Derry Feis 100 Pat Henderson: ‘Smaller things really are the bigger things when you look back’

Pat Henderson was just four-years-old when she started learning Irish dancing under the tutelage of Nellie Sweeney, the woman who is regarded as the one who truly spearheaded the tradition in a formal way in Derry.

By Eamon Sweeney
Friday, 15th April 2022, 12:19 pm

It was clear from the outset that apart from having a love of music and dancing itself, the young Pat was blessed with great timing.

Pat said: “My uncle Seamus played violin for me from when I was four up until senior level so that’s why my timing was always spot on. He also played for Miss Sweeney’s class too. I suppose he got the odd knock on the knee with me dancing in a small space in the house. I was always making up steps and I suppose that all helped later when I was a teacher, it was just part and parcel of my life.”

So, it was little surprise that within a few short years she was one of the Sweeney school’s most successful dancers. By the time her days as a competitor came to an end, Pat had accumulated championship titles at Feis Doire Colmcille, eight times at Ulster level as well as minor, junior and senior All Ireland crowns. “When Miss Sweeney retired, I danced with Brendan De Glin at his school. I remember the costumes were green with Celtic embroidery with white lace collars and cuffs and a green embroidered cape attached to both shoulders. I was also part of the group called The Little Gaelic Singers who went on several tours of the USA and Canada under the direction of James MacCafferty. We were the first children’s choir, singers and dancers from Ireland to do that and I also sang as a soloist and was a solo dancer too along with Ron Plummer,” said Pat.

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Pat and Ron Plummer pictured performing on the BBC TV show ‘The White Heather Club’ which was hosted by the famed Scots performer Andy Stewart. The show ran on BBC TV between 1958-68.

This wasn’t Pat’s only association with the late Ron Plummer, another legendary figure in the world of Irish dancing. The pair were later teamed together for couples dancing with Pat getting a new costume made by her beloved aunts Sadie and Peggy O’Donnell, to match Ron’s saffron and black attire. The pairing proved successful with Pat and Ron claiming the All Ireland couples competition seven years in succession. But Ulster and All Ireland championships aside, Pat is no doubt that the absolute highlight of the dancing season was Derry Feis.

Pat continued: “Derry Feis meant the world to me. Every year you looked forward to Easter week. You always got something new to wear to the feis and that continued on when I had my two girls Maoliosa and Ciara. It wasn’t so much about you winning actually, it was about coming together like one big family. It was a meeting place as well for different dancing schools. There was a great relationship with people who went to the feis. They were very kind. If you were late coming in someone saved you a seat and that was just lovely.

“When I was a young child going into the feis in the Guildhall, even the staircase was magnificent. When you got to the hall way you had the three big doors. Only competitors were allowed in the top door beside the stage. As a young competitor it was like Hollywood climbing the stairs to the stage. There was a great feeling about it, it felt like home. It was just wonderful to be part of that and to see the same faces each year. I loved that because you attributed the feis to the people that were organising it. They were the ones that were holding the fort all the time. St Columb’s Hall was also used for some of the competitions. It was a beautiful, ornate place and it was a bonus to have another hall for the overflow of competitions. But, I think us as dancers preferred dancing in the Guildhall because St Columb’s Hall stage had a slope on it and we just had to pretend it was okay. You didn’t win every year, but when you did you remembered the great feeling it was when you went up on the stage. I suppose you have to have something in your head before you compete that I am going to do well in this. You have to have a positive attitude. A good dancer should be able to dance to any kind of music. It was the feis that was the big event of the year, not the All Ireland which didn’t have the same feel to it at all. The memories that we have all relate to Derry Feis and I just lived for it. I loved it so much because I sang as well. In 1961, I won the Fr McDaid Cup for singing and the Senior Girls Championship on the same night.

“All I know is that Derry Feis has to continue because it was the only thing we had to look forward to, especially when we had so many upsets with Covid recently that we still have a lot to give to Derry Feis and everyone can do something to encourage it. I have always encouraged dancing and dancers to dance at Derry Feis because there was no place like it. The feeling you got in the hall and the generosity of the audience was always very nice. You remember that. The smaller things are really the bigger things when you look back. When people said to you that you danced well meant a lot. You weren’t brought up to be big headed. My mother had plenty going on, she had to get everybody ready. All but two of the 12 in our family danced. My mother didn’t always get to competitions but one of the times she was at Derry Feis we won the Gates of Derry and she was very pleased as a good few of the grandchildren were in the team.”

Pat won major titles at Feis Doire Colmcille, the Ulster and All Ireland championship levels.

Pat began teaching dancing in 1973, a difficult and often dangerous era. She added: “The Troubles were at their height in the north and the few teachers in the Derry area worked very hard through those difficult times. Travelling was dangerous, but we kept our schools going through dedication and the help of parents. On a few occasions we had to leave competitions due to bomb scares. I remember an Ulster Championship in Dungannon and there was trouble outside. Some of the children never got finishing their championship, but their safety was the only thing that mattered. But looking back over the years and all the difficult times I can say that the children thoroughly enjoyed the dancing classes. It was probably the thing that kept us all sane and I am happy to say that my school did very well. I would have had a packed programme teaching dancing twice a week in Derry and once a week in Limavady. I trained my pupils so that they could also take part in various shows, concerts and charitable events. They even appeared on The Harry Secombe Show. I was involved in Irish dancing for the love of it and taught my dancers that it was about taking part and not all about winning and I think they enjoyed performing without that added pressure.

“I couldn’t have done it without my husband Michael who is a gem and my daughters were a great help too, as was my aunt Peggy who helped me look after the little ones who were in Song Scenes as well as dancing at the feis. She looked after things like making sure their laces were tied so they didn’t fall and typing out songs for them so they all had copies. Without a doubt, Derry’s talent originated from Derry Feis. The generation of children I taught are now adults with their own children who I’ve also taught as they wanted to instil the same, heartfelt enjoyment of dancing that they had. As long as I can hand on the tradition of Irish dancing to others, I’ll be happy.”

Pat pictured with a sample of some her dancing trophies and medals.
Pat pictured with her beloved aunt Peggy O’Donnell.
Pat pictured with her daughters Ciara and Maoliosa and two of her granddaughters Allayna and Kayla.