Feis an Eilein, (Festival of the Island), together with CBC Radio have just released their joint project, a CD featuring 20 selections, that capture the essence of the Gaelic culture, in song, music and stories. Comhla Cruinn (Gathered Together), is a genuine labor of inspiration and preservation of the past, designed to carry on the traditions for future generations to share.
But first a little history of the Feis. A Feis (faysh) is a community-based festival designed to promote the Gaelic language and culture of an area. I’m told the first Feis to be held outside of Scotland, was in the community of Christmas Island, Cape Breton, in 1991. There are now four Feis movements on the island. In 1993, a steering committee for Feis An Eilein, formed a society to foster community participation in the preservation of the Gaelic language. With elected officers and a Board of Directors, an annual meeting is held each May. The annual festival offers work-shops in Gaelic language and song, stepdancing, fiddle and chanter. There’s also a two day Gaelic Activities Camp for youth, along with concerts, milling frolics, ceilidhs and square dances, which allow visitors and residents to participate in the culture.
Presentation of the annual festival has given the committee an in-depth experience in hosting major attractions. Each year, the Feis draws approximately 2500 participants. Among their visitors are Gaelic learners and cultural visitors from all parts of the world. The Feis also takes an active role in the annual Celtic Colours International Festival.
On a recent visit to Christmas Island, I had the pleasure of speaking with Allison MacKenzie, a Feis An Eilein committee member, who had an integral role in the production of the CD. She was able to explain just how important this project is to the members of the Gaelic speaking promoters of the community. “Christmas Island can certainly be very proud of this concrete evidence of a culture surviving, with Gaelic singers and other performers, as well as the people who come out to listen.” She says the committee members have worked for many years to reach other parts of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia in order to encourage people to learn more about their heritage. “With the CD, it makes all of our efforts worthwhile, as sometimes you think your work falls on deaf ears, and then CBC came along and all of a sudden the Gaelic activists are not alone, we have someone promoting our cause.”
MacKenzie sees the CD launch as a new beginning, as it is the first project of its kind to be attempted since the 1970’s. “One of our members, Jenna MacNeil was working at the CBC last summer, and was speaking with Wendy Bergfeldt about the Celtic Colours session, that the Feis was involved in. The conversation got around to actually recording what was happening in the community, and it was like serendipity, one thing led to another, and here we are.” She points out that over the years, the Feis has attracted a large number of young people. “Kids come here and they just know they are welcome, and the Feis provides education and an intimacy with the language between generations.” In addition to recording for historical purposes, it is hoped that the CD will serve as an educational tool as well. “Hector MacNeil wrote the (extensive) liner notes, and the Cd can easily be utilized for social studies or language studies.” As with profits from the annual festival, any proceeds raised by the society goes towards continuation of the programs offered during the summer activities.
The CD itself is exquisite. Produced by Wendy Bergfeldt and engineered by Rod Sneddon, the entire project demonstrates in a wonderful way what a community can accomplish with cooperation. It represents all aspects of the Gaelic culture and should be a pleasant reminder of what it means to take part in typically rural Cape Breton cultural gatherings. With lilting ballads for example, by Jim and Colin Watson, fiddle medleys by Joe Peter MacLean, accompanied by Janet Cameron, to piping medleys with Paul MacNeil and Tracey Dares MacNeil, the list goes on with the sounds of a milling frolic, the “pounding of the blanket on the table”, that can only be recreated by those who have lived the culture. As mentioned, the liner ‘booklet’, gives quite a lengthy, yet interesting account of how the first settlers on the island tried to save their heritage, but how economic conditions slowly caused the young, (and not so young), to leave their communities. We learn of the movement to recapture the language as well as the relationship that each of the artists featured have played in that fight.
Comhla Cruinn can be purchased through the Feis website, www.feisaneilein.ca, as well as the Gigs and Reels site and at the Gaelic College in St.Ann’s. It will also be available during Celtic Colours in Christmas Island as well as the Festival Club in St. Ann’s.