Photo gallery of the Putnam County Feis: Click here
Throughout the day at the Putnam County Feis, a rocking, regular sound plays continually. It becomes so familiar that you stop noticing it. But this is the accordion, the instrument that accompanies the dancers for hours and hours – and hours.
Musicians are little noticed, but crucial to a feis. There’s a lot of demand for feiseanna in the U.S. – many parents bring their children to competitions several times a month. The Commission of Irish Dancing in Ireland rules that no more than six feiseanna can occur in North America on any weekend day, and no more than 10, max, over the weekend in all. This is because there aren’t enough qualified musicians to go around.
It’s a long day, says Brigid Robine, an accordion player. “You play straight for eight or nine hours. If we took breaks, nothing would get done,” she says.
Like nearly everyone here – dancers, judges, parents – Brigid used to be a dancer herself, and she says that the memories return when she plays in a competition.
“I used to dance at this Feis when I was tiny,” she explains. “I like seeing the kids get bigger and bigger.”
She’s chatting to Michael Fitzpatrick, a tall, bearded, and somewhat comical man, who describes himself as a “professional dentist.” He’s judging contests today at Putnam, but he sometimes works as a musician.
Fitzpatrick is a true music lover, and at the Feis he’s also promoting his own CD, “Whispering Door” – it’s named after a doorway in Clonmacnoise Cathedral in County Offaly that he used to visit as a child.
In his youth Fitzpatrick was North American World Dance Champion. He took the adjudicating exam in 2006 because you have to dance at the exam, and he wanted to take it, he jokes, before he got too old.
When you’re accompanying the dancers, Fitzpatrick says, you have to focus on the job, so judging the contests can be more fun. “As an adjudicator I get to watch!” he exclaims, and claps his hands with enthusiasm.
Meanwhile Brigid Robine is going back to work for another couple of hours of jigs and reels. “Sure, I’d be lost without something to do,” she laughs.