28 Sept 2022

Irish an arterial connection to our identity

Mo thuras go Feis Dhoire Cholmcille 2022

Jim Sharkey, the first ever Ireland Ambassador to Russia

Jim Sharkey, the first ever Ireland Ambassador to Russia

Derry Feis is celebrating its 100th Birthday this Easter.

To mark this special occasion, Derry News has carried a series of articles titled: 'Mo Thuras go Feis Dhoire Cholmcille.

Today, Derry man and grandson of Urris, Jim Sharkey, the first ever Ireland Ambassador to Russia, describes his personal journey to Derry Feis 2022.

Jim's maternal line comes from Urris. He said: "They were Boyle's and Doherty's. You know the Derry saying, 'My granny was Doherty,' well both my grannies were Doherty. I have been going to Urris since I was born. My mother, Mary-Anne (née Boyle) like many Clonmany people left to work in Derry in the shirt factories."

Jim, who will give the address at the Derry Feis Gala Concert, taking place in the Millennium Forum, on Sunday, April 24, recalled learning Irish in St Columb's College from Mr Sean McGonigle, who was from Ballyliffin and had learned his own Irish in Urris.

Jim said: “My late elder brother learned Irish from our maternal grandmother in Urris but, sadly, she died in 1949 and, the way it was when a Gaeltacht declined, the next generation had very little Irish, so, although there were a lot of Irish words in my mother's vocabulary and the syntax of a lot of her language in English had an Gaelic pitch, we didn't learn Irish from her.

“When I left St Columb's, I remained interested in Irish. I was lucky the teachers I had were sympathetic and, looking back, St Columb's was important because it was a great defender of Ulster Irish.

“I always feel that Ulster Irish got a raw deal in terms of the prioritisation of first the Munster Irish and then the Connacht Irish. There are two main dialects of Ulster Irish, Donegal Irish, and a dialect which is now defunct, East Ulster Irish. East Ulster Irish was one of the largest spreads of any dialect in Ireland. It stretched all the way from County Louth to Urris. It was in counties Derry, Monaghan and Tyrone. It was also the link dialect with Scottish Gaelic.

“East Ulster Irish effectively came to an end in the 1950s. It is currently having a moderate revival in Belfast. There are people who are latching on to it. And it would be a dialect that should be attractive to unionists as well because it was largely spoken in what we would now call Northern Ireland, that part of Ulster. It would have been spoken as well by Presbyterians in Antrim,” said Jim.

Original Feis Dhoire Cholmcille medals

According to Jim, Donegal Irish was centred in Gaoth Dobhair, Rann na Feirste and Ros Goill.

Smiling he said: “The summer school was a big part of that, so, in my day, young people from St Columb's and Thornhill went to Rann na Feirste.

“Escaping from home was a great experience. We were given a grant by the Dublin Government, if my memory is correct, which allowed us to go. We would be sharing a house with local families, maybe six in a room. And you would have your first fag and your first kiss and all this sort of thing, and probably your first céilí dance.

“There was also the Seán Dolan Craobh of Conradh na Gaeilge in Bishop Street in Derry. My brother went there and Pat Hume went there, when it was frowned upon as, maybe, being proto- republican or something. In the College, strictly speaking, you were banned from going to it but girls and boys would have gone there to improve their Irish.

“St Columb's and people like Sean McGonigle were great defenders of Ulster Irish because, of course, there was a disregard of Ulster Irish in the South. When the modernised the spelling of Irish, they didn't take Ulster Irish very much into account and when they modernised the grammar, they didn't take Ulster Irish very much into account. And they didn't take Scottish Gaelic into account very much. People in Munster and Connacht did not have much of a feel for Scotland. There were certain connections unnecessarily lengthened and attenuated, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, in my view, by the sidelining of Ulster Irish,“ said Jim.

Jim's earliest memories of Feis Dhoire Cholmcille centred on the involvement of his primary school, the Christian Brothers (CBS) Brow O' the Hill School on Lecky Road.

Reminiscing, he said: “You did the qualifying exam in fifth year and in fourth year and fifth year, if you had a decent voice, you went into the choir, which I think was taken by Paddy Carlin, who did plain song and Irish airs. The CBS choirs always did very well.

“If you were in the choir, which I never was because I croaked, you could get into the Feis free, because the choirs got in the back door. So, if you sneaked along with the choir, you would get in free and it was great to get into the Feis because they had minerals and they had buns. In those days, when you were 11 or 12, you weren't smoking so it was all about minerals and buns.

“In my fifth year at the Christian Brothers we studied Irish history and there was a medal for Irish history in the Feis. All the fifth classes of different schools that studied Irish history were brought along for an oral test. We were interviewed in groups of three or four. Hugh McAteer (Snr), Eddie McAteer's brother, was the examiner. So I got a gold medal for Irish history, in 1956.

“There was a little write up in the Irish Press about the competition. There were three gold medals issued that year to the top people, we came so close together. One was a girl from the Nazareth House, the other one was Hugh McAteer, Eddie's son, and I was the third. You were chuffed that you got a mention in a newspaper in those days. I am proud of that still in my life,” said Jim.

Renowned Irish dancers, the late Ann Ferguson and her sister Elaine Doherty, from Creggan

Jim thought Feis Dhoire Cholmcille was so special in Derry because it was held at Easter, in the Spring, at the start of the good weather and everyone was in a good mood.

