The final count of dancers at the Long Island Feis on Sunday was 528. That may seem like quite a lot of dancers to you, but it’s fewer than the hosts expected, and it marks a trend seen by many feiseanna this summer, as the country’s economic difficulties percolate down. Parents are slower to travel long distance with their children, preferring to attend more local competitions.
“Some of the feises are having a hard time and they’ve had to cancel because they weren’t making enough to cover expenses,” says Tom McKenna, co-chair of the Long Island Feis, and also county vice-president of the Suffolk County Ancient Order of Hibernians. “A lot of the feises are down 20%. We’re down 8% or 9%.”
Still, the student activity center at SUNY Stoneybrook, where the feis took place, looked busy. McKenna fielded question after question as feis workers and parents came over to him. “It’s always crazy while it’s going on and it’s always fun once it’s over,” he joked.
The Long Island feis has that name because it was the first Irish feis held in Long Island, and it’s now in its forty-first year. Many organizers have worked there every year for thirty years or even more; several have helped out for the whole forty-one, and this gives it a homely, friendly feel.
The organizers know each other well, and most of them are members of local divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The men’s 8th and 9th divisions of the AoH officially run the feis but, McKenna says, “we couldn’t run it without the ladies. Even though the men don’t like to admit it!”
In the early years the feis was held outside, which was both bad and good. There was air-conditioning throughout the SUNY student activity center and shelter from the rain, which poured down throughout the day. An indoors feis is easier to organize, and in earlier, sunnier years, workers and dancers were both feeling the heat.
“We came close to heat-stroke,” laughs Mike McMcCormack, a local AoH member, wearing a mint-green shirt with short sleeves and white stripes. “But there was a beer wagon! We don’t have that now.”
McCormack, whose job it was to announce competitions on the main stage, was looking on at the girls competing for the Joyce Hennessy/Tena McCormack dance-off trophy. The contest commemorates his late wife, who worked at the feis for several decades. In the days before computers, McCormack recalls his wife spending 16 hours on paperwork the day before the feis.
The Long Island feis has five special awards in memory of organizers who have passed away. Dancers who’ve come first, second or third in another contest can compete and the prize is a crystal trophy – previously, Waterford crystal, McKenna explains, but now that the Waterford Wedgewood company has gone into administration, Waterford crystal is harder to locate. “Now it’s Cavan or Tipperary crystal, I think,” he says.
Because the Long Island Feis is run by a cultural group and not a school, it’s freed of some of the financial pressures that weigh on a school feis. The cost of holding the feis is immense, running to tens of thousands of dollars, but there’s no need to make a profit. “We exist solely for the kids and the dancing and the culture,” McKenna explains. “As long as we make enough money to cover the feis, we’re happy.” And despite the downturn, this year they did.