Feis na nGleann
Grainne McNally celebrates a century of Gaelic tradition in the Glens of Antrim
Feis na nGleann was established in 1904 in the picturesque Glens of Antrim by a group of cultural enthusiasts who wished to preserve the Irish language, traditions, songs, music, games and past-times for future generations.
The native Irish had struggled to preserve their ancient laws and customs for years and during the last quarter of the 19th century, Ireland was experiencing a massive cultural revolution. The north Antrim coast was no different.
An Cumann Luthcleas Gael (Gaelic Athletic Association) was founded in 1884, in Thurles, County Tipperary to preserve Gaelic games and was closely followed by the Gaelic League in the summer of 1893 in Dublin. The League's main aim was to preserve Irish as a spoken language and like the GAA, branches were being formed all over Ireland dedicated to keeping the language alive.
It was the establishment of a branch in Belfast that stirred interest in the North. Its president was Glenarm historian and leading Gaelic scholar Eoin MacNeill. He could recall Irish being spoken in the Glens during his childhood and wished to see the language spoken with pride once again. League branches were soon formed in the Glens with ceilidthe (dances) arranged, visits to historical places, language classes and concerts.
The Irish language was spoken universally in the glens and Rathlin Island up until the 1850s, making it one of the last Gaeltacht areas in Ulster. Spoken Irish suffered as a result of the Antrim Coast Road being established in the 1850s, bringing with it trade and the English language. English was no stranger to the area, with the 17th century plantation introducing the language as well as Scots Gaelic and the dialect Lallans.
Although the native language was adopted by many newcomers, significant factors including the potato blight of 1840s Ireland which resulted in An Gorta Mor (The Great Famine) and the introduction of assisted immigration saw the number of Irish speakers significantly reduced.
The English language was associated with trade and prosperity by many native Irish speakers. The English-speaking landed gentry who arrived during the Plantation lived comfortably in what was referred to as the 'big houses', confounding the belief of many poor Catholics living in poverty under the landlord regime that English would bring them wealth.
Dr Douglas Hyde, Professor of Irish at the National University, recognised the need for Irishmen and women to show that they were a distinct nationality from their English suppressors and the Glensfolk turned out for the first Feis, showing strong support for his theory. In an 1892 speech to the Irish National Literary Society he pointed out that 'in order to de-Anglicise ourselves we must arrest the decay of the language'.
Fellow Gaelic League member Francis Joseph Bigger, a lawyer-historian from Belfast, came up with the idea of the Feis with friends, including Sam Waddel, Fred Hughes, Dennis McCullough, Joseph Campbell and his sister, whilst holidaying in Cushendun. Joseph was a Protestant Nationalist and an Irish language and history enthusiast. He pledged money to the preservation of high crosses, patriot graves and castles throughout Ireland. He was one of many professional and wealthy Protestants which supported the revival of Irish language and past-times.
They were enthusiastic in their approach and met with prominent Glensfolk on the February 28, 1904 to lay the foundations of the great cultural festival, and preparations began from that day forth.
English born Ada Mc Neill, who lived in Cushendun was a member of the founding committee. A staunch Nationalist and a member of the Gaelic League, she embraced the revival and rejected the views of her Unionist family. Miss Ada, as she was affectionately known in the Glens, represented the Glenswomen on the first Feis committee alongside Rose Young, of the Unionist Young family from Galgorm Manor, Ballymena and Margaret Dobbs, a language enthusiast and scholar from Portnagolan House, Cushendall, to name but a few. The festival's first president was Barbara McDonnell of Monavart, Cushendall.
Great companion of young Roger Casement, a fellow Feis committee member, Mc Neill and Dobbs were greatly influenced by the young man who often resided at Magheraintemple, Glenshesk at the 'big house' of his Uncle John, a well respected member of the Unionist community.
The Feis was established at a time when there was growing support for the Home Rule movement which sought to give Ireland more say in how the country was governed and abolish direct rule from London.
On Thursday June 30, 1904 the inaugural Feis na nGleann was held in Glenarriff, the Queen of the Glens. A procession from Cushendall was led by pipers from Armagh with banners representing the nine glens and also the clans of North Antrim. Native speakers of Irish still existed in Glendun, Glenariff and Rathlin.
Rathlin Island was magnificently represented with two hundred of the three hundred and twenty five Irish speakers on the island travelling over on a boat paid for by Casement, accompanied by their own piper.
Hurling, then called shinny, was a major attraction and the Carey Faughs played the Cushendun Emmets in the final played on the beach, with Casement as one of the umpires. A specially made copper trophy for the winners called The Shield of Heroes was presented to the winning team, the Carey Faughs, who still care for the shield today.
A wooden hall in Glenariff held the industrial and arts exhibitions, which were an integral part of the Feis, displaying the craftwork of the Glens people. Called the Local Industries section, it consisted of of 46 sections, covering spinning, quilting, furniture making and shoemaking. It was hoped that by displaying the handcrafts of the Glensfolk that much needed employment would be gained. It survives today as the Arts and Crafts section.
Among the thriving small businesses at the time was a toy making workshop in Cushendall established in the village in 1900, which helped raise the standard of skills in areas such as sewing, knitting and embroidery. A home industry workshop was also opened in Ballycastle, aimed at improving traditional skills.
Irish dancing took place during the first Feis, on a platform in a field and drew great crowds. It is now held indoors over a two day period and the most popular venue in recent years has been Carey Parochial Hall.
Much planning went on behind the scenes for the day long festival and two of the behind-the-scenes helpers were the talented brothers, artist John Campbell and poet Joseph Campbell.
'The Nine Glens', a poem written by Joseph, appeared on the first ever Feis programme and both men were fine singers, often appearing around the piano at Francis Joseph Bigger's house, Ard Righ. It was Joseph who penned the lyrics to 'My Lagan Love', one of many songs on the verge of distinction. His most well-known song in the Glens is 'The Blue Hills of Antrim' which is sung at many a traditional session in the area and further afield to this day.
Music plays an important part of the annual Feis to this day, with choir, solo and group competitions held over two days.
Scholarships to the Gaeltacht allowed children, whose parents could not afford to send them to be schooled through Irish, to spend their summers learning the language and bringing their improved tongue back to the glens.
At the centenary celebrations of the Feis in 2004, over two thousand visitors came to view the Arts and Crafts section alone, which was held in a marquee in Glenariff over two days and stretched to 68 sections, making the Feis even more successful 100 years on.