Bonnie Dempsey is a singer but she doesn’t normally sing at feiseanna.
“I work in an in-patient psychiatric unit,” she explained a little breathily, after her performance in the adults’ competition at Rockland County Feis on Sunday. “People are hesitant to express themselves. I have a lot of instruments and we sing, and they talk about their feelings.”
Bonnie’s father, from Galway, was an accordion player, and he passed his talents on to his daughter.
While Irish music is not part of Bonnie’s day job, it’s something she does for herself. “I love singing and I love to sing. I love Irish music.”
This was her first time throwing her name into the hat at Rockland, and she impressively placed third.
It’s certainly a challenge to perform on a stage at a feis like Rockland County’s – with a mic, granted, but in a park, outdoors and with no musical accompaniment.
Still, 10 children under 16 sang on Sunday, and there were five singers in the adult competition.
The performers sang from memory, which is certainly harder than a sing-along in a pub. While waiting for competitors to arrive onstage, the judge and her helper, Martin Feeney, also took turns at the mic.
The winner of the adult contest was Dr. Kathleen Reilly Fallon. Like Bonnie Dempsey, Kathleen inherited her love of Irish music from her father, who was from Mayo, and who used to sing.
“I’m a foot and ankle surgeon but I’ve always studied voice and I love to sing. I sing all kinds of church music, but I’m a big lover of Celtic music,” Kathleen explained. “This is my seventh time singing at Rockland County and I’ve taken in six first places!”
For Kathleen, music brings another dimension to her life. After 9/11, she worked for two months at St. Paul’s Chapel, near the Twin Towers in New York. The experience inspired her to put an album together, called “Heavenly Lullabies,” and most of the album’s proceeds went to children whose parents had died in the tragedy.
More recently, she made a CD and songbook called “Heavenly Skies and Lullabies,” raising money for the Hurricane Katrina Relief fund.
The exposed nature of performance at the feis means adjudicators can really judge a singer, Kathleen says. They can hear your pitch and your breathing, and it’ll be fairly obvious if you haven’t memorized the song.
For Kathleen, performing at the feis helps her connect with her culture.
Whether it takes the form of a clattering dance, a piping whistle, or a casual song, we Irish have clearly held onto our traditional love of song and dance. As Bonnie Dempsey put it, “I think it’s an Irish principle to express things through music.”