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Designed by the North American Feis Commission to reward the hard work of young musicians and foster interest in performing at feiseanna, the inaugural Music Award Competition for the under 15 age group took place on May 7, 2011. The event was held at the Westin Atlanta North at Perimeter in conjunction with the 21st Annual Peach State Feis, hosted by the Peach State Feis Inc.

Helen Gannon, Director of St. Louis Irish Arts Incorporated and Chairperson of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann North America, oversaw the competition on behalf of the North American Feis Commission.  Gannon explained that each competitor would play two tunes twice over with an 8-bar introduction.  A dancer selected by the feis committee would dance two steps (32 bars), and begin dancing immediately following the 8-bar introduction.  The candidate would continue to play until the tune had been completed twice over.

All other competitions at the feis were stopped, and two ballrooms filled with dancers, families and adjudicators gathered to hear the seven young musicians. Playing fiddle were Jack Barrin, Lia Hanes-Stetter, Nicholas Lindell, Emma Sloan and Skyler Ruth Norcom.  Liam Butler-Lawrence played keyboard and Claire Shirey played concertina.  Judy McCafferty, TCRG and ADCRG, of Arkansas, and Paul O'Donnell, a well-known feis musician from Belfast, Northern Ireland, judged the stellar performances while volunteer dancers accompanied the musicians. 

McCafferty said, "What a delight to be a part of the first NAFC Music Scholarship competition for this age group! I was honored to work with Paul O'Donnell on the judging panel to select the recipient of this award. I notified each contestant about ten minutes beforehand the type of music to be played. Dancers were provided and my job was to evaluate the suitability of the musicians to play for these dancers. Mr. O'Donnell evaluated the musicians' technical abilities. The competition was outstanding. Each young musician is a credit to their teachers.”

McCafferty and O’Donnell conferred at length when the competitors had finished, “testimony to the quality of the playing,” remarked Gannon, as she congratulated each of the entrants on their skill and effort. 

Gannon awarded a $500 scholarship on behalf of the North American Feis Commission to Claire Shirey from Canton, Georgia who had played a jig and a hornpipe on concertina. Each competitor, some of whom are also competitive Irish dancers, was also awarded a subscription to Feis America, North America’s favorite Irish dancing magazine.

Julie Shirey, Claire’s mother, said, “Claire’s primary influence has been The Atlanta Junior Ceili Band under the direction of Katherine Irwin Thomas. We LOVE has been an amazing experience for Claire being part of the band since [she was] nine years old.”

Shirey studies concertina with Katherine Irwin Thomas and Alex Reidinger and also studies Irish fiddle, Irish flute and Irish tin whistle as well as concert flute.  She is also a member of the Compantas Rince Gaelach (Atlanta Irish Dance Troupe).  Shirey’s extensive resume cites her as an honor roll student, scholastic athlete, band and chorus member, and a competitive Irish dancer with the Drake School Georgia.  Shirey has won numerous awards including the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh in May, 2010, which qualified her on the concertina for the All Ireland Fleadh.

Karl Drake, TCRG of the Drake School, said, “Honestly the highlight of the feis this year was the NAFC music competition! To see these upcoming young musicians take the stage with such confidence blew my mind.  Seeing my wonderful dancer Claire play the concertina brought tears to my eyes… and now [she is]the South’s future feis musician.”

McCafferty summarized, “It is a joy to know there is a pool of feis musicians for future feiseanna just waiting in the wings. My congratulations to all the competitors and a special note of appreciation to the North American Feis Commission for starting this event!"

For more on Irish Dance visit Feis America Magazine