility, rhythm and
panache. A good Rapper Sword performance should have the audience
throwing money at the end. By contrast the Wyresdale Dance, as recorded
by Cecil Sharp, required a set sequence to be repeated six times. A
casual street audience would probably lose interest and drift away if
all the repeats were performed. However if the repeats of the Wyresdale
Dance are substituted with my Insular Art interpretations the result is
an entertaining performance, which provokes a similarly enthusiastic
audience reaction. I can vouch for this from personal experience.
The time gap between the Insular Artwork and the
first clue to the existence of the Wyresdale Dance is about 1000 years.
As far as the Insular Art interpretation is concerned, it is perhaps
enough to know that a dance like the Wyresdale one can exist. The
Wyresdale Dance does not have to be a long term survival although I am
inclined to think that it is. It is a very peculiar dance that is
easily remembered and Upper Wyresdale is an ideal place to preserve a
tradition. The Insular Artwork has obvious monastic connections and the
Wyresdale Dance actually came from the village of Abbeystead, which has
12th century monastic origins.
The evidence that finally convinced me that the dance interpretation is
correct is a bit tortuous but quite logical. As I scrutinised book
after book on Insular Art, looking for more clues, a very curious
pattern on St. Muirdach's Cross caught my eye – see Illustration
10. The pattern seems too contrived to be dismissed as
merely decoration. I was at this point already familiar with plan views
of my dance interpretations and I noticed that this pattern had a lot
in common with the Meigle dance figure viewed from above, see Illustration
are some strange, eroded, animal head-like features that I can not
explain but the overall geometry of the pattern seems too similar to
the dance for it to be a coincidence. So to recap; the Wyresdale Dance
suggests that the Book of Kells roundel is a dance figure which
involves a wrist lock; using the wrist lock, the Kells Market Cross and
the Meigle Grave Slab patterns can be interpreted as dance figures; and
a plan of the Meigle dance figure is carved on St. Muirdach's Cross.
Geographically this ties together Saint Columba's monastery on Iona,
where the making of the Book of Kells may have been started; Kells
monastery, where the Book was probably finished, and Meigle, a possible
Columban monastic foundation in Southern Pictland.
Carved pattern on St. Muirdach's Cross, Monasterboice.
The Meigle Dance Interpretation compared with the Monasterboice Cross.
hypothetical dance could clearly be described as a hopping dance. An
internet search for "Hopping Dance" will easily find the Ecternach
Hopping Dance or The Dance of the Hopping Saints. Ecternach Abbey in
Luxembourg was founded by Saint Willibrord in 698. He was a
Yorkshireman who had been educated in Ireland for twelve years. The
Abbey had a scriptorium, which produced Insular Gospels. This
processional dance puts hopping into a sacred Insular context but
otherwise seems unrelated to the interpretations discussed here.
Another continental connection came about once more with the help of
Françoise Henry. In one of her books about the Book of Kells she
featured a plate of a carpet page (MS O.IV.20) from the Bobbio
Gospels, which is in the library of the University of Turin .
Despite fire damage and with the help of a colour slide from the
library, the details in the top left and bottom right panels can be
discerned – see
The leg over arm pose is clear and two of the figures seem to be linked
as in the Wyresdale Dance figure. The monastery of Bobbio in Northern
Italy was founded c613 by the Irishman, Saint Columbanus, and was
another centre for Insular Gospel production.
detail from the carpet page in the Bobbio Gospels
If this hypothetical dance existed, it must surely have had a sacred
context and it must have been revered in some way, so we might expect
it to have literary references. There are two poems that contain
possibilities. "Altus Prosator" a poem by Saint Columba, or a close
associate, mentions angels doing sacred dances. This does no more than
establish the possibility of sacred dancing. No detail is given but the
Latin word translated as sacred dance is Tripudium. The word was used
by Livy 600 years before and it is generally interpreted as a "three
In the place-lore poem, "The Fair at Loc Carmun", a group of
entertainers called the Fer Cengail are mentioned. This could be
translated as men bonded or intertwined. Was this perhaps their dance?
Christianity is not normally associated with sacred dancing but this
was not always the case. The apocryphal gospel, "The Acts of John",
describes Jesus dancing with the disciples after the Last Supper. Dance
would have had a different role in Christianity if this book had been
included in the Bible.
I am a cautious sceptic by nature but after twelve years of research I
am convinced that this dance did exist. This article will introduce my
hypothesis to a wider critical domain and I must leave readers to make
up their own minds.
 Cecil Sharp, The Wyresdale Greensleeves Dance, Sharp ms. Folk Dance
Note, Vol.2, English Folk Dance and Song Society, Cecil Sharp House,
Regent’s Park Road, London
 George Bain, Celtic Art, The methods of
Construction, Constable, London 1951, page 115.
 Francoise Henry, Irish Art: During the Viking
Invasions, (London: Methuen 1967), p90
 J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The
Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903), (Edinburgh: The Society
of Antiquaries, 1903 reprinted: Balgavies, Angus: The Pinkfoot Press, 2
 F. Henry, The Book of Kells, Thames Hudson,
London, 1974, page181