The stars return to celebrate the centenary of Feis Dhoire Cholmcille

Opera singer

SOME of Derry’s best-known music stars are returning to the city this week to celebrate the centenary of the Feis Dhoire Cholmcille.

An institution in the city, the annual cultural festival has proven to be the springboard for many of Derry’s most famous singers, musicians and actors.

The 100th Feis Dhoire Cholmcille gets underway tomorrow at the sites of the city.

Held each year during the Easter holidays, the Feis has seen the first public performances of Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid, Undertones frontman Fergal Sharkey, movie stars Bronagh Gallagher and Roma Downey, musician and songwriter, Phil Coulter and many other accomplished musicians to emerge from the city.

The Feis blended Irish dance, song, music and literature with a wide range of cultural disciplines.

It even spawned a unique phenomenon, “Mother Feis”, those wonderful women who set up camp at the annual festival as daughters and sons danced, sang, recited and played throughout the week.

The unique place held by Feis Dhoire Cholmcille was made clear earlier this year when a proposal that the council of Derry and Strabane support this year’s centenary received cross-party support.

Former DUP Mayor Hilary McClintock added her praise.

“It’s only right that we respect the distinguished history associated with the Feis,” she said.

The very first Feis took place in June 1922, opening the week the new Free State Army bombarded Republican forces in the Four Courts of Dublin to start the Civil War.

Its founders included the parish priest of Aghyaran, Father Peadar McLoingsigh and the musician and music teacher, Mrs. Edward Henry O’Doherty (Rose), known throughout the town as Mrs. EH.

Every year since, thousands of competitors, young and old, have lined up at venues across Derry to compete for a Feis Medal and, perhaps, even win the annual winners’ concert at the end of Feis Week.

For many years, Ursula Clifford served as Feis’ secretary – taking over from her mother, Sybil Sharkey. She remembers her younger brother, Fergal Sharkey, making his Feis debut.

“I’m 80 and our Fergal is 60 – he was the late toddler. My mother, Sybil, made sure we all took part in the Feis. After that, Fergal continued to sing on ‘Tea Time with Tommy’ (UTV),” she said.

After early success on the Feis and Tea Time stage with Tommy, Fergal progressed to “Teenage Kicks” with the Undertones and later still a number one solo hit with “A Good Heart”.

“They all started with the Feis, Johnny McDaid, Phil Coulter, Roma Downey, Nadine Coyle, Bronagh Gallagher. The one I didn’t know was Sister Clare Crockett (who died in an earthquake in Ecuador in 2016). We found her records when she was winning in the theater section,” Ms Clifford said.

In true Feis tradition, when Mrs. Clifford retired, the role of secretary fell to her daughter, Aisling Bonner, who keeps things running smoothly.

Ms Bonner said this year’s centenary will open on Easter Tuesday at nine venues in the Millennium Forum, The Playhouse, St Columb’s Hall and St Mary’s College. The special ‘grá’ the people of Derry have for the Feis was evident from Bronagh Gallagher and opera singer Doreen Curran coming home to judge.

“We have about 2,400 participants this year and we have a lot of events to mark the centenary. Each contest will have a Centennial Prize. We also added a popular music section this year and at the end of the week there will be a big centenary concert at the Millennium Forum on Sunday evening,” she said.

Among the stars lined up for the concert are actor-musician, Bronagh Gallagher, classical crossover soprano, Margaret Keys, opera singer, Doreen Curran, country singer, David James, Eoin O’Callaghan of Best Boy Grip and saxophonist, Gerard McCrystal.

The Feis runs from tomorrow to Friday with the big Feis concert at the Millennium Forum on Sunday 24 April.