Sitting at the back of the organizers’ tent with a table to herself, Pat Dwyer cut an imposing picture at the Rockland County Feis on Sunday.
Dressed in pinstripe pants, a black top and a black-and-white-patterned shirt, with short, wavy, light-blond hair, and a wry smile, Dwyer held court during the day, answering queries, chatting to passersby, and generally fending problems off with charm. This was Mrs. Feis, the woman who has chaired the annual Rockland County Feis for thirty years.
The Rockland County Feis is in its 36th year of existence. Sponsored by the Rockland County Ancient Order of Hibernians (men’s and women’s divisions), it is an enormous event, and is a huge undertaking to organize.
Families spread themselves all over the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area in Stony Point, NY, picnicking under the sun.
The Rockland Feis included not just Irish step-dancing, but a host of other forms of entertainment: music competitions like singing and lilting, field events like Gaelic football, piping contests, an old time waltz competition and an Irish soda bread award. And that’s not even all the event had to offer.
But the work doesn’t seem to bother Pat Dwyer in the slightest. “It’s a lot of fun because we have an excellent committee, and then some,” she says. “There is no challenge. I love dealing with people.” And she adds with a laugh, “if you run into someone you can’t deal with – you shuffle and deal.”
Like many other Rockland County residents, Pat Dwyer was born in the Bronx. Her grandparents are from Counties Down and Clare in Ireland.
She is the first woman to ever chair the Rockland County Feis, and also happens to be a strong supporter of Sarah Palin.
In 1980, a friend called Ed Moan told her there was no one to chair the feis and suggested that she do it. “I said, ‘they’re never going to let a woman run that. It’s always a man.’” But nobody else was going to run it, so she took it on.
It started out simple, but over the years, Dwyer and the feis committee have added more and more exciting elements to it, getting their ideas from the North American Feis Commission Convention.
So the pipe bands, the special needs dancing, the Gaelic-speaking and many other Irish cultural events came to be central parts of the Rockland County Feis.
For the two years before Dwyer was feis chair, the feis had been indoors, and Dwyer said she’d take over the reigns only if she could move it back outside. This is part of the feis tradition, as Dwyer sees it, since in early Ireland, she says, “the bards and musicians and dancers of the day came together on the hill of Tara.”
With so many feiseanna held indoors today, she adds, “you don’t get a lot of true feiseanna.”
And the Rockland County Feis has its own mythology. It never rains on the feis, for example. This is because the feis’s founder, Danny Geelan, consulted the National Weather Service before he started it to see on which day of the year rain was least likely. It may also help that the Salesian priests at the Marian Shrine in Stony Point nearby pray things will go well each year.
Indeed, the atmosphere at Rockland County is remarkably stress-free.
So aside from her wonderful helpers, how does Dwyer do it?
You have to believe in God, she says, and asserts: “You have to love people. You have to have a sense of humor. You have to be Irish.”