Friday, August 18, 2017

Féile an Phobail - Thirty Years a Growing

Thirty Years A Growing

I didn't get to any Féile events this year. That's a first. Truth is I was too tired. Martin's death. Two elections. Two USA trips in July. Constituency duties in the Dáil and in Louth. Talks or what passed for talks at Stormont. It all takes time and effort. 

So I decided to forgo Féile this year.  I missed a very wonderful series of events. I was particularly sore not to get to the RFJ's Plastic Bullet picket. Another first. But I followed it all on Twitter. Especially Clara Reilly. A mighty woman. Battling on. Never giving up. Emma Groves and Clara were never beaten. Never will be. 

Féile is great. Taking a step back from it all is a very good way to appreciate how great it really is. So once again well done and thanks to Sam and Kevin and Angela and Harry Beag and all the women and men of the current brilliant, energetic and ever resourceful Féile team. That includes Ciaran Morrison who is leaving after 17 year of Féile adventures. And Ciaran eile who keeps us honest.

Back in the days before Féile An Phobail, West Belfast was a different country. Under military occupation. Censored. Community structures subjected to political vetting.  Discrimination rampant. Everyone was related to or knew someone who was a political prisoner.  Neighbours' sons and daughters. No state funding whatsoever for Irish language education.  Little for Gaelic games. Neighbourhoods subjected to counter insurgency  measures. Betrayed by church hierarchies and by the great and the good. Including Dublin. Especially Dublin. Community leaders and political representatives targeted by British State sponsored death squads. 

Republican West Belfast was a community in rebellion. We still are. Back then we were deeply invested in a culture of resistance against occupation and oppression. Many of our battles were defensive. Underground. But we were in transition. Our culture of resistance was becoming a culture of change. Of reconquest. But there were too few platforms for this. The republican community of West Belfast was hemmed in. Under the cosh. Unbowed and unbroken. But needing an outlet for our positive energy and imagination. And vision. 

The killings at Gibraltar of three outstanding West Belfast citizens Volunteers Mairead Farrell, Seán Savage and Dan McCann and especially the establishment's vile demonisation of their community- our community - was a tipping point. A lesser people could not have survived the decades of vicious insults, lies and invective. But this onslaught and the attacks on their funerals and the other funerals and deaths of Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh, Thomas Mc Erlean and John Murray which followed, including the two British soldiers,  became a catalyst for that culture of change to find a platform. Féile An Phobail was a result of that. We were telling our detractors to f... off. We knew who we were. We were no better than anyone else. But we were no worse.  

So Féile was our answer. Our alternative. It became the forum or forums for local artists, poets, photographers, singers, dramatists, dancers, painters, chancers, writers, talkers, sports people and spoofers to strut their stuff. To yell yahoo!  In harmony. To give licence for hope and creativity and cheerfulness and positivity. To reclaim our space. To create space for others. To enjoy ourselves. To say this is who we are. Not a terrorist community. But a patriotic, resourceful, intelligent, cheerful, confident, caring and hopeful gathering of men and women looking to the future and prepared to imagine that that future could be fair and inclusive. And happy. Capable of making our own music. Of shaping and creating our own vision.

Féile was also an invite for other progressives to join us. And they did. Playwrights. Painters. Singers. Musicians. Actors. Actresses. Activists from other struggles. Other political views. Other traditions. Boy Bands and Girl Bands. Writers. Orchestras. Rap artists. Seán nós singers. Hip Hoppers. Rappers. Céili dancers. Movers and shakers. Stilt walkers. Discreet Walzers. Tango dancers. Talkers. Walkers. Citizens with disabilities. Old people. Children. Youth. Wannabe Youths. Cooks. Cranks. Fly boys from the love comics. Loose men. Delinquent pensioners. Dog lovers. Dogs. Glamorous Grannies. 

Some are coming to Féile still. Now part of the Féile family. Marie Jones  brought her plays. She nurtured a theatrical undercurrent which took its own communal stories and experiences and gave them dramatic form. Pam Brighton mentored local writers and stage designers and sound engineers. Citizens who were never in a theatre flocked to parish halls, local schools, community centres and GAA clubs to be uplifted and moved to tears or cheers. Field Day included the Féile in its tours. Stephen Rea brought Oscar to life. Ulick O Connor and the late Tomás MacAnna gave us Executions. Dan Gordon gave us A Night in November. The list is endless. A new generation of young artistes blossomed. They are still captivating us with their art. Local performers, writers. Bi lingual drama at its best. Communal tales with universal themes. 

