Monday 27 January 2020

How a tantrum at a Feis Ceoil led James Joyce to literary greatness

James Joyce in 1904
James Joyce in 1904
Dr Annie Patterson
The programme for the first Feis Ceoil

In his final years, my late father and I enjoyed a simple ritual during my visits to his nursing home.

Having poured him a whiskey, I'd put on his favourite Count John McCormack CD and he happily listened to those scratchy gramophone recordings while I browsed through James Joyce's Ulysses, which I was adapting for a stage production that toured China.

Watching him sing along, I'd occasionally think about how, if circumstances - and two singing competitions in 1903 and 1904 - had ended differently, my father and I might perhaps have been enjoying the work of these two artists in reverse order.

When John McCormack won the gold medal for singing at the 1903 Feis Ceoil in Dublin, it transformed his life - bringing with it a year-long scholarship to study singing in Italy. This launched him on a journey to worldwide acclaim as a great tenor.

There is a myth that McCormack's voice derailed James Joyce's ambition to win this gold medal at the Feis Ceoil, back when Joyce was seriously contemplating trying a career as a professional tenor.


But, in fact, it was McCormack who encouraged Joyce to enter the 1904 Feis, hoping that Joyce would emulate his success and enjoy a similar year in Italy, away from his poverty in Dublin.

Joyce's Feis Ceoil dreams were not shattered by McCormack, but by Joyce's erratic preparations. He took his singing seriously enough to rent a large room from a family on Shelbourne Road - they unwitting joined Joyce's long list of patrons as he was tardy at paying rent.

He even conned the famous Piggott's shop into delivering a grand piano - being careful to be out when it arrived, thereby avoiding tipping the workmen who hauled it upstairs.

However he didn't make any attempt to learn how to read music - despite knowing that the Feis rules required him to sing an easy but unseen song on sight.

Joyce's voice so impressed the distinguished judge that he was a shoo-in for the gold medal until he stormed off stage in high dudgeon when he was presented with a sheet of unseen music and asked to sing from it. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, he disqualified himself. The stymied judge could only eventually present Joyce with a token bronze medal.

The disappointment of this bronze medal launched Joyce on a journey to worldwide acclaim, not as a singer like McCormack, but as the most brilliant avant-garde novelist of his time.

But perhaps if the judge had been able to award Joyce the 1904 Feis Ceoil gold medal, Joyce might have stuck to the singing, as his wife, Nora - no great fan of his books - claimed he should have.

Perhaps if McCormack had failed to win the 1903 Feis he might have abandoned music to reveal a previously unseen imaginative streak as a controversial novelist.

If that had happened my my father might have sat happily listening to scratchy recordings of Count James Joyce, while I might have happily read the incendiary prose of John McCormack.

As with all "what if" scenarios, we'll never know. But one thing we know for certain is the location of this bronze medal, which Joyce claimed to have flung into the Liffey in disgust.

The reality was more prosaic. Joyce gave the medal to his Aunt Josephine and its owner today is the former dancer Michael Flatley.

Flatley has loaned it to the award-winning Little Museum of Dublin where it is part of a unique exhibition, The Music of Dublin: 120 years of the Feis Ceoil, which runs until June 19.

It celebrates a truly unique Dublin institution which began in 1897, when - following a newspaper letter about the lack of encouragement for Irish musicians - Dr Annie Patterson (left) established a committee to organise a once-off festival.

This proved so successful that, although aspects have changed over decades, today it remains as vibrant as ever. The 2016 Feis - sponsored by ESB - saw 5,000 young musicians compete in 190 competitions.

Almost every major Irish classical musician cut their teeth at a feis, from Margaret Burke Sheridan to Bernadette Greevy, from John O'Connor to Hugh Tinney, and Finghin Collins to Cora Venus Lunny.

In 1904, when Joyce self-destructed, a young poet named Thomas McDonagh won the gold medal in composition for a musical cantata.

McDonagh's activities proved more disruptive 12 years later, when the 1916 Rising saw the Feis postponed for several months.

But it still happened, even during the Second World War when outside judges could not travel and John McCormack stepped in to take their place as adjudicator.

Its sole cancellation occurred in 2001 because of the foot-and-mouth crisis. Every other year has seen thousands of hearts-in-mouth crises, as young musicians find the courage to perform.

Dubliners often only get nostalgic for things that are gone, but this exhibition lets us be nostalgic for something still thriving and celebrates the hard work of generations of organisers who kept the flame alive.

It gives us a chance to enjoy a wealth of historical artefacts, from photographs from the 1890s and early programmes and judges' score-sheets to trophies and personal mementos. It may even let us speculate on where the next John McCormack or James Joyce may spring from.

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