Music Secretary of Feis Doire Colmcille, Pat MacCafferty.
Derry's iconic cultural beacon struggling to reach centenary celebrations
By Eamon Sweeney
The organising body of Derry's most enduring cultural bastion, Feis Doire Colmcille, have voiced serious concerns that the iconic annual event may not last beyond its centenary year of 2022.
Senior figures on the Feis Committee have also levelled criticism at Derry City and Strabane District Council for a lack of financial aid in helping to maintain the event that nurtured many of the city's globally known talents in their youth and in turn brought much recognition back to Derry.
Feis Registrar Ursula Clifford and Music Secretary Pat MacCafferty say that whilst the interest in the Feis and competitor numbers in singing and music have remained more than consistent, the cost of staging the Easter Week talent showcase at venues in the city is very rapidly diminishing its meagre monetary reserves.
In recent weeks the Committee have had to take a hard but pragmatic decision to cut back on the bursaries awarded to many of the winners of the feis' blue riband events. They have also taken to social media in a bid to attract wider sponsorship than the traditional backers who have supported the Feis for generations.
Speaking to the Derry News, Pat MacCafferty said: "The Feis has been running at a loss of around of £8,000 a year and our past savings are running out fast. Our bursaries are paid from this money. We receive no public sponsorship of any sort, our income is from private sources. It's just natural wastage and we just can't keep it up. We can't afford it anymore. The bursaries were offered to allow performers to continue their studies, but it's possible competitors may have to compete for cups and medals in the future.And, the Council just don't seem to be interested in helping."
Mr MacCafferty added that while the local authority included Feis Doire Colmcille in their programme of events during the City of Culture year in 2013 no funding was made available. He also contended that while the events of 2013 created very little in terms of a legacy, Derry Feis has provided a high-profile cultural outlet in the city for almost 100 years.Feis Doire Colmcille first took place in 1922 in the aftermath of partition. Founded by Mrs Rose O'Doherty and Fr Joseph McGettigan the idea behind the festival was to both to preserve and advance Irish culture through competitions showcasing the language, music and dance of the country. The Feis was pre-dated by the now sadly defunct Londonderry Feis with compeitors from both traditions taking part in both festivals without equivocation every year. As the decades passed Feis Doire Colmcille grew from strength to strength becoming a focal point for culture in the city each Easter.As a result, the annual competition gave rise to performers such as Josef Locke, Phil Coulter, Dana, Roma Downey and chart toppers such as Nadine Coyle, Feargal Sharkey and Jimmy McShane who performed as Balitmora. Many of the Irish dancers who competed went onto roles in shows such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.
The Catholic church also provided dedicated input to the Feis with the late Bishop Edward Daly championing the event and now Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland Dr Eamon Martin in position as Executive Secretary of the event in the 1980s and 1990s. Fr Kevin Mullan also headed up the event for many years.
Feis Registrar Ursula Clifford said: "Paying for the venues, adjudicators is very costly. It costs about £10,000 to pay for halls, judges and musicians to accompany performers.
"We charge an entry fee of £5 for compeitionms and we can't put it up anymore because people can't afford it. The number of singers and musicians taking part are as good as ever. The number of dancers has gone down, but we are very proud of the fact that we are the only platform in the world that both dancing organisations compete against each other."
Derry Feis vacated its maintraditional home, the Guildhall, in 1998 to make way for the twelve year Savile Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and shifted primarily to St Columb's Hall which was then still owned by the Catholic church.Ursula Clifford continued: "Before the Savile Inquiry the cost for renting the Guildhall was £950 for the week, but we never got back there after the Inquiry. We needed two halls in the Guildhall to provide a variety of events at night time sessions at the Feis, but the Minor Hall was converted into the Council chamber so the Guildhall was no longer suitable.
"There have been suggestions that we could use the Foyle Arena, but in terms of administration it isn't suitable. If more medals were required to be delivered for competitions or there were any other issues, it is too far away from the other venues to allow things to be sorted out quickly."Mrs Clifford told the Derry News that she has attended many meetings with Council officials seeking backing for the Feis from the local authority.
"They only seem interested in the number of hotel and bed and breakfast beds that will be filled in the city in order to see what the Feis will contribute to the local economy. But, it's mainly children from this city, from County Derry in towns like Dungiven and Limavady, from Donegal and Tyrone who are brought here by their families to compete. They don't need to stay overnight here. They can travel home every night."I don't know how many meetings we've had with the Council. They promise the world but we get nothing."
"The choir competitions are growing and we run them now during Holy Week to allow teachers to get their Easter holidays, but that's another day to pay for. Irish language events have also become very strong because of the number of Bun Scoils operating now and particularly because of the involvement of those school's in Limavady and Dungiven
."Derry Feis creates confidence in children through their performances, so the whole situation is a terrible pity that we can't keep up with the money to pay the bills. "It has been said that we should increase our entry fees to cover the costs, but we have parents and teachers who are interested in nuturing young talent, so why should we pass the burden onto them, " Ursula said.
The Feis Committe are in the process of seeking charitable status so they can at least be exempt from having to pay V.A.T on many of their financial outlays. They have also endeavoured to modernise their programme by offering competitions in disciplines that yiung people are intrerested in whilst staying fundamentally true to the traditions established in 1922.
"We had funding in hold organised by Bishop Daly, but that is being eaten into and there's only a few years left in it. It's becoming more and more impossible to cope. As I said, I am against increasing fees because parents are making efforts to pay for children to have lessons and it's a burden.
"There's also a danger of that harming the ethos of the event because as Bishop Daly often said, every child in Derry should have the opportunity to perform at Derry Feis."
Next Easter, Feis Doire Colmcille will enter it's 98th year in existence. Whilst the event could not operate on a few occasions in the 1970s because of the Troubles, there is a determination to make it to the centenary year in 1922.
However, Pat MacCafferty told the Derry News: "2022 could be the last year of the Feis."
A spokesperson for Derry City and Strabane District Council said that the Derry Feis has long been a platform for local talent and is an important cultural showcase event for the city.
"Council offers support to local arts and culture organisations through its Cultural Grant Aid Programme. This funding is open to all organisations and is allocated through a fair and accountable application process. Groups are encouraged to apply for support from the Cultural Organisations Fund, Headline Events (formerly Tier 2 Festivals) Fund, Community Festivals Fund, Access Programme for Cultural Venues and the Heritage Animation, Artist and Cultural Practitioner Award, and Visitor Servicing Programme Fund. Applications for this year’s grant aid funding have now been received, the deadline being November 15, and it would be inappropriate to comment at this time on the success of individual applicants. However, we acknowledge that ongoing cuts to funding have had an impact on the wider arts industry, and Council offers assistance and support where it can with the resources available. We are committed to supporting the growth and development of the local arts community and Council has just completed a comprehensive Arts and Culture strategy for the City and District. Any local group can avail of advice and assistance on the grant aid application process and officers are on hand to provide information on these funds and other opportunities available through Council. Council would be more than happy to arrange a meeting with the organisers of the Derry Feis to discuss their concerns should they wish to make an approach."
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