Robert Ballagh arrived to acknowledge the artistic beauty and integrity of our fledgling mural painters.  Where previously the painting of political graffiti was liable to incur RUC harassment or worse no one could stop you painting a gable wall if the householder was content to have their gable transformed by Mo Chara or Danny D, Martie or their legions of fledgling Jim Fitzpatricks. And Jim came as well to praise their masterpieces. 

So did Gerry Keenan with orchestras to beat the band. The Sky's The Limit opened for The Ulster Orchestra. Peadar O Riada brought An Cor Cullaigh. Eddie Keenan sang 'I Was There.'  Seán Maguire enthralled us with his fiddle magic. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin with his piano. Terry Enright brought us up the Black Mountain. The Falls Park hosted a Póc Fada. The Bobby Sands Cup challenged soccer teams. The Mairead Farrell Tournament did the same for Camogs. Aidan Creen and Terry Goldsmith opened up The Bog Meadows. Tom Hartley started his graveyard tours. Féile opened our own radio station. If we were blocked from other media why not start our own? Hector McNeill and Tea Pot footered at that for a while. Donnacha Rynne made his debut there. Fergus Ó’ Hír dabbled in Irish language radio broadcasting. Radio Fáilte was born. Ag fas fos. 

Martin Sheen came to visit. And later Michael Moore. And many, many more. President Mary Robinson defied both the British and Irish governments and visited us with the active encouragement of Inez McCormack, Eileen Howell and other sisters.  Mary McAleese, no stranger, was later to make the same journey also as President. 

And those who censored us? We reached out to them and invited them to talk and to listen to us. We welcomed detractors and other  naysayers along with ordinary decent citizens to West Belfast Talks Back. Discussion groups, debates and lectures flourished under the leaderships  of Jake Jackson, Paddy Kelly, Majella McCloskey, Siobhan O Hanlon, Carol Jackson, Bill Rolston, Danny Morrison and Jim Gibney. Danny also pioneered Scribes at The Rock and the odd time in The West Club, and brought authors from far and near.

Exhibitions blossomed everywhere. Quilts. Photos. Posters. Drawings. Paintings. Sculptures. H Block Comms. The West Belfast Film Festival brought Stephen Fry to visit. He was amazed at the grey threatening awfulness of the Barracks opposite Milltown Cemetery and delighted by the welcome he got in McAneany's. Seamus Heaney came as well. His first time back in St Thomas's since he taught there. A memorable day with Jimmy Ellis at Sam Thompson's graveside in the City Cemetery and later in St Mary's.

And singing? We sang like angels. With Planxty. Anúna. Frances Black. Mary Black. The Bueno Vista Social Club. The Wolfe Tones. Bríd Keenan. Altan. Brian Kennedy. Shane Magowan. Davy Spillane. Dolores Keane. Mick Hanley. Jimmy Yamaha. A Welsh miners choir. Brush Shiels. Jimmy McCarthy, Fra McCann. Floyd Westerman. St Agnes Choral Society. Tony McMahon and Noel Hill. Christy. UB40. Brian Moore. Noírín Ní Riain. Tony Carlisle, Flair, Jim Moody became friends of the stars. High flyers. 

For years we survived without funding. Our leaders included Deirdre McManus, Siobhán, Danny Power, Seán Paul O Hare, Geordie Murdoch, Caitriona Ruane, Niamh Flanagan, Geraldine McAteer, Ciaran Quinn, Aidan McAteer, Ciaran Kearney, Deirdre Mackle, Margaret McKernan, Deirdre Walsh, Maura Brown, Chrissie Keenan and Bridie. And countless others. Many worked in a voluntary capacity. The Andersonstown News was always an ally. And the local Irish language community. And Springhill the main concert venue for years. Right in the centre of the war zone. No one else would have done it with such panache. 

Now the Féile is Irelands foremost community festival. Despite the best efforts of those who lorded it over us thirty years ago. I am sure the history of this all will be chronicled. It needs to be. Memory is important. So too is the telling of our own stories. That's what Féile is about. Writing the future while righting the past. 

But the arts needs proper dedicated core funding. Local sponsors have kept faith. We are grateful to them but the Féile team survives on a shoe string. Could it be better? Of course. But almost 30 years later Féile is still one of the best things I was ever involved with. It's success is a great credit to everyone who was or is associated in any way with this outstanding communal celebration. Not all the names are included here. That is not intentional. So if you're left out or if you know somebody who is left out shout! This is only my flawed hurried little recollection. Write your own. Send it to Andytown News. Or the Féile office. With photos if you have them. 

Maybe as we celebrate thirty years a growing some of us will find the time to write a list of all the Féile leaders and champions and do a Féile Thirty Years On Birthday ReUnion. Just to remember and say Go raibh mile Maith agaibh go leir. 

An Féile Abú! 

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