Glenn Simpson: From St Columb’s Hall to Canada the love of Derry Feis goes on

Glenn Simpson was seven-years-old when he first entered a basement room in Derry’s St Columb’s Hall.

By Eamon Sweeney
Friday, 15th April 2022, 12:46 pm

With his small hand clasped in his mother’s, they both descended the steep set of stone steps on Orchard Street that led to a dank and dimly lit, tunnel-like corridor. From behind the dark blue, roughly fashioned wooden door to that room, drifted the strains of Irish music matched by the thunderous sound of dozens of tap-shoed little feet all beating in perfectly regimented time.

It was a daunting but still a strangely exhilarating prospect at first for a young boy about to begin a career in Irish dancing.

“I’ll never forget the first day I went down there was a sunny day. It must have been around September. I walked into that room and there was a shining light. At the back there was a window and a door which was down by the Orchard Gallery. It was the first time I laid eyes on my teacher Mary McLaughlin. She saw me, walked straight down the hall and took my hand from my mother and that was literally it. It was ‘see you Mrs Simpson’. To me, it immediately became my happy place,” Glenn said.

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Left: Glenn pictured with some of his pupils from his school of dancing, Druid Academy. Right: Glenn and his husband Alex.

As the years passed Glenn’s dancing career became a benchmark of success. Multiple Derry, Ulster and All Ireland titles were clocked up at a prolific pace. Then with his competitive days at an end, there followed teaching and adjudicating exams as well as a tour of the globe as part of the troupe as well as lead roles in massively successful stage shows such as Riverdance, Gaelforce and Dancing on Dangerous Ground. He also took part in Jean Butler’s masterclass instructional DVD and participated in the RTE show Celebrity Jigs and Reels in 2007.

In 2004 Glenn emigrated to Canada and now lives in Toronto with husband Alex and operates his company Druid Celtic Design, and recently became a licenced financial services broker. The initial desire to become a dancer was inspired by a cousin of Glenn’s who had already become a pupil of another school. He said: “Kelly Ward and I were joined at the hip and whatever she did, I wanted to do. She danced for Pat Henderson but I went to Mary McLaughlin because her classes were closer to our house and because she was also highly respected. I was immediately made to feel welcome in the class which was a large one then. There might have been 30 or 40 in that beginners section. I was instantly placed in a line with other kids, holding hands, listening to music and being taught movement and how to understand it. I took to it like a duck to water. I thrived off the music and the tempo and the fact that we were all doing it together. There was a sense of community and brotherhood and sisterhood. I have very fond memories of the beginning and without my parents I would literally not have become the success that I am. My father drove me the length and breadth of Ireland not just for feises but for auditions and castings, jobs and other performances.”

Glenn is no doubt that all of these positive aspects of the learning process were created by Mary McLaughlin. “I only knew one granny when I was growing up and granny Phyllis passed away when I was 12. So Mary was that figure for me for a long time – right up until I was 17 or 18. She was always there as a steady person in my life. The level of discipline that she instilled in me when it came to practising and trying to get the best out of myself came from her. I’ll never forget the first time I came off stage at a small feis somewhere, and I felt myself that I had done the best I’d ever done on stage. I was only about nine. She said, ‘what you just did, you have to do that every time, and that’s what I knew you were capable of.’

“It’s that small thing that I still use with children and I have been teaching now for about 20 years. I think about her all the time. There’s sometimes when I have a hard day in class and challenged not just by kids, but maybe my energy has been off and I often think how Mary would have dealt with it. She wasn’t just only important in my life as a teenager and a young man, she still is. Derry Feis was obviously a highlight of the year. Easter week has always been a special time in my family. For my parents it was a time for a big celebration similar to Christmas. Family dinner on Easter Sunday was always important. So the feis came around at a time of celebration. The All Ireland Championships were around the same time and in our house that was big deal too because I was preparing intensely to defend a title usually.

Glenn Simpson pictured centre, with his McLaughlin School of dancing contemporaries Jennifer Curran on the far left and Claire McCallion far right.

“So, Feis Doire Colmcille in all its glory for me was learning to dance in the depths of St Columb’s Hall then going upstairs and up those steps to that big stage and walking onto it for the first time and seeing the chandeliers and the balcony at the back. St Columb’s Hall is a stunning place. As part of the Derry Feis culture, not just the Guildhall and the Rialto which I also loved dancing in, St Columb’s Hall for me is like a spiritual home when it comes to theatres. I’ve done a few recordings in there and dancing on that stage myself recently. All that was part and parcel of Derry Feis. My friends and family being involved in verse speaking and drama and singing of course. I went to the MacCafferty School of Singing from the ages of 13 to 17 and competed as a singer too. The Derry Feis represented me not being an alien in a town where I wasn’t the only one up on stage. There were other people doing other things on stage.

“The Friday nights and the night time sessions at Derry Feis were brilliant. You left after your dancing was done but you were back for 6 o’clock to make sure you got a good seat. You were there to watch whatever was going on – the singing, the verse speaking, whatever was happening on that stage you were there to watch it. The craic outside in the corridor was absolutely brilliant. You’d be out there running with your friends from the school of dancing.

“The competition in dancing at Derry Feis was always about ‘the two sides’. I never understood that. To me it was case of why can’t we all do the same thing together? So this was an opportunity to sit beside, talk to and watch our competition. The Derry Feis was an anchor for that, allowing us to increase the size of our community through the love of and joy for dancing and music and singing.”

Another facet of Irish dancing that was particularly concentrated on for Derry Feis and even more particularly within Glenn’s dancing school in his competitive years was team dancing.

Glenn Simpson and Elaine Creagh, winners of the couples competition at Feis Doire Colmcille.

“Above and beyond striving for technical excellence, team practice sessions and ultimately feis team performances taught lessons that went beyond Irish dancing and still remain with him. Glenn said: “First of all it was the lesson of having manners when working with other people. The professionalism that’s expected of you when working with other people. It’s about keeping quiet and listening and realising that if you mess up you are affecting everyone else. I learned that quickly. When I was solo dancing I could fly about the place but if I screwed up in a team I knew I was in trouble. When I was placed in a team with older dancers when I was a kid that was so stressful for me. But all that was character building to be honest. Listen, I absolutely loved teams and I love teaching teams because of the lessons I learned in St Columb’s Hall basement. There were teams with 16 people in them. Think of talent Mary McLaughlin had even to put that together, it was incredible as was her love for teams and the lines involved, the dimensions and the movement – all of that structure was so important to me and I learned so much from it. The team spirit in the McLaughlin School was something else. It was a time and a place that remains so strong for me.

“Whatever happened in the solo competitions was one thing, but the main thing was that you were there for your team. Not everyone can be a champion so it’s about giving everyone a sense of accomplishment.”

Glenn toured with many of the hit Irish dancing stage shows. Here he is pictured at London’s Hammersmith Apollo as lead dancer in Riverdance.