Our Feis thanks you, Mr Doherty
Feis Dhoire Cholmcille is as famous an entity in Derry as the Guildhall, the Peace Bridge or the River Foyle itself.
And, arguably, those people who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to keep the Feis going through good and bad times, are as valuable an asset to this city as the annual event.
One of the stalwarts of the Feis has stepped down this year - following 20 years as Committee chairman, a spell as deputy chair, an accompanist, a stage steward, a choir master and as a performer himself in the dim and distant past.
Retired teacher Giles Doherty is a name many of those in Feis circles will be more than familiar with - as will all the pupils he taught in Rosemount Primary School, Carnhill Primary School and Slievemore Primary School.
A modest figure, he has been a part of Derry’s Feis community since his boyhood years when he performed in the Christian Brothers’ School Choir.
“The Christian Brothers took the Feis very seriously - it was like a military operation,” Giles recalled. “At that stage the choir always sang unaccompanied - and the work that went into it was something else, but it was something we very much enjoyed.”
A musician at heart, when Giles went off to study at teacher training college he was able to use a new element to the course - a year training in a practical subject to indulge his passion and take on music as a teaching subject.
He brought this skill to Rosemount Primary School - at the time an all-boys, school where he soon found himself in charge of both a three part choir and a unison choir.
And that was on top of his day to day teaching responsibilities!
“Things were different then. At one stage we had 900 boys enrolled in the school and I remember teaching a class of 66 boys - which in itself required a great deal of planning and the same military precision.”
And on top of that he ran the choir. “In the boys’ school we found we never had a problem getting the boys to sing. They were only too happy to be in the school choir and we loved performing in the choir.
“It was a very serious business - the boys stayed after school to rehearse and then come the week of the Feis, they would come into school at the weekend for extra rehearsals and then we would all troop down together to the Feis to perform.”
While teaching Giles also got roped into acting as stage steward at the Guildhall, and that - along with his time as a choir master - solidified his relationship with the Feis and its organisers.
When he moved to Carnhill PS he stepped aside as choir master, choosing to act as accompanist - but still every Easter was spent in the Guildhall and its environs as he agreed to act as accompanist to other events.
“There was one day I remember, very clearly, that lovely song ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’. I played it 75 times in that one day in St. Columb’s Hall - and by the end I think I was throwing in a few rogue notes here and there.”
Of course, throughout decades in the Feis committee, Giles has heard and seen it all. And while he wouldn’t be drawn on the sometimes thorny issue of the ‘Feis Mammy’ he did said he had a simple way of looking at all the Feis results - no matter whether you agree with them or not.
“What I always says is that results are subjective. You are only seeing one person’s reaction to one performance on one day.
“Someone else, sitting somewhere else in the room will have seen something else in that performance that they would mark differently.
“I always said to the adjudicators that once they say ‘In my opinion’ they are unanswerable.”
So much of Giles’ time over the last few decades has been given to the Feis. The commitment to the massive scale event extends well beyond that one glorious week each Easter when the city comes alive with the sounds of music, the bright colours of the Irish dancers and reams of children practising their best poem recitation.
“The entries are opened at the end of February, but obviously before that the syllabus has to be drawn out and circulated so that people can choose what to compete in.”
The Feis has seen a number of changes over the years - not least the change of venue from the Guildhall to different venues in the city (The Millennium Forum. The Playhouse and St. Columb’s Hall).
But there is now more choice for performers. “A number of competitions will allow the performers to choose their own pieces - which gives them the freedom to use something they already know and encourages more people to take part,” he said.
And keeping the Feis going is a big thing - as numbers have waned in recent years.
“It’s not as big as it used to be - but yes it’s still as relevant. When it started, in 1922, people didn’t have the same opportunities they do now. People didn’t go on Easter holidays - you were lucky if you got a day trip to Buncrana!
“There weren’t the same number of competitions and people were less able to travel to other competitions around the country or further afield.
“But it is still a big deal in this city. I think the people of Derry accept it as something that is good to have.
“If you got everyone together who had a Feis story, or who had some connection with the Feis, you would run into the ten of thousands.
“The Feis has proven to be a brilliant platform for many talented young performers from throughout this city, giving them opportunities to perform and compete at a very high standard.
“There is always a buzz about the city in Feis week. I’ve been told by visiting adjudicators that there is no buzz anywhere else like that felt in Derry. And I believe that to be true.”
Now looking at a well earned retirement - at an undisclosed age - Giles intends to spend his time with his wife Josephine and his family.
But will Easter Week see him taking advantage of his new found freedom and heading off on holiday?
“I’m sure I’ll still call into the Millennium Forum during the week,” he smiled.