ORIGINS OF THE FEIS IN IRELAND
By Robert Gabor
The most colorful description of the earliest recorded Feiseanna (plural of the Gaelic "Feis") has been given us by Seamus MacManus in his monumental "History of the Irish Race." As in the preliterate stage of culture of all people, the Gaels had a strong oral tradition that eventually entered earliest writings. Just as archeological research has substantiated the bulk of Hebrew preliterate traditions, so it has been in the case of the majority of Gaelic traditions.
From these sources, MacManus has drawn a vivid portrait of the glorious heritage of todays Feis, making us keenly aware that we are the inheritors of but a fragment of what was a glorious culture.
Throughout the kingdoms and provinces of early Ireland, there were times and places set aside for the general assembly of the people. Chief of these, the one to which each territorial assembly sent representatives, was the Aonach or Great Fair at Tara, seat of the Ard Rhi, or High King of Ireland.
Tara had been founded by the Firbolgs, predecessors of the Gaels in Ireland, as their own capital. The Gaelic Milesians turned it to the same use, with considerable additions and embellishments. This Aonach or Great Fair of the people of all Ireland must have gone on from time immemorial, but it was seven or eight hundred years before the time of Christ that historic fame of the Feis became associated with it. The great king Ollamh Fodhla is cited as founding the Ardh Feis at Tara.
The Feis then was a parliamentary assembly, and to it came the provincial kings and nobility, chiefs, judges, doctors, poets and bards of all Ireland. Thus were assembled in one place the living repositories of the Gaelic culture and tradition. Residences for them were maintained at Tara, and we can but imagine the pomp displayed and protocol observed at their gatherings. Lengthy descriptions have been left of the order and procedure followed then, the attire of the important personages present, and the wisdom displayed in judgments handed down or laws enacted or amended.
While the deliberative functions of the Feis were taking place, it was one of the pleasures of the people assembled to be entertained by recitations of their history, the important men and events that had gone before, the genealogy or descent of the leading families among them, and the legends, songs and stories so dear to them. It was this feature that gave the best of the seanachies (storytellers), bards, poets and genealogists their pride of place by demonstrable ability. One can imagine even then the people drifting from place to place, listening to each one and deciding for themselves which were the best.
It is a matter of record that athletic events and games took place at these assemblies, the winners of these events becoming heroes of the people from whom they sprung, the earliest martial-type events of horse and chariot racing gave way to tests of strength and agility by the individual.
Two of the great books of Ireland, the Book of Leinster and the Book of Ballymote, both contain descriptions of such an affair, and in them we find reference to music and musical events. Aseach King and chieftain worthy of the name and his own bard and harpist, we can imagine the competition among them for fame and adulation. Even the most prejudiced of foreign observers had nothing but praise for the musicians of the old Gaelic order and the melodies played.
Given the emotional nature and the natural exuberance of the Irish, it is impossible to imagine that there was not also a proliferation of the terpsichorean arts, both among those devoted to it almost exclusively as well as the dances native to the people. Certain it is even today that there are features to dancing that are peculiarly and exclusively Irish, not found among the dances of any other people.
Of the arts and crafts, we need only point to such examples of various great Books still in existence (Kells, Leinster, Ballymote, etc.) and their glorious illuminations and ornamentation. The artistic treasures in precious metals found in chance diggings or in archeological excavations are vivid positive proof of the Gaelic eye for beauty in form and design. Apprentices in the various crafts were required to exhibit examples of their skills for approbation to achieve certification before they could practice them. (One of the earliest records of adjudication at a Feis!)
As preliterate Ireland passed into the literate and eventually into the Christian era, we find more and more references in literature to these affairs. Aonach becomes interchangeable with Feis as a designation. While the political aspects of the original Feis remained, these tended to become increasingly overshadowed by the festive culture aspects. We find more and more reference to participants by their particular crafts or accomplishments -- trumpeters, harpists, timpanists, jugglers, pipers, fiddlers, ballad singers, flutists, etc. One literary description, in Gaelic verse form, tells of the assembled people listening in close attention to the historic lays of the bards that they might verify their accuracy. Yet another instance of early adjudication!
In the famous Book of the Four Masters is recorded the last great Aonach or Feis, called by the then Ard Rhi of Ireland, Rory OConnor. It was in 1169 AD, the year of the Norman invasion of Ireland. It is worthy of note that the line of chariots carrying the king, nobility and chieftains to the Feis stretched for a distance of six miles! One can imagine the press of the throng of the general public that attended this affair.
After 1169 AD began the eight hundred year assault of everything Gaelic and most especially its cultural traditions. As one of the most obvious manifestations of that culture, the Feis was able to exist wherever the old Gaelic order held out, but in much attenuated form. Over the long years, it degenerated into the simple market or country style fairs to be found in any land.
It necessarily follows that the high order of the old Gaelic culture and its glorious traditions went into eclipse. In the recorded history of Ireland are found occasional glimpses of it. Particularly poignant are the lives and fortunes of those who labored to keep alive the old Gaelic Bardic tradition among a deprived and impoverished people. It is so obvious that the fragments remaining to us today are but a shadow of the rich and beautiful heritage.
Wherever in the world Irish people gather for a Feis today, be it ever so large, spectacular and even beautiful, there persists that haunting memory of a splendid vanished glory.
Especially here in North America, few words would seem more appropriate than those of the New England poet, James Russell Lowell. In the closing stanza of his poem "Maud Muller," he reminds us,
"...Of all the sad words
Of mouth or pen,
The saddest are these --
It might have been."