Saving a Culture, Saving a Community

by Jenna MacNeil

Pipe reels and laughter fill the warm summer air. Teenagers enter the hall alongside seniors. Cars spill out of the parking lot, into the field next to the firehall and along the road from the post office to the church entrance. It’s late August in Christmas Island and the Féis is in full swing.

This year marks the 15th annual Féis an Eilein – or Festival of the Island, though you rarely hear an English translation. The Féis has become an institution, an entity beyond easy description. It’s a week of workshops, milling frolics and ceilidhs; it’s an economic driver; it’s the glue keeping a community together.

“I feel the Féis is making a huge difference in our community,” says the group’s co-chair, Debi MacNeil. “Once I became interested, I realized how much the community worked together to preserve our culture. It really impressed me how people who might not have come together for any other reason spent so much time together for a common goal.”

Over the past decade and a half, Comunn Féis an Eilein has been responsible for initiating Gaelic language and music tuition in local schools, providing piping and fiddling lessons during the year, holding language classes for youth and adults, and presenting hundreds of concerts, ceilidhs and workshops. It’s also employed dozens of staff, musicians and instructors, and brought thousands of people to an area whose population struggles to maintain a primary-to-Grade 12 school. MacNeil says the festival gives the area an unique identity – and a renewed pride.

“Without the Féis, we would just be another ordinary community.”

From Barra to Cape Breton, Once Again

Highland Scots from the Isle of Barra arrived on the shores of Christmas Island more than 200 years ago. These pioneers brought few possessions, but were rich in culture. Their language, songs, stories and values are as much a characteristic of the Christmas Island Gael as his distant Scottish cousin. And in the 20th century, both groups share the hardships of outmigration, language loss and economic depletion. As people did in 1800, ideas flow now. The féis movement began in Barra in 1981; ten years later, it jumped the pond and took root in Christmas Island.

“Jim Watson came to us on behalf of the Nova Scotia Gaelic Council,” recalls Allison MacKenzie, one of the founding organizers. “[They wanted to] start a féis movement in Cape Breton and they thought Christmas Island was the natural choice. There was already an active Gaelic group, a large number of native Gaelic speakers, and the availability of venues for it.”

The Féis first took place in 1990; three years later, the non-profit society, Comunn Féis an Eilein, formed. Beth MacNeil is the organization’s co-chair. “We’re trying to make sure that anything we offer is definitely based in Gaelic culture,” she explains. “We don’t go into the trappings that some people perceive to be Scottish culture; that’s not what this festival is about. It’s based on the language and what comes out of the language, through the music, the dance, and the song.”

“We wanted to promote Gaelic in ways that were commensurate with the values of the community,” adds MacKenzie. “We didn’t want to try to introduce something that was totally alien or hyped-up; we wanted to keep it as much like the tradition as possible.”

Firmly Rooted

There’s no flash with the Féis, no attempt to lure visitors. The list of instructors isn’t a who’s who in the recording world. But those with an understanding of the culture’s roots scramble for the chance to study fiddle with Joe Peter MacLean or to sit at a milling table with Seumas ‘Jimmy Calum’ MacNeil. There are no highland dance sessions or guitar workshops. The emphasis each day, each concert, is on Gaelic – including bilingual MCs for the summer concert series, Bu Deònach Leam Tilleadh.

It’s that commitment to tradition – and the group’s ability to get things done – that attracted CBC producer, Wendy Bergfeldt. “For a number of years I’d been following the progress of the Féis. I got to know some of the people involved, really enjoyed working with them. I heard that they were interested in producing a high-quality recording of some of the songs in their community. The CBC has a mandate to reflect the community and I thought this would be a great fit.”

Bergfeldt spent the spring of 2002 meeting with organizers and singers and in two days in April, Còmhla Cruinn (Gathered Together: A Cape Breton Celebration), was recorded in the Christmas Island Fire Hall. Bergfeldt describes the 20-track CD as the “high water mark of my career.”

“I was moved by the music like so many people are, but I think I was really taken with the spirit of the people in Christmas Island,” she confesses. “They were able to achieve so much in such a short time. They are also very welcoming; I know that people from all over the world feel they have a community in the Christmas Island Fire Hall. I admire that.”

“We wanted to capture the spirit, the intimacy and the energy of the singers. We wanted a high-quality recording that would put the listener at the table,” says Bergfeldt, who brought in engineer Rod Sneddon, veteran recorder of the Nova Scotia Symphony. “There was an observation that Frank MacDonald from the Inverness Oran made which crystallized the whole experience for me. He talked about the power of sitting across from or beside another member of your community, singing in the language of your people. He called that a ‘declaration’.”

Bergfeldt sees a strength in the organization that goes beyond cultural preservation.

“You have tradition bearers, visionaries, organizers, doers. It has a natural balance. Right now, the Féis is focused on culture, but I’m not surprised they find themselves talking about community economic development. That group could take on any project under the sun and make a success out it.”

Creating Community

The Féis brought this small hamlet together, producing an environment where individual strengths are celebrated and people’s traditional knowledge is respected. That nurturing atmosphere is also creating a community that’s more open to newcomers than most.

“It is a down-to-earth event that is enjoyed first by the community, young and all, and visitors naturally feel welcomed to participate,” says David Alsina, a Spaniard now living in the area. “The Féis success comes from its natural match with the community. Nowadays there are too many Disneylands – events without real connections, designed in some office building in a big city. The Féis is the product of neighbours meeting neighbours, in their kitchens, year round, to plan next summer. And all that happens here is traditional and unique in North America. A living celebration of the identity of the Gaelic people.”

