Proud of Our Gaelic Culture

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.