The Féis {pronounced fe-sh}

The Feis {pronounced fe-sh}

Towards the end of my secondary school days in the Loreto Convent, my French teacher, Mrs. Woods, entered me in a competition run by the Alliance Française of Europe. I had to write a French essay under exam conditions in the school library, about …. Emigration (ironically, given my subsequent 25 years away!). I would love the have the opportunity to re-read the content of what I wrote as a 17-year-old, before my life headed off.

To my great surprise and delight, I was one of 4 students in Ireland to win the competition, and the absolutely fantastic prize was a 10-day trip to Paris. There were 4 students from each EEC country (what the EU used to be known as) and we had a prearranged schedule through the grand and unique city of lights. The experience was not short of amazing. We were invited to watch the fireworks set to music over the lake at the palace of Versailles on Bastille Day, followed by the Fireman’s Ball or ‘Bal des Pompiers’ in the city. We visited the Louvre, climbed the Eiffel Tower, made friends with amazing people from all over Europe and I even had my first can of beer with a cheekily handsome boy from Denmark. Happily, I kept my reputation, although somewhat inebriated, but I did leave with my first real crush - coming from an all-girls convent school, this was really falling off the rails!

On our last night in Paris, the organisers asked us to put on a show to present the uniqueness of each of our countries. Of course, this would be easy for the Irish contingency: we come from a country with a wealth of song and dance steeped in tradition. Yet that was where it all unraveled for me. Despite taking Honours Irish for my Leaving Cert (I must have managed this somehow mechanically, as I can’t speak it at all – then or now), I could not sing and don’t particularly know any Irish songs. As for Irish dancing, I never learnt a step in my life, not even a 1-2-3 sadly.

Fast forward 25 years and my return to life in Ireland. I suggested an Irish dancing lesson to my 7-year-old daughter. She is a lover of dance and agreed to try it. Well, she fell head over heels in love with it. The teacher was so strict and the steps so complicated that I thought she would drop out after a week. Instead she begged to go more than once a week to lessons and soon there was talk of The Féis …

I had no notions about what this involved, although I had heard a few rumours about wigs and dresses costing 1000 euros upwards. Some parents said “Nooooo, don’t get involved!”. But then fellow Irish dancing pupils would bring their trophies and medals into the lesson – the spoils of the Féis at the weekend.

My daughter was intrigued and smitten, “Can I PLEASE go to the next Féis?”. I succumbed. After all, it was my idea that she tried Irish dancing in the first place. So, we invested in the outfit – thankfully not 1000 euros, but an investment nonetheless.

We arrived at a GAA club early on Sunday morning to big hair-dos, lots of hairspray, dancers wearing their school colours and confident attitudes, numbers pinned to their dresses, parents barely flinching at the cost of the entry fees and tension running high. It wasn’t just the glamour of the children – it was the Dance Moms that surprised me the most!

Since returning to Ireland last year, I have dressed with one objective in mind: to keep warm. In Winter, that is invariably black jeans, a singlet, a long-sleeved vest, a woolly jumper and a scarf. I was completely out of place at this event however. I realised quietly that I had forgotten my high heels and long shirt dress.

Nonetheless, it was not about me, but rather my daughter. She was as proud as punch to be there. My eyes filled with tears of pride as she went on stage to do her first dance, along with two other competitors. This was the Easy Reel, the first of 4 dances she was competing in. Normally shy and timid, she marched up there with her Irish dancing alter-ego and loved it!

The prize giving was the next hurdle. You just never know how your child will react to winning or losing. In this case, all 30 or 40 dancers lined up on the stage and waited to see if their number was called out for a place. Remarkably they all took it in their stride. Winners got trophies and sashes, and medals were handed out to those placed lower and some got nothing.

Finally, our first Féis was over. We stopped at the Maxol garage on the way home to get sandwiches and greasy fried food for our Sunday lunch. “When is the next Féis Mummy?” my daughter asked immediately. That’s it, I think, “Eyes on Prize Violet, eyes on the prize!”.

What had I learned from this shady underworld? The expensive dresses come when you advance through the grades by winning competitions, and yes, they do cost 1000 euros upwards. Most of the girls were wearing wigs. I’m sure I saw the occasional spray tan too. The judges wore heels that were so high that walking was a hazard. But the children all seemed to love it – relishing the chance to be as good as they could be, braving their hair being teased into high buns and told off for missing a step. It wasn’t just girls either, the boys were great too and judged on equal terms. We’ve done two more since the first event and another highlight is bumping into my cousins there too. It’s certainly not for everyone (husbands in particular, beware!), but it is for us, for the moment. And when she grows up and travels, she owns part of the traditions of the country that she is from. I missed that when I left.