Feis Programmes 1910–1963

The old Irish word feis (meaning ‘a recurring feast or festival’; plural feiseanna) began to be applied in the 1890s to the annual competitive cultural festivals organised by branches of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League), which had been founded in 1893 for the preservation and promotion of the Irish language. 

Competitions were typically held for essay writing, poetry and song composition, storytelling and recitation, unaccompanied and accompanied solo and choral singing, solo and group dancing, and the playing of instrumental music (usually in the early days on fiddle, uilleann pipes, and harp). They were adjudicated by known specialists before public audiences. True community festivals, the feiseanna quickly became established throughout the country. They were generally open to all comers, with competitions organised separately for men and women, adults and children. Medals and certificates were given as prizes, and a final prize-winners concert was often held. The term feis was also sometimes applied to competitive festivals not specifically devoted to Irish-language activities, such as the Feis Ceoil (festival of music) founded in Dublin in 1897 for the promotion of music generally, including Irish music.

The heyday of the Gaelic League feis was from the 1890s to the 1960s, although some are still held annually. They were also popular in the Irish diaspora, especially in the United States and Britain. Most feiseanna were small and local, but some were large and regional, with complicated schedules of competitions and other events. The surviving printed programmes, timetables and syllabi of these festivals, with their advertisements by commercial sponsors, provide a fascinating picture of contemporary Irish social life, as well as details on many competitors and adjudicators, famous and unknown; on music shops and music publishers; and on the music, song and dance specified for performance. Eight samples of feis programmes, timetables and syllabi from the collections of the Irish Traditional Music Archive are presented here, with a chronological and geographic spread.

In the 1950s the well established and successful organisational template of the feis – including classified and graded competitions; printed rules and forms for entry to competition; printed syllabi and programmes; public performance and adjudication; indoor and outdoor activities; sponsorship; concerts, etc. – was taken as the model for its public fleadhanna ceoil (feasts or festivals of music) by the newly emergent organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which was founded for the promotion of Irish traditional music, song and dance.

Do you have any other feis programmes, or other festival programmes including Irish traditional music? ITMA would welcome the donation of other materials of this kind which are not yet in its collections (check our catalogues here), or their loan for copying.

NC & MG, 1 February 2010