New DVD about Feis An Eilein is a celebration of Gaelic culture

With an opening shot of our world-famous Cabot Trail, looking back at Cheticamp Island from the side of French Mountain, this fascinating new DVD celebrates in music and the spoken word, the 20th anniversary of a community festival that is unique in North America.

It was the middle of August 1991 when the inaugural Feis An Eilein (Island Festival) took place in the tiny community of Christmas Island, located on the shore of the Bras D’Or Lake, about a 40-minute drive from either Sydney or North Sydney. At that time it was not known if the idea of a small, community-based festival, designed to promote the Gaelic language and culture would be successful. But it was, and it was also the first cultural event of its kind to be held outside of Scotland.

This 45-minute DVD is called “Feis An Eilein: Fichead Bliadhna” (“Twenty Years of Island Festival”), and it takes us on an informative, educational, and very entertaining look at just what can be accomplished by a small, dedicated group of individuals who refused to let their Gaelic language and culture simply fade away. Written and narrated by Colette Thomas, it gives us a brief history of the Gaels in Cape Breton, and then lets their music, Gaelic songs, and the Gaelic language take centre stage.

Musical highlights over the years, most of which were recorded in concert at the Christmas Island fire hall, include Howie MacDonald (fiddle); Paul MacNeil and Barry Shears (bagpipes); Brenda Stubbert and Tracey Dares MacNeil (keyboards); the Iona Gaelic Singers and Mary Jane Lamond (vocals).

There are several on-camera interviews with fluent Gaelic speakers, both young and old. People like Hector MacNeil, Rod C. MacNeil, Angus MacLeod, Jeff MacDonald, Janet Cameron, and Jimmy (Coloman) MacNeil, explain the origins and present state of Cape Breton Gaelic, and how the social aspects of the milling frolic have helped to preserve this ancient language.

In another interview Meaghan O’Handley remembers working at the Feis as a 16-year-old, teaching fiddle and step-dancing to young children, and holding simple workshops on the Gaelic language for older children and young teens. For over the years one main emphasis of the annual festival has been a desire to pass on the language and culture to the younger generation.

This is perhaps best illustrated by a remarkable concert performance by four young sisters, the daughters of Tracey Dares and Paul K. MacNeil from Castle Bay. Jessie Helen, Nora, Orianna, and Katie Agnes, sing a lively Gaelic song that is just a pleasure to watch and to listen to. When they finish, they receive a rousing standing ovation from the several hundred people packed into the fire hall at Christmas Island. 

This charming and informative DVD is 45 minutes long and narrated in Gaelic. However, it also has English subtitles and Gaelic subtitles for those Gaelic speakers who may be hard of hearing. It would make a wonderful Christmas gift for anyone from Cape Breton, especially those with Celtic roots. 

It is available for $20 (plus tax) from the Cape Breton Curiosity Shop, 296 Charlotte St. Sydney, the Nova Scotia Highland Village in Iona, and the Gaelic College in St. Anns. It may also be ordered for $20 (plus $5 shipping and handling) from Feis an Eilein, PO Box 317, Christmas Island, N.S., B1T 1R7.

by Rannie Gillis, Cape Breton Post