The precious matchbox memories that help Roma Downey recall mum and feis with great fondness
When the Zoom call interview with Roma Downey began from her home in Los Angeles, the immediate image that appeared on screen was of her holding a BoPeep matchbox aloft in her left hand.
“I have had this matchbox for 50 years and inside my matchbox are my feis medals. There were two feiseanna of course, we had the Londonderry Feis and then we had Derry Feis. They are lovely medals too,” she said.
The acting and production achievements of the Derry born actor are of course well known and highly respected across the arts world. Amongst many successful film and television appearances she is perhaps best known for portraying Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the character of Monica in the hugely popular TV series Touched by An Angel.
Added to her screen credits and plaudits, she has also fulfilled a long held ambition to appear on Broadway. Roma is now President of Lightworkers Media, the family and faith division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and produced with her husband the Emmy nominated series The Bible for the History Channel that has been viewed by over 100 million people in the United States.
In 2016 Roma was honoured for her acting and production work when she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In her acceptance speech she dedicated the accolade to the people of her native city.
She said: “I do think of getting my star on Hollywood Boulevard and the various awards I’ve won over the years, but still I’ve kept here, close to my heart, my Derry Feis medals. I guess it shows in some ways the fondness for and the fondness of the memories of participating in the feis. There was great excitement each year when we would prepare in music class with James MacCafferty.
“I didn’t really do much Irish dancing because my mother had enrolled me with Miss Watson to do ballet and that would have been for Londonderry Feis. Memory has done what it does and the two feiseanna have merged into remembering such a good time, particularly for students like myself who were interested in the performing arts. The feis always gave something very positive to work towards. I’ve always been very goal oriented – it gave you a purpose to practise and to prepare. There was great camaraderie and good, healthy competition with your peer group to see who could deliver on the day. It taught discipline and to learn how to calm your nerves.
“Shakespeare said ‘the readiness is all’ and so I remember sitting in St Columb’s Hall and you had your entry ticket and as they were approaching your number your wee palms started to sweat and your heartbeat would increase slightly, your feet started to shuffle and your mouth got dry. You were certain you couldn’t remember your material whether you were singing or playing the piano, particularly if you were singing in Irish. These are all of the things that still haunt me to this day as a performer. It’s still a case of thinking ‘am I going to get through it or is anyone going to like me?’ And then on the few occasions that I came home with a little medal in a box just feeling so chuffed and so pleased with myself and having your mammy say things like ‘hard work pays off’ or ‘better luck next year,’ depending on how the wind blew.”
Roma’s mother died suddenly when she was just ten-years-old. As a consequence she says that when thinking back to the past the feis has created a distinct but positive dividing line in her childhood.
“Certainly, my mum is very much front and centre in all those memories. So, I could have been as young as seven when I started at the feis. But, the years between seven and ten are big years for me in my memory. My mum loved the feis and when I think back, I wasn’t ever much of a singer but I was in the MacCafferty choir and I was doing solos, but I really couldn’t sing very well at all. But, I had cheek – I was cheeky and I could sell a song, although I didn’t have the voice for a song. But my mum had me from a very young age at singing, ballet classes and music classes. And, she actually had me in something back then that we called elocution classes to teach me to speak properly.
“And, I have to say that over the years when I finally fulfilled a lifelong ambition which was to appear on Broadway, there were times sitting in that dressing room waiting for my cue line to be called out by Sir Rex Harrison that I would think back to that. Even though then it was for fun with my mum leading the charge, there’s a poignancy that she never got to live to see any of those big moments. It might have been her dreams for me fulfilled. I would sit backstage listening to the annunciation of Rex Harrison or Glynis Johns and think back to my elocution classes and say to myself ‘God, who knew that would have paid off,’ said Roma.
The lessons learned in the performance arts classes of Derry and on the stages of Feis Doire Cholmcille are ones that Roma Downey firmly believes are still completely relevant to her today.
She continued: “Absolutely, I believe that. I think the discipline that it instilled was invaluable. I wasn’t a particularly athletic child. I leaned more towards the performing arts. So the kind of things that kids would learn in team sports like the need for practise, the need to really hone your skills - in a similar way I learned those things in the preparation for the feis and the importance that we all placed upon it. It was a very exciting time in the city. Even if you weren’t in it you were going to watch it.
“I mean I went down in the evenings and saw older women and men singing. The whole community participated. I think that was the beauty of it - it really brought people together. And, I think we were always a particularly talented city. There’s always been a lot of music and great performers in Derry and I think it’s lovely to give a platform for that and to allow people their moment in the spotlight. I certainly know that the emphasis in my house was on that. We’d have little mini feiseanna in my house to prepare for it. As I’ve said already, the opening night nerves could do you in. You could have been the best but if you messed up on the night it was ‘sorry for you’.
“I loved verse speaking too. It was all part of the same delight for me. During the mini feiseanna in our living room my mum would whisper to me ‘you can’t win them all,’ because she was the adjudicator. Then she’d say ‘but, you really are the best’. Fanta bottle tops were used as the medals. I didn’t always get one but I have to say even looking back on the feis, I won a good number, but I also got quite a few certificates for being highly commended and they had this beautiful Book of Kells design around the edges.
