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21 May 2022

'Feis pride and camaraderie'

Mo thuras go Feis Dhoire Cholmcille - Mary Nic Ailín

'Feis pride and camaraderie'

Derry Feis is celebrating its 100th birthday this Easter.

To mark this special occasion, Derry News is publishing a series of articles titled: Mo thuras go Feis Dhoire Cholmcille 2022.

Today, Mary Nic Ailín, prize-winning Irish dancer and very proud and privileged principal of Naíscoil and Gaelscoil Éadain Mhóir in the city, describes her personal journey to Derry Feis 2022.

Absolutely steeped in Feis Dhoire Cholmcille heritage, Mary, attended Irish dancing and regularly competed in the Feis.

She recalled: “My daddy, Johnny McCallion, volunteered at Derry Feis every Easter and myself and mammy, Sally McCallion (née Quigley), spent the week running from hall to hall catching all the competitions.

“I would have heard Irish during the Feis and entered the Irish Verse competitions. I would also have sung Irish songs, as part of our school choir, which my mammy conducted. I was always curious about the language and keen to learn it.

“I always got new dresses to wear throughout the week, too, and saved an Easter egg to bring with me each day.

“I remember on a Friday it would have been a big occasion as we stayed for the evening. We would have been standing outside the Guildhall from the close of the afternoon session, to be sure we got good seats at night.

“It was a happy week, which I remember fondly. I made many friends through Irish dancing and the week of Easter was when we all got together and had fun.

“We took part in the competitions, we celebrated the wins and we had the best craic the rest of the time. For me, personally, I always loved the Action Song competition and the buzz of the Friday night championships,” said Mary.

She added: “I am very grateful that my family were part of the Feis and that I was given the opportunity to make many happy memories.”

It came as no surprise to learn that Mary's parents, who were both from Creggan, met at their local Comhaltas branch.

Mary said: “Mammy and daddy have been happily married for more than 50 years. I have one sister and three brothers, 13 nieces and nephews and most recently, a great-niece, Ava.

“I grew up in Foyle Springs and attended Nazareth House Primary School for my early years before moving to Holy Family Primary School, when it opened in 1987. My mammy was a teacher there, too. I then went on to Thornhill College, before St Mary's University College in Belfast.”

Mary's first experience of Irish would have been in primary five.

Mary in her Irish dancing costume

“Our teacher, Martin Murray, would have used Irish phrases throughout the day. My siblings and my mammy all learned Irish at school and attended the Gaeltacht, so when I moved to Thornhill, I jumped at the chance to learn Irish and I never looked back.

“I remember my first trip to the Gaeltacht in 1998, when I cried having to go but cried harder having to leave. This was a turning point for me. I had always wanted to become a teacher but now, I was determined to become an Irish teacher. I am now the principal of Naíscoil and Gaelscoil Éadain Mhóir, a thriving Irish medium nursery and primary school in the Brandywell.

“Irish medium education gives children so much more. They learn what their monolingual peers learn but they learn more. They experience more. They develop more skills. They hear more, they speak more and they love more.

“I would often say 'Why would you not choose Irish medium rather than why would you?' I would find it very difficult to provide a valid reason on why I would not choose Irish medium for my child,” said Mary.

Gaelscoil Éadain Mhóir students take part in Derry Feis every year. According to Mary, they always love the Irish Verse competition and do very well.

“After all,” said Mary, “Feis Dhoire Cholmcille is part of our history. Everyone knows that during Easter Week the town will be buzzing with people attending the competitions.

“For the people of Derry the Feis brings a sense of pride and camaraderie. Derry Feis gives children, young people and adults the chance to celebrate their talents. It also encourages children to continue in their field of interest may that be dancing, music, drama.

“However, the Teanga section brings a special sense of culture and heritage to the Feis. Children and young people are able to use what Irish they have, may that be a level of fluency or cúpla focal.

“For our pupils it is important as they can use their language outside of the school, as part of a very well known and prestigious event. They feel particularly proud when they attend the competitions and realise the high standard of Irish they have achieved and accomplished. It is particularly important in the years ahead the Feis continues to provide these opportunities for young Irish speakers. It is a celebration of our native tongue,” enthused Mary.

Optimistic about the future of Irish, Mary described the Irish language as 'alive and kicking.'

“There is no doubt about it,” she added. “The number of children attending Irish medium schools is growing year on year. The number of young people continuing on with Irish medium education is increasing each year also.

“We are continually advertising jobs in many different fields, not only education. The future is bright for Irish speakers and the employment opportunities are growing. We need to secure the Irish Language Act and the provision for languages at secondary level to ensure that the language can continue to flourish with the security and funding it deserves.

“My heart bursts with pride when I hear my own son speaking Irish. He attends our school and has just started to learn to play the tin whistle at An tAcadamh Cheoil. Who knows maybe he will take to the stage at Derry Feis over the next few years.

“I love the friendships he has already made through his involvement in the language. It is a very special community and we are delighted to be part of it as a family.

“I commented on St Patrick's Day how speaking the language opens so many doors for him and allows him to be part of a vibrant Irish speaking community where the opportunities for development are endless,” said Mary.

Turning to Feis Dhoire Cholmcille's special centenary competition for An Teanga, a short manifesto on the hopes of the various young people for Irish in the next 100 years, Mary said: “I would hope that they portray their sense of pride as young, bilingual Irish speakers.

“I would hope that they will continue to pass their love for the language to future generations.”

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Mary with one of her pupils at Derry Feis

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