Keeping the Derry Feis alive in City of Culture

Pat and Jean McCafferty make the first presentation of the Niamh McCafferty Cup to Ruth Matthewson, McGinley School of Music, winner of the musical theatre age 12-16 which attracted over 40 entrants. (2803PG52)
Pat and Jean McCafferty make the first presentation of the Niamh McCafferty Cup to Ruth Matthewson, McGinley School of Music, winner of the musical theatre age 12-16 which attracted over 40 entrants. (2803PG52)

As City of Culture 2013 looms, a veteran of one of the city’s longest established cultural events, the Derry Feis, is hoping that the Feis and local performing arts groups are not overlooked in the line-up of events.

Pat McCafferty is no stranger to Derry Feis, having been involved with the event since he was seven. So it’s little wonder he’s keen that it has its place in the big cultural extravaganza of 2013.

Looking back at his early association, the Feis stalwart recalls: “In those days you went in for the Feis because your Da put you in. In our house Easter meant Feis. End of story. There was never any discussion about it.”

But while Pat might have needed a wee push to enter the Feis as a child, as he got a bit older he went on his own accord.

“I didn’t mind it as much then,” laughs Pat. “It was good for chasing girls. I would have known all the singers and dancers at the Feis then. I would have been socialising with them.”

So what does the Feis mean to him? “It’s difficult to put it into words. The Feis started in 1922. My grandmother competed in it. And then in 1923 my grandfather was on the committee. It was part of our life. It had a huge influence on the life of the whole family. Each day and night our house was full of people learning their songs for the Feis.”

And Francis Street was the place to be.

“We were at 25 Francis Street. Mrs Edward O’Doherty lived at number 27 and she founded the Feis along with Father McGettigan.”

1922 was a very volatile time, according to Pat.

“Mrs O’Doherty and Father Mc Gettigan felt that Irish tradition and culture was under threat. That was the idea behind it,” he explains, “to keep Irish dance and music and language alive. That was the whole essence of the Feis being formed.

“As time went on the Irish element, while still important, was not as important as it was at the beginning, when it was felt that the Irish language would vanish.

And there have been other changes.

“We have modernised the Feis. We’ve introduced hip-hop to widen its appeal. Speech and drama has become huge at the Feis, because of all the musical theatre. There are probably more in for speech and drama now than there are for Irish dancing,” he says.

The range of competitors has changed also. Previously a ‘huge’ number of adults competed in the Feis.

“They didn’t retire when they were young. Nowadays as soon as young people go off to university or when they reach 22 years of age, you rarely see them again.

“ They come back to spectate, but not to compete. Now they leave the city. They go off to university or to pursue a singing career or to teach.”

In the past it was very different. “People didn’t go away to university so much. It was a totally different environment then. Though people got married and had children, they still continued to compete at the Feis,” says Pat.

‘Bursting with talent’

Pat thinks that it was better then. “Derry, particularly in the ‘60s, was bursting with musical talent. There were five or six choirs, three or four brass bands, two or three musical societies and several local pantomimes. And everyone was in the pantos. They weren’t a bit like the professional panto operations that we have now.

“The City of Culture is a wonderful opportunity for everybody in the town to contribute to,” says Pat.

“My problem with the City of Culture is that I don’t know if there is anyone involved in it from the performing arts. My worry is that they’ll forget who’s here and that the talent in the town will be overlooked,” he explains.

“Certainly by all means, bring in international talent. Because that’s how we learn, from seeing other people perform at the highest level.

“There are a lot of people from here who have left to pursue performing careers. I’d love to see those people brought back and allowed to perform in the town. I’d hate to think that they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Pat also discusses Impact 92, and the little impact he feels that it actually had on the city. “We don’t want that to happen again, where, in my opinion, local people weren’t really given a platform. Impact 92 didn’t really take off and it certainly didn’t leave a legacy.

“City of Culture is supposed to leave a foundation for people to move on from. It’s up to the city fathers to make it happen. They hold the purse strings.

“I’m holding the torch not just for the Feis, but for anyone involved in the performing arts in the town. They all must have a role to play when the City of Culture caravan moves on.

Carrying on tradition

“The performing groups in the town will still be there and will still be carrying on the tradition they have been doing for many years. People may only be doing it for enjoyment.

“They might not have gone on to follow an international career but it doesn’t make their performing any less important.”