When I got the call to attend the Hertfordshire Championships in Stevenage I was a little confused. Had I not previously attended Hertfordshire Championships in Kings Langley and in Watford in the past 12 months? The same title for these three separate events is due to their being organised by dance schools from three different dance organisations based in Hertfordshire.
It was An Comhdhail dance teacher and feis organiser Maria Grant who invited me to Stevenage to the longstanding feis organised originally by teacher Deirdre McAleer for many years. Maria inherited its organisation five years ago but this year for the first time she decided to hold it in her home town of Stevenage. It was fitting that Stevenage was chosen as the new venue for this feis.
Did not the Irish come here in large numbers to help in the regeneration and building of its new town in the 1950s and 1960s when it became the first designated New Town to rehouse people from bombed out areas of London that were derelict after the second world war.
Some Stevenage residents were opposed to the rebuilding and one such was the novelist EM Forster who feared the development would “fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire”.
But it was not a kryptonite meteor that altered the landscape of Stevenage but the superhuman efforts of builder Paddy who arrived in their thousands. Not only did these Irish craftsmen create the communities of new homes required in the New Town development but many stayed and settled down in the houses that they built. The town’s demographic since that period may have changed into a multicultural one but there is still a sizeable population of first, second and third generation Irish folk for whom Stevenage has become home.
It was not surprising therefore a number of resident Irish visited the feis to re-acquaint themselves with their dancing roots.
They wanted to see first-hand the art form of their forebears. A couple of such visitors were Wexford man Luke Donovan and Waterford woman Peggy Lyons, chair and vice-chair of Irish Network Stevenage (INS). They told me about the work of their charity in supporting older Irish people in the community and were proud that sponsorship of their charity included the Irish Government and the Ireland Fund of Great Britain.
They stayed to watch the dancing competitions and returned for more on day two. They went away keen to ensure that their networking could publicise the feis among local Irish residents in future.
Another visitor was local parish priest, Father Michael Doherty SDS (parents from Donegal and Limerick) formerly of a parish in Harrow for many years. He gave me some interesting news nuggets about the three RC churches in Stevenage and I was particularly interested to learn that at his local church of St Hilda’s, Lewis Hamilton, Formula 1 champion, had made his First Communion but regrettably he couldn’t claim him as an Irish parishioner.
In every way the Hertfordshire Championships was an extremely successful event. The sizeable entry included coachloads of dancers from as far away as Scotland. Most dancers came from the England regions and a sprinkling travelled over from Ireland.
At times the building was a little cramped but it did not dampen the enthusiasm for this new venue and a discouraging word was nowhere to be heard. I feel sure that all will be returning to this Stevenage venue in 2017.
More images in this week’s paper!