Recalling the families associated with Derry Feis, Jim said: “My Sharkey family, it was really through the Burkes in the Waterside, we had a link with the Feis. Sybil Sharkey, who was married to Jim Sharkey and was the mother of Ursula Clifford (Derry Feis registrar) was a Burke.

“The McCaffertys in Francis Street were another family that was associated. There was the Doherty family and the McGuinness's. There were also the Cowleys, they were a famous family of singers. So, there was a whole group of families associated with the Feis.

“And you would know people who were competing and you would go to see your primary school singing and competing. But you also went to see the Thornhill girls and to smoke a cigarette and so on. The College boys, all went up to the top balcony in the Guildhall, where the whole Feis was held in those days, to watch the competitions.

“I always thought to be at the heart of unionism but celebrating Irish culture, that was a great manifestation of Derry morale. There was also the Londonderry Feis which was important and also had an Irish element which was very important. Happily, Feis Dhoire Cholmcille is going strong. The families that were closely associated with it kept it going.

“There were two big Feis nights which were unmissable, going back to my generation. One was the Wednesday night, the céilí band night and then Saturday night was the winners' concert, which gave you every thing all at once,” mused Jim.

“If you think about it in terms of Partition, Derry was a very nationalist city and the nationalists had more or less affirmed their personality in the city, through the first 20 years of the 20 century,” said Jim.

“They were able more and more to express their identity and to be less second class citizens, in a curious way. So, partition came to people in Derry as a shock and brought with it a sense of isolation, forgotten, low morale, even though there was the, ultimately mistaken, expectation the Boundary Commission of 1924-1925 would re-settle everything.

“In 1922, you can imagine how important the Feis was as a conduit for the expression of Irishness and Irish heritage and Irish culture, particularly at a time when the walls seemed to be coming down separating Derry people, apparently but not really, from Donegal and all their Irish identity and connections.”

Brother and sister Celine and Eugene O'Donnell, two of Derry's most famed dancers

Stressing the importance of the An Teanga section of Feis Dhoire Cholmcille, Jim described Irish as 'a sacred language.

“I have to confess, my own Irish is rusty now and I will have to go to Gleann Cholm Cille to modernise it. I write Irish much better than I speak it, at the moment.

“Irish is under extraordinary pressure and it has been under extraordinary pressure for 200 years. There are a number of factors in the decline of Irish. Modernisation was one factor. The Famine was another factor and the influence of Daniel O'Connell was another. The Catholic Church and Maynooth, those were other factors and massive emigration, of course.

“But at the same time, Irish connects us to our very old history. Irish connects us to the continuity of Irish history. Not the continuity necessarily of Anglo-Irish relations. Much of Irish history is dominated by the study of Anglo-Irish relations. But, you can increasingly envisage a history of Ireland from a social, cultural and even political point of view, where Anglo-Irish relations is only one aspect of that history.

“Irish takes you right back to the age of saints and scholars and Cholmcille and to the Middle Ages and all of the flowerings of Irish culture at different periods, whether it is the 18th century poets, the Jacobite period in Irish history, the failure of the Irish resistance in the 17th century.

“But, Irish history is not simply a history of defeat. It is a history of great achievements in letters and in literature and in music. One of the things that always struck me about Feis Dhoire Cholmcille was its preservation of Irish music and Irish dance and Irish history. The Irish folk revival of the 1960s coincided with the Feis and had a good influence on the Feis as well,” said Jim. “The Feis was a tremendous way of perpetuating Irish culture and getting people to identify with it and practise, perform and perfect it.”

Jim's obvious love of the Irish language is enthralling.

“Once you go into the Irish language, like my own ancestors, you are almost touching a world which is completely and dramatically different spiritually and mentally and culturally from our own.

“The most exciting thing that has happened Irish has been the rise of the Gaelscoileanna. The revival of Irish in Ireland means we cannot allow Scottish Gaelic to die either. That should be all regarded as part of the continuity of Gaelic civilisation, which once stretched from Cork right up to the far north of Scotland.”

Cissie Parlour, winner of the Interpretation Cup, and her son Damien, winner of the Boys Solo Competition

Turning to the Feis Dhoire Cholmcille Gala Concert, Jim revealed he was going to speak about his friend Fergus Gillespie from Shrove in Inishowen.

“Based in Moville and partly in Derry, there were people called the Foyle pilots. One of those families was the Gillespie family. Fergus, John and Pádraig Gillespie all went to school with me in St Columb's. Their mother was a Breslin from Gaoth Dobhair.

“There was a Ceann Comhairle, Cormac Ua Breisleán (Fianna Fáil). They were connected to Gaoth Dobhair and Shrove and Fergus went to UCD (University College Dublin) along with me in the 1960's. Fergus did Celtic Studies and he became the Chief Herald of Ireland. He is a lovely Irish speaker and he has a great interest in Irish and we have many conversations about Gaelic history, as distinct from Anglo-Irish history.

“I have asked Fergus to translate into modern Irish at least one of the poems by Cholmcille about Derry and I will quote from Fergus' translation because, as well as the 100th anniversary of Feis Dhoire Cholmcille, we we are also celebrating the 1500th anniversary of Cholmcille this year, until June 9, 2022,” said Jim.

Tickets for the Derry Feis Gala Concert are available by clicking this LINK.


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