'Fheis Dhoire Cholmcille remains cultural heartbeat of the city' - Fearghal Mag Uiginn
Derry Feis is celebrating its 100th birthday this Easter. To mark the special occasion, we are publishing a series of articles titled: Mo thuras go Fheis Dhoire Cholmcille 2022.
Today, Fearghal Mag Uiginn, head of the Irish at Thornhill College and presenter of BBC Radio Ulster's Blas Ceoil, describes his personal journey to Derry Feis 2022.
Describing Feis Dhoire Cholmcille as the “cultural heartbeat of the city”, Fearghal said that was recognition of what the Feis stood for, in particular, the special importance it gave to the use of the Irish language and verse and song.
“I also think, Derry Feis deserves great credit in terms of Irish dancing,” he said. “It is the only competition in the calendar in which both An Coimisiún and An Chomhdhail can dance together, in the same competition, on stage, which is quite a cultural coup as well.
“Also deserving of recognition as those Feis volunteers and the people involved in the committee, who year in and year out have kept the flag flying, kept the cultural heartbeat going. That is not an easy job and they deserve great, great credit.”
Fearghal Mag Uiginn was brought up in Bellaghy.
He said: “Bellaghy would have been a heartland of Irish culture for me, in particular Gaelic football, but also Irish dancing and Traditional music. Maybe the one missing piece of that Gaelic jigsaw was the Irish language.
“We had a breadman called Colm McCusker, whose two sons, Damien and Fergal, would have played on the 1993 All Ireland winning Derry team. Colm was the breadman who came around the houses with the bread of choice and a few other dainties and he always spoke Irish at the door. That, in particular, caught my interest and when it got too much for my mother, she used to send me to the door and I would get asked, 'arán donn nó arán bán?'
“For me, it made the language very much alive and functional at a time which tied in with the interest the family would have had to Irish culture and language. That is really where the seeds of the Irish language was planted and it fitted perfectly into everything in life, from place names to surnames. Then, when I went to St Pat's, Maghera, I started learning Irish formally,” said Fearghal.
Going to the Gaeltacht had a big influence on the young Fearghal, who ended up doing a degree in Irish in Coleraine, before entering a life of teaching Irish too.
Thornhill College Feis Dhoire Cholmcille An Teanga prizewinners
Recalling his first formal introduction to Irish, Fearghal said: “Paddy McAteer was a young teacher who started in [St Patrick's College] in Maghera. I suppose, looking back, he wasn't that much older than we were but you know at that time you think all teachers are ancient.
“Paddy was very encouraging. He would have encouraged us to go to the Gaeltacht and also to take part in some cultural events outside of the classroom which involved Irish language. I still try and keep in touch with Paddy and would remind him, now and again of how grateful I am for his influence.
“At the New University, as it was called then, Mícheál Ó Murchú was a huge influence in my Irish language acquisition. He would have had a big influence on my interest in developing my own Irish language skills and getting things right, even striving for perfection, if possible. Mícheál pointed us in the right direction of what would be the best place to learn Irish and the good books to read. He would also have pointed us towards good speakers of Irish and the importance of listening to good Irish being spoken as well.
“Also, Sean Farren [former SDLP MLA] who was lecturing in education at Coleraine when I was there and ended up being my tutor when I was on teaching practice, would have had an influence on my Irish, as well as incentives from my own family and community,” said Fearghal.
Fearghal said, for him, Irish and speaking Irish would always have brought great positivity with it.
He added: “I think all that fed in to the overall picture of wanting to achieve that fluency in Irish, which was my big aim at that stage.
“I do love teaching Irish. It is probably the place in the school I am happiest, in the classroom, teaching Irish to the girls.
I am very lucky in that teaching has never just been a job to me. It has always been a passion, an extension of my own family life as well because it is all Irish spoken in our house and the children, Aoife, Caoimhe, Eoghan, Eimhear, Caolán, were brought up with Irish by Claire and myself.
“I have to admit, there is particular satisfaction in a girl starting aged 11 with very little or no Irish and bringing them to fluency at A' Level. More than teaching Irish, we get across to them the importance of Irish, in terms of their own self identity and culture. We like to think that, on their language learning journey, they enjoy learning Irish as well.
“I am reminded of that regularly when you meet some of the past pupils. They will always greet you in Irish and say slán when they are going as well. Another interesting thing is the number of past pupils whose children are now attending Irish medium education. I think that is a reflection of their own language journey and what they wish for the next generation and, I think, that is brought about by a general positivity in the way you have learnt Irish at school and other influences, including the Gaeltacht,” said Fearghal.
Growing up, Fearghal was more familiar with Ballinascreen Feis and fondly recalled being in a St Pat's choir which sang, Teir abhaile riu.
It was not until 1989, when he came to live in Derry City that he first was introduced to Feis Dhoire Cholmcille.
He explained: “At that time, I was involved in Irish medium education and Derry Feis fitted perfectly with that because, in the classroom in Irish medium education, the acquisition of Irish, which for most young people was a second language, was paramount and the best way to ensure language was learned, so they could learn through the medium of Irish, was very much with poetry, rhyme, song, drama and playlets. Feis Dhoire Cholmcille fitted like a glove to be honest.
“I have great admiration for the Feis being able to provide that platform, not only in terms of participation and in terms of healthy competition, but also the fact that it gives an opportunity for young children in particular to develop their language skills, and in this case through the medium of Irish.
“I think the Feis was always very conscious of the fact that you facilitated those who were at Irish medium education but there also was a need to facilitate those who were not at Irish medium education but who also wanted to learn Irish through song and verse. The Feis has always handled that balance really, really well. And I think it showed a lot of foresight on their behalf.
“The first thing is to know is it is OK to be nervous. I would practice it at home and make sure you get to granny's house and practice it and granda's house and you might pick up even a few coins there as well. Don't worry about winning necessarily. The Feis is a great experience and a great memory . We have big boys and girls in our house now who learned poems when they were wee boys and girls and they still remember them. They still have a laugh about them. They still have a memory of the day they went to the Feis and they got something to eat afterwards and it was an occasion.
“Those memories are vitally important just for us, as humans, particularly over the last number of years, when you think of the lack of memories in a sense of social gatherings. I think the Feis this year is even more important than ever to take part in. I certainly would like 'to wish it, 'La breithe sona duit, Feis Dhoire Cholmcille,'” said Fearghal.
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