Over 40 years ago, just months after Michael Flatley won his world championship in Dublin, Alice Boyle-O’Dowda decided to organise her first feis. For most of its early years she held her Solent Féile in Southampton before bringing it to its current home in Portchester, still within sight of Solent waters.
Since that time Irish dancing has suffered a sea change in terms of dance styles and steps, and more noticeably in terms of dress and hair styles. Dancers’ hair styles, as everyone knows, are in fact dictated by the ever-changing fashion in Chinese wigs, created especially for Irish dancers. Out have gone the hair curlers – beloved by Ena Sharples – that were used by parents to shape overnight the bouncy ringlets of their dancing daughters.
Costumes are no longer the hand-me-down, home-made velvet dresses decorated with Celtic symbolism of harp and shamrock, but have been turned into a £/$ multimillion industry based mainly in Ireland/UK/USA, and today no self-respecting or budding champion will take to the stage without one of those glittering multi-coloured creations, which she feels is necessary to impress adjudicators.
One thing however has remained constant over the years and that is the enduring popularity of Irish dancing and competitions such as Solent Féile that attract first rate dancers from all over the UK and Ireland. In its first years Alice worked tirelessly on its organisation with the help of her late husband, Brendan O’Dowda and close friends of her dance school.
As the years progressed additions to the Boyle-O’Dowda family (daughters Bridget and Ailis, and sons Damian and Conor) resulted in Solent Féile becoming a family affair but with help from dancers and their parents.
Missing from the feis this year is Alice’s son Conor, a former championship dancer, whose dancing feet developed an adventurer’s wanderlust which has taken him to Honduras in Central America, where he currently teaches English and hopefully the occasional jig or reel to its multicultural and ethnically diverse peoples.
It’s a little spooky to think that many of the early Boyle O’Dowda dance pupils are now teachers and adjudicators, and are also parents or even grandparents of children who are following in their steps at feiseanna up and down the country and in several countries abroad.
Indeed one of the adjudicators at Solent this year was Kerrie Connolly who danced as a championship winner for Boyle O’Dowda before she returned, age 17, with family to Dundalk. She now teaches her own school there, Connolly-McAteer School.
Another former dancer (senior ladies champion) who is still very much involved with the school and Solent Féile is Kelly Alford- Hudson, who with her son Harry, presented the Cath & Tom Alford Memorial Trad Set Cup, in memory of her late parents who were active Solent supporters and helpers for over 40 years. I have a vague recollection that on its 25th anniversary I described the Solent Feis as the ‘Mousetrap’ of Irish dancing.
Alice’s continuum legacy will reach its 42nd year in 2019 and I’m sure it will run and run for many, many years to come, and long after I have joined Agatha Christie in another world.