Irish dancers line up for their prizes at the United Irish Counties Feis in Yonkers, N.Y.
In two weeks’ time, Mike Prunty will have been in America for 50 years. He first crossed the Atlantic in June 1959, pushed out of Ireland by a lack of jobs.
A jovial Longford man who has never lost his accent, Prunty is a vice-president of the United Irish Counties Association of New York, and he put a strong effort at the United Irish Counties Feis on Sunday, June 14. “It keeps the Irish heritage going,” he said. “I love being involved. And I love watching the kids dance.”
On Sunday, parents, organizers and kids rushed busily back-and-forth through the venue’s corridors. The United Irish Counties Feis is the oldest the States. The first competition took place in 1932, and has occurred every year since, with only a few interruptions. The Feis is a festive, friendly event that celebrates Irish culture in America.
“There were a few years when it didn’t happen, I don’t know why,” said UIC secretary Sheila Keady, whose daughter has danced in Riverdance. “But we were the first feis in North America. Everyone else came after us,” she joked.
Like the United Irish Counties itself, the Feis is a hub of friendship for the people who organize it, many of whom seem to be from Leitrim, Longford, or Louth.
Joseph McManus is president of United Irish Counties of N.Y. Originally from Drumshanbo in Leitrim, McManus was the former president and vice-president of the County Leitrim Society. For him too, it was the economy that forced him out of Ireland when he left in 1984. He got a good job in New York, and he stayed.
“The economy in Ireland was very poor and things were very bad,” McManus said. “There’s a lot of unemployment in Leitrim – it’s the most thinly populated county in Ireland. So there are a lot of Leitrim people in New York.” The County Leitrim Society helped McManus settle in when he got to New York and he then became involved in the UIC.
When Mike Prunty first came over, the UIC Feis was held outside, subject to the unpredictable June weather. Sunday’s feis was in the Saunders Trade & Tech High School in Yonkers, an air-conditioned indoor venue.
Irish culture, especially Irish dancing, seems just as popular as it was in the 1950s when Prunty emigrated. But some worry that an economic slump, affecting the States as much as Ireland might harm the popularity of the Feis. “There are about 750 dancers here today,” Keady said. “We had a smaller entry this year; we were down by 150 to 200. I would blame it on the economy.”
As for Prunty, does he have any thoughts of returning to Longford, when so much has changed in both the US and Ireland? He’s here to stay. “My family’s over here,” he says. “There’s one of us in Liverpool, six of us in New York.”