Jim O'Hanlon, founder of the Irish Culture Club of Delaware (ICCD), had been approached about the ICCD sponsoring a feis (dance competitions). However, he was not certain it could be a success. After considerable persuasion, he changed his mind and club members stepped in to start planning the first ICCD (Delaware) Feis.
A committee was formed consisting of men and women whose children had been participating in step dancing at local Irish dancing schools for years. Martin Mulhern was named chairman and his house designated as the feis committee meeting place. Tom Brady scouted out locations. Bob McHugh developed the syllabus and engineered the timing of events, securing adjudicators and musicians for the competition. Leonard Kelleher organized how the stages should be set up. Pat Kelly , Fred Deely, Brian Harkin and Joe Ranegan set up and carried out the admission and security for the feis. John O'Toole (Candlelight Theatre) would be the announcer. Norah Mulhern, Cis Brady, Joan McHugh , Mary Ann Kelleher, Bess O'Hanlon, Madge Deely, Ann Harkin and Mary Ranegan respectively handled the extensive logistics involved in the coordination and planning.
Other club members got involved to keep the feis more varied and family-friendly. Irish vendors were on hand to sell merchandise. Tommy Healy coordinated and ran the refreshment stand while his wife, Margaret "Maisie" Healy could be seen wearing her tri-color cap selling raffle tickets for a Trip to Ireland. Maisie sold plenty of raffle tickets!
The dance competition is heavily dependent upon having good dance stages and sound system. For this, Jim Schofield, Jim Murphy, Jim Skilling and Jack McDermott donated their carpentry skills and talent to design and build the stages. Pat Donnelly, Pat Downs, John O'Toole and Bob McHugh were responsible for the electricity and sound.
It all came together on August 20, 1978 at the Concord High School playing field. Jim O'Hanlon was pleasantly surprised at how financially well the first feis did, citing how important events like this were in promoting knowledge and experience of Irish culture.
700 dancers from the United States and Canada competed in this very first feis. Among them was a New York City group that swept the All-Irish Feis in Dublin that April, against competitors from around the world.
O'Hanlon and others on the committee realized that if they wanted to attract non-dancers to the feis they would need to offer non-dancing competition. Essays, Dolls, Bread Baking and Art competitions were added and headed up by Nancy Miller, Ruth Lafferty and Michael O'Reilly. Mary Jo Sweeney and her Girl Scouts conducted the flag ceremony and volunteered to clean up the grounds. Chris McDermott, of the Wilmington Fire Department, set up the tents.
When Hugh McBride became president of the club, the feises continued to enjoy great success. However, Mother Nature did not always cooperate and after two years of rain, the feis was moved indoors at Concord High School to insure stages and costumes would not suffer any damage in the downpours.
The next feis was held at St. Thomas School--two floors. Next came two feises at the University of Delaware Stadium--under the bleachers. There was not a feis in 1992. The next two feises were held indoors at the University of Delaware--Clayton Hall. Unfortunately, expenses were not being met because of the large outlay of money to the University.
In 1993, new life came into our feis. Nora Smith and Christine Flanigan co-chaired the feis with the help of Frankie Gillespie, Iris Gillespie Morrison, Joan McHugh and Paul Dolan. In 1995, Alice Seaberg approached St. Mark's High School about hosting the feis (gratis that year!) and there we have been ever since (not gratis now). In 2000, entries numbered well over 800! Presently, Nora Smith is still chairing and, after eleven years as our leader, is putting into place a plan to have new folks take over to keep us moving forward.
NOTE: Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, both of original Riverdance fame, competed in our early feises. It is important to remember that Irish culture and traditions were known and respected well before the advent of Riverdance (this show commercialized feis traditions just as the Clancy Brothers did with Irish folk singing). Feis traditions survived in Ireland under harsh oppressions for centuries. The feis remains one of the ICCD's greatest contributions--along with our monthly Irish history discussions/presentations--in educating the people of Delaware about Irish culture and tradition.