Alsina says that strong sense of self, and the bonds created by the Féis, make Christmas Island welcoming to others. Paul Moore agrees. “For me the Féis is community. As a relative newcomer, 20-plus years, it took a while to feel accepted. Through the Féis, I was made to feel welcome.”

Both Moore and Alsina appreciate the cultural importance of the Féis, but also see a broader impact. “I am passionate about the Féis – it is so much more than a week of activities,” says Moore, who acts as sound technician and recording engineer for the group, which records audio and video of every event. “It is an entity which continues to preserve the oral traditions of the history of the Gaelic language in Cape Breton and beyond. The folks at Christmas Island have always seen the bigger picture in what they are doing. So much of the oral traditions are being lost or ‘reduced’ to the written word when the true history of the songs and stories were meant to be in an oral form.”

“The Féis is an indispensable tool towards the maintenance of Gaelic culture and language in Cape Breton,” adds Alsina. “There is no better way to preserve your identity than to have so much fun being yourself – and the Féis is great fun!”

Alsina sees the Féis as a model for other communities dealing with outmigration and depleted economies. “Community organized events like the Féis can keep people’s spirits up, refusing to be shut down for economical reasons.”

“Within the local community, the Féis means celebration, gathering, connection, as well as an economic spin-off,” observes Moore. “It is an opportunity to teach and practice language, through songs and stories. There is also a bigger community of Gaelic speakers, singers, songwriters and folklorists who can greatly benefit from the work that is being done.”

Expanding Knowledge

Lorrie MacKinnon travels to Christmas Island each summer from Ontario. “Féis an Eilein is very important to me personally in terms of an opportunity to participate in a local culture. I think what the little community of Christmas Island does is amazing – how many communities of that size can put on such an event?”

One way is by getting folks like MacKinnon involved. Three years ago the Féis approached her about creating a special Gaelic learning event showcasing the local tradition. A symposium focusing on bard Hugh F. MacKenzie’s life was held in 2003; last year, the evening centred on contributors to folklorist John Lorne Campbell’s research, and the Boston Gaels will be highlighted this summer.

“The combination of formal presentations and participation of local tradition-bearers is unique,” says MacKinnon. “There are not a lot of similar events – if any – happening in Nova Scotia at this time, with this local focus on Gaelic culture. People ought to know about these things, and remember these people, and this is just a small way of helping out in that regard.”

Another new partnership, Caidreamh na h-Òigridh, is aimed at youth. Students from St. F.X. University are hosting a free day-long session for people aged 15 to 25 during the Féis. The event – billed as the first among youth – is described as “an energetic gathering” that wants “all of the ideas, energy and support we can muster.”

Moving Forward

Mustering support is something the Féis knows all too well. Reaching the 15th anniversary has not been easy; interest and respect aren’t enough to keep a festival going.

“There’s the monetary and then the Gaelic-based challenges,” says Allison MacKenzie. “Keeping Gaelic relevant in today’s world, when there’s so very little of it around … it’s difficult to encourage people to keep it going.”

The economic benefits of Comunn Féis an Eilien’s activities are clear. A large percentage of workshop participants are from outside the community, creating business for local restaurants and accommodations, and drawing people to the Island. Dozens of people have been employed by the Féis, with numerous musicians, sound technicians and instructors also getting paid for their skills. Collecting all that operating cash at the door would make the Féis inaccessible for most locals. And while the provincial government has lately created special funding programs for Gaelic initiatives, finding enough grants and sponsors to operate a multi-week, multi-discipline festival organized mostly by volunteers is still a challenge. There’s also burnout, competition from other events and a small pool of cultural resource people creating challenges. But each year, the members of Comunn Féis an Eilein focus on their goals – representing community values and respect for Gaelic traditions – and find the inner strength to forge ahead.

“I’m a firm believer in the social benefits to the children of knowing where they’re from, what their roots are, who they are. I think we’d have a lost generation otherwise,” says MacKenzie. “That’s what keeps me going, that’s my main driving force. You see other communities that have been displaced and their tradition and their culture have been buried or taken away somehow; you see the results, and it’s not pretty. I don’t want that to happen to Cape Breton, to our children. We’re a proud people and I’d like to instill that in the children.”

“I feel such respect from the community, for the Féis,” says co-chair, Beth MacNeil. “The older people, I think we have done them such a service in having the Féis and having people of our generation show them the respect that they deserve, which is something that was lacking. I think the Féis put that connection between the senior people in the community – the native speakers, the people brought up just thick in the culture – and the children. More than one senior came to me and said, ‘This is fantastic’.”

Debi MacNeil articulates it simply. “I credit it to good organizational skills, great community support, excellent volunteers and some very stubborn Scotsmen who will not stand idly by and watch our culture disappear.”

In the liner notes for Còmhla Cruinn, Féis member Hector MacNeil notes that between 1880 and 1900, the Gaelic-speaking population dropped from 85,000 speakers to 75,000; by 1921, the number was just 60,000. He states it’s generally agreed that the number has declined by 50% every decade since, leaving the prediction only 250 Gaelic speakers will remain in the next decade. That is, unless groups such as Féis an Eilein continue to persevere in their efforts. And in saving that language, they may just save a rural community struggling to find its place in the global world of the 21st century.