“The lessons were there even in the losing and there were probably more lessons to be gained in that. There again, I think that the feis and the people attending the feis and the peer group within it made sure you were never made to feel like a loser. I think that’s an important thing to mention because the idea of losing fills people with fear – you’d never want to step up again if you weren’t guaranteed something. There was a lot of love and encouragement and that ‘do your best’ attitude was part of the coaxing and teaching. If you do your best then you have won. And only you would know if you did your best or not. So, that was your personal bar that you’d set. That was the goal you had to reach and sometimes that was the best and you came home with a medal for your BoPeep matchbox, sometimes you got a certificate and sometimes you got nothing. And it was all ok. It was always all ok.
“There weren’t that many opportunities for performers to come together like that, particularly with like-minded people. Over the course of my professional career as an actor and producer, I think in the rehearsal stage of anything there’s a lovely moment when you feel that you’ve found your tribe – that there are like-minded and like-hearted people sharing a passion for the performing arts.”
Roma’s life in her younger years, whilst obviously immersed in performance, also had room for the normal activities of childhood and into her teenage years.
“The street I grew up in was like every other street in Derry. There was a season for everything. For girls there was hopscotch and two balls on the side of a wall. I lived on a steep hill on Beechwood Avenue and still don’t know what I was thinking, getting into a pair of roller skates on that hill.
“I know that towards the late 1970s I got my very first pair of platform boots and they were massively high. I remember walking down Beechwood Avenue and the momentum of the hill took me away. I was picking up speed in these boots and thought I was going to kill myself. I got down to the corner of Beechwood and Oakfield and there was a family that lived in that house called the Joyces and they had this big hedge and if it hadn’t been for that hedge they’d be laying flowers for me up at the cemetery. I caught hold of that hedge and swung myself around the corner and took the speed out of it.
Then I had to unzip the boots shamefully and walk down the rest of hill barefoot,” she recalled.
It is obvious that Roma Downey still holds her native city and its people in the highest esteem possible. Neither does she make any secret of that fact that she also has enormous pride in the fact that Derry has produced so many renowned performers down the decades.
She said: “I think that’s beautiful. I mean you’ve got to nurture young talent. That’s where it all begins. How else would anyone get the confidence, the nerve or even know that they had a talent unless there’s an opportunity like the feis to compete in a friendly way with each other. That’s really lovely.”
Roma also revealed that she always harboured an ambition to see the United States. That opportunity came about after a school friend imparted some information to her that she wasn’t supposed to during their days together at Thornhill.
“Remember, I couldn’t sing but I joined the Colmcille Ladies Choir because I heard they were going to America. A girl I was at school with said ‘I’m not supposed to be telling anybody but we’re going to America with the choir but they are going to be shutting down the choir at the end of the year. I you want to go America then you’d better join now.’
“Now, I was born to go to America. I was determined to go to America from I was no age. I was going to meet Starsky and Hutch and become friends with Kojak and I was going to become a Charlie’s Angel. I grew up on American television and the music of Simon and Garfunkel and I just fell in love with the idea of America. So, I somehow got myself into the Colmcille Ladies Choir,” Roma laughed.
The success of Derry Feis in the last century in Roma’s opinion is that it has been anchored to the locality in which it sprang up in 1922.
“I think it’s because the intention of it was always just so rooted in community and I think that’s something that is very particular to the Irish and specifically to the people of Derry. I have lived in a number of countries and quite a few cities over the course of my career and I have never experienced anything like that since then. There are good people everywhere of course, but I think the physical distances that people move about in America means the idea of a knitted community has fragmented in most places, but it’s still very much alive and present in Derry. You combine that with the fact that there just happens to be something in the Derry air that there’s just a lot of natural resources of talent. It’s like all these little unpolished diamonds are revealed each year at the feis. The feis nutures and waters talent and helps it grow. I think that the feis mothers have to get a shout out because none of it would happen without them.
“I can still remember being in any number of the classes that my mother enrolled me in. But my mother didn’t drop me of and leave, she was in there sitting on the side coaxing and she was the cheerleader. If I did something good it was her I’d look over at to get a nod of approval. If I made a mistake I looked over to her again and I got a sigh which meant ‘it’s alright love.’
“I would have very fond memories of the feis anyway but because they are so rich in including memories of my mother I particularly love them. I think what happens when you lose a mother so young and my mother hadn’t been sick, that there is a trauma, especially in a sudden death like that. It was like the lights had been turned out. It impacts the memory around it because I so want to see her face in my mind’s eye. When I close my eyes I can imagine hugging her and holding her and being held by her but when I look up to her face I can only see a black and white photograph. But I feel that there’s an aliveness around the memories of the feis because my mother was so involved. She loved it so much herself and it was her love for it that infused my love for it and it was something we were able to do together. We were on our great adventure.
“I don’t even know how my medals ended up in this matchbox. I have moved from Derry to Brighton, then I went to London, my father died when I was in London, so everything was cleared out of the house at home, so I must have had it in a trunk. Then I moved to New York, then to Utah then to Los Angeles. So the fact that I was able to put my hands on it and find it is extraordinary. It meant a lot because it was also so closely linked to my mother. These are the little touchstones that mean so much. As a woman of faith, I know she’s not here, but at the same time I know she is here. There’s a comfort in that too.”