Feis Ceoil gives ‘validation’ to young musicians after year without performing

Online competition marks 125th anniversary of event which provides ‘anchor’ in the calendar of Irish musicians

When Lauren Scully from Dublin graduated from her Masters in Music Performance in 2018, she almost immediately walked into a steady stream of opera work.

A trained soprano, Scully secured a role in Lyric Opera Ireland's production of The Pirates of Penzance, followed by chorus performances in Aida and Carmen with the Irish National Opera at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

The 30-year-old musician had just completed the Carmen run, and was preparing applications for artists’ programmes abroad and international singing competitions when the pandemic hit.

“Everything just collapsed. On top of that we were being told we weren’t essential, that our work as musicians was not essential. For people like me who have spent years training and working on your craft every single day, it’s really hard to suddenly be told you’re not needed, you’re not important.


“We were told we should upskill, try something else. Even that word ‘upskill’ feels like an insult to someone who had spent so long training in what we do.”

As the pandemic continued Ireland’s music community banded together, finding innovative and new ways to continue making art. Scully resumed her singing lessons with her teacher over Zoom, and used the extra time to develop her musical skills.

Last week Scully performed as a chorus member in Irish National Opera’s livestream of La Boheme, and this week she is taking part in the annual Feis Ceoil. She joins 1,500 other young musicians who, for the first time, will not be attending the Feis at Dublin’s RDS in person but instead are submitting videos of their performances.

A whole new technical infrastructure had to be built when Feis organisers finally made the decision to move the competition online rather than cancelling it for a second year running, says CEO Laura Gilsenan. The result is a two-week-long event featuring 136 competitions, with participants aged between 10-30 submitting videos for assessment by a panel of international adjudicators.

Taking part in the competition gives a sense of “validation” to the many young musicians who were just starting out on their careers when the pandemic hit and have been unable to perform or play with others over the past 12 months, says Gilsenan.

“The Feis is always an anchor in Irish musicians’ calendar year, but this time I think psychologically it will really help people that we’re here. It gives people a sense that things will get back to normal.”

Many of these young professionals also rely on the financial support of the Feis prize funds which range between €200 and €4,000, while some will hope to qualify for the €15,000 RDS Music Bursary, says Gilsenan. *


She says The Feis, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, is equally important for younger participants who are still in school but love to play music.

“It’s important for younger people to have a focus and something to work towards. The Feis has that added performance level, that heightens motivation.”

Scully has submitted videos for three competitions, and says preparation for the competition has given her real “focus”.

“It’s given me repertoire to learn, technical things to work through. If you’ve gone through the conservatory performance experience the Feis is a big part of that education. It’s almost a comfort, it’s part of your performance and your growth.”

Scully is trying to stay positive about the coming months, and says the past year has given her time to further develop her skills.

“I can’t speak for other singers but I viewed this as a time to real hone my technique, slow down and remember how much I love music. It’s something that sustains me. As human beings none of us will ever get this time again. I know it’s been hugely difficult but in some ways it’s been nice to slow down and recognise what is important.”

The Feis Ceoil runs online from March 15th-26th, 2021. Full details at www.feisceoil.ie

* This article was edited on March 20th, 2021

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast