Thursday 22 March 2018

Feis 120: a history of young talent and proud mammies

Pianist John O'Connor
Pianist John O'Connor
Cora Venus Lunny. Photo: Paul Sharp

Maggie Armstrong

The Feis Ceoil is Ireland's premier music competition, a "nursery" for those brightest and best of child prodigies who grow up to be classical performers. The community-spirited venture has turned out some of the country's most vaunted musicians. This year, the ESB-sponsored Dublin Feis celebrates 120 years in existence. An exhibition at the Little Museum of Dublin on Stephen's Green looks at some of the key personalities involved in this idiosyncratic festival, with previously unseen musical artefacts and treasures are on display. Here are 15 curious things I learned:

1 The Feis Ceoil has produced a generation of opera singers to make you tremble - Claudia Boyle, Tara Erraught, Celine Byrne all won their first big trophies here. Pianists John O'Conor and Finghin Collins, and violinist Cora Venus Lunny, also cut their teeth at the Feis.

2 The Feis was established by the first woman in Ireland or Britain to receive a doctorate in music which was not merely honorary. Annie Patterson from Lurgan, Co Armagh, was a Gaelic League member, composer, organist and impresario. Her vision was to revive Irish music through a classical repertoire.

3 119 years ago, on 18 May, 1897, the first Feis Ceoil took place in Dublin. Catholics and Protestants, unionists and nationalists, travelled from around Ireland to participate.

4 The name comes from the ancient Gaelic pagan festivals celebrated in Tara, the feiseanna.

5 The story that John McCormack beat James Joyce to winning the gold medal in 1903 is apocryphal (and unkind). McCormack took home gold in the Tenor Solo section that year. The following year he coaxed the 22-year old Joyce to compete. Joyce sang two arias, 'A Long Farewell' and a piece from 'The Prodigal Son', yet flunked the third aria. He took home bronze, to his bitter disappointment - though was reviewed in one newspaper as having "the finest quality voice of any of those competing".

6 The owner of Joyce's medal, Michael Flatley, has loaned it to the Little Museum. The medal, engraved with the name of the man who would write Finnegans Wake, comes in a little box with a slightly scuffed green-velvet backing and green, silk-lined lid.

7 The Feis has 1916 built into its founding ideology. Eamonn Ceannt played uilleann pipes and adjudicated the piping competitions in 1915 - he was all set to adjudicate in 1916 until revolutionary business came up. Thomas McDonagh's sacred cantata 'The Exodus', for which he wrote the lyrics, won first prize in 1904. Count George Noble Plunkett, father of Joseph, served as vice-president.

8 The Feis has withstood war and peace: it was cancelled just once when foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 deterred foreign adjudicators from travelling. In 1916, it was postponed from to July.

9 Today, the annual two-week Feis Ceoil is a musical sprawl of 200 competitions in singing, strings, pianoforte and assorted obscure categories and cups, involving 5,000 young contestants.

10 The Feis has survived, says chief executive Laura Gilsenan, a former Feis singer, because "the standard here is high. Adjudicators come from abroad, so people are not only being benchmarked against their peers, they're being benchmarked internationally". Many participants go on to populate choirs, orchestras and opera houses in Europe and the US. "Every classical musician working in Ireland has been through the Feis."

11 There is a dismantling of ego from an early age. Contestants in the Junior Piano Concerto Competitions at the RDS I attended in March, for example, are simply Number 11. Number 12, Number 18. "The winner is - Number 12".

12 Seven-year-olds get their first taste of defeat at the Feis. "The seven and eight-year-olds won't all get a certificate for turning up," says Gilsenan. "It is tough for the little ones. Nowadays there is a culture of everything that a child does being told that they're absolutely fantastic. But they've got to learn to deal with disappointment."

13 The Feis attracts occasional punters. At the March competitions, an elderly man in a suit and tie carried a booklet on which he marked the "odds" on each contestant. "I gave her a four star," he noted of one. "It's like going to the races. I've everything marked. It's great!"

14 The public can watch for €5 a day, though not many attend these echo chambers. "We don't get big audiences," says Gilsenan. "It's one of the things we've been striving to improve."

15 "Feis mammies" or ambitious supporters, are a thriving community in these circles. But their attitude is more realistic to that of their Irish dancing counterparts. You won't find ringlets, short green costumes and matching mams at Feises. Shame on you for thinking the Feis was like that.

The Music of Dublin: 120 Years of Feis Ceoil runs at the Little Museum of Dublin until June 19

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