By John Egan
As I write, Prince William is visiting Milton Keynes to celebrate its 50th anniversary of being declared a ‘new town’ in 1967.
Many will know the history of this town’s development but few are aware of the relatively recent arrival in town of Feis MK, the newest addition to the dance calendar of London & Home Counties Region of An Comhdháil.
Last weekend Feis MK celebrated its second anniversary and attracted several hundred Irish dance competitors from all over England, Ireland and Scotland.
My interest in Irish dancing has the knack of taking me to towns, cities and places in the UK that I might not otherwise visit.
I first became aware of Milton Keynes almost 50 years ago, but in spite of frequent adverts on the London underground about the benefits of moving to this ‘New Town’ in Buckinghamshire, the place held no attraction for me then.
Nor did I know of anyone who had upped sticks to move to that place with its famous concrete cows. Londoners tittered at the very idea.
The reality is however, that Londoners and others moved there in their tens of thousands. In 1961 its population was 51,000 and following its urban development later in that decade it increased with the overspill from congested London boroughs.
By 2011 the population had swollen to almost 250,000 and although it was officially designated a New Town in 1967 it was known informally by planners and residents as a ‘New City’.
Locally known as MK it continues to attract new residents and businesses and, for sure, the former Wimbledon F.C. does not regret its relocation to become the MK Dons in 2004.
The town even has its very own Irish Centre where Irish dance is practised on most evenings and weekends.
And last weekend, Noreen and I, had the pleasure of driving around the vast open landscapes of this truly rural tree-lined conurbation.
It is regarded as a ‘forested city’ with over 20 million planted trees. Its planners seem to have left nothing to chance.
The very wide grass margins on main grid roads can readily be converted to dual carriageways, if traffic growth requires it.
Unlike Londoners, MK dwellers won’t have to suffer the need for overhead flyovers towering in the sky above them.
Feis MK is still in its infancy but its growth in popularity in such a short timeframe parallels the development of MK itself.
Organised by teacher (TCRG) cousins, Claire Theobald and Vicki Kerridge, of the Mary Drake School, it is now clearly embedded in the regional dance calendar of An Comhdháil.
Claire and Vicki, who are rightly proud of their home town, were determined that their feis should reflect its name, hence Feis MK.
If I were a Rodgers or Hammerstein I would definitely chorus that MK is OK! OK! OK! And so also is its feis.
For the record, for those who might be puzzled by the title of Claire and Vicki’s dance school, Mary Drake was their grandmother, originally from Cork, who was delighted to encourage her grandchildren’s interest in a facet of Irish culture that she so admired. Mary passed away in 2006 but her grandchildren ensured she will live on in their MK dance school title.
And if Mary Drake could look down from her ‘mansion above’ she would be proud to see three greatgrandchildren from MK following in the family’s soft and hard shoe footsteps.
In particular she would be proud of the achievements of Orlaith, the youngest of Claire’s children. Orlaith suffers from a chromosome defect which has delayed her in reaching developmental milestones.
Indeed I remember her last year when she had difficulties in learning to walk. Her condition involves learning difficulties, speech impairment and autism.
Her physical traits include hypotonia, a muscle weakness condition which is seen as militating against the challenges posed by Irish dancing.
In spite of that condition at just two and a half, Orlaith is desperate to learn and joins in every lesson. In fact, she’s even put it into her routine with Irish born physiotherapist, Mairead, at the Child Development Centre in Milton Keynes.
Orlaith, assisted by her Nan, was first on the floor to ‘compete’ in the Walkers Cup, an event that cajoles the very young un’s to get up and try out ‘this dancing lark’.
And surely the late Brucie would have said ‘Didn’t she do well’. During his visit today Prince William said: “There is a very strong sense of belonging in Milton Keynes – a busy cultural, heritage and arts centre and a focus on greenery and sustainability.”
Feis MK surely reflects his sentiments in many ways.
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The Cardinal Wiseman School, home to the Coventry Celtic Championships, must surely be the national centre of gravity for feiseanna.