HERE IS A COMPILATION OF THE HISTORY FROM A VARIETY OF SOURCES:
From: "Feis" by Edel Bhreathnach The Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford University Press. 2007.
Feis, a feast often involving the ritual or symbolic mating of a newly installed king with sovereignty as represented by its female aspect. Feis is the verbal noun of the verb foaid (‘spends the night’), related to other Indo‐European roots which designate feasting and enjoyment. Two types of feis are described in early texts, the banais (a compound of feis and ben, ‘a woman’) and tarbfheis (a compound of feis and tarb, ‘a bull’). The banais was the symbolic marriage of the king and sovereignty, while the tarbfheis was the ritual, often in the form of a vision, whereby a candidate for kingship was recognized. Symbolic marriages as a form of inauguration of kings continued to be celebrated into the late medieval period.
Feis Temro (‘The Feast of Tara’), a rite observed by kings of Tara to celebrate the divine nature of the kingship of Tara and to reiterate its special status in Ireland. Evidence for the celebration of Feis Temro is meagre. The annals record that it was held on a few occasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. The final and most reliable reference to the celebration of the rite records that it was held in 560 by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, a king of Tara who reputedly espoused Christian and non‐Christian practices. That Feis Temro continued to maintain some legal, if not ritual, significance may be inferred from the 8th‐century law tract Bretha Nemed, which refers to Feis Temro as one of the three elements which constitute a rí ruirech (‘king of overkings’). Its ritual aspect may have been demonized by clerics in the 6th and 7th centuries who disliked its non‐Christian connotations and who fostered Óenach Tailten instead.
From: The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating, 1632
(Foras Feasa ar Éireann le Seathrún Céitinn)
Oilill Molt convened the Feis of Tara. There used to be three general assemblies in Ireland in the olden time, to wit, the Feis of Tara, the Feis of Eamhain, and the Feis of Cruachain. We have set down above the things that were treated of at the Feis of Tara. Now the chief object for which the Feis of Eamhain and the Feis of Cruachain were convened was to approve those who practised mechanical crafts in Ireland, such as smithwork, woodwork or stonework and the like handicrafts. And the nobles and ollamhs who were at these two assemblies selected from each assembly three score masters of each craft, and these were then distributed throughout Ireland, and no fellowcraftsman to these was permitted to practise his craft without permission from the master of that craft who was in that district; and the master must examine whether he be competent to practise the craft. And these masters were called ioldanaigh; now ioldanach means iolcheardach, or skilled in many crafts, for dan means ceard or craft.
The most important of all the ancient assemblies was the Feis of Tara. It is said by some to have been founded, in the year of the world 3884, by King Ollamh Fodhla, whose name means Sage of Ireland, and whose reign was so propitious that "it was difficult for the stalk to bear its corn in his reign." Others say the Feis originated in funeral games. The truth probably is, that it originated in funeral games, and was turned to the other purposes by Ollamh Fodhla. At all events, a national assembly was held at Tara from a very early period down to A.D. 560, when the last was held there under King Dermot, son of Fergus.The Feis of Tara was an assembly of the leading men of the whole island—kings, tanists, flaiths, warriors, brehons, chief poets, &c.—not a meeting of all classes of society. It was not ambulatory, like the English national assembly of later times, held now in one place, now in another, wherever the king happened to be; nor was it haphazard like that by which Magna Carta was adopted. Its constitution and its place of meeting were fixed, and its times of meeting fairly regular. It met at Tara every third year, three days before the 1st of November, and it continued in session three days after the 1st of November. Thus its ordinary session lasted for seven days. For some time before it ceased, however, it had been summoned less frequently.There was an important pagan festival observed all over the country on the feast of Belltaine, which was the 1st of May; and at Tara it was the occasion of an assembly lasting for some days. But those assembled on this occasion seem to have been brought together mainly by religious and social motives and the attractions of the royal court.
In a poem, written in the tenth century, the Feis is spoken of as having been convened "to preserve laws and rules." Edward O'Reilly, the Gaelic scholar, calls the Feis "a parliament." It may be that neither the Feis of Tara nor the other assemblies were convened for the express purpose of making new laws, or ever professed to make new laws, but only to promulgate, reaffirm, retrench, modify or otherwise affect laws long known but for some temporary or partial or local reason suspended, or to extend to the whole kingdom some advantageous local custom, or to correct or abrogate some vicious custom, or to enforce uniformity among the brehons in case of conflicting judicial interpretation, or to restrain on the ground of some local or temporary hardship the strict enforcement of a law otherwise just. There are countless things like these which a national assembly could do well, and in doing which it would be modifying the law; and although it never called itself a legislative assembly, and never claimed to make laws, we are still quite justified in calling its acts legislative.
Among the other duties performed at the Feis was one of some importance even now, but of infinitely more then, because on it the title to rank, property, and privileges largely depended. This was the comparing and checking of the local pedigrees with each other, and with the Monarch's Book, or Register, kept at Tara. Analogous duties are now divided between the offices of the Herald and the Registrar-General.King Dermot died in A.D. 563 (or 565), and after his death no Ard-Rig resided at Tara. No separate Ard-Rig was any more appointed with the kingdom of Meath for his mensal. One of the provincial kings usually assumed the office, or at least the title, retaining and residing in his own province. Tara was deserted, and no place for holding a national assembly was ever substituted. To the time from this date onward, the saying applies that there was no central legislative authority acting for the whole island. Once after the reign of Dermot a national assembly, or convention, was held at Tara, but although legislative it can hardly be called the Feis. It was held in the reign of the monarch Loingseach about A.D. 697; and at the instance of Saint Adamnan a law was adopted which, among other things, freed women from liability to military service, and prohibited their presence in battle.
These feiseanna were a rich opportunity for storytellers to reach a large audience, and often warriors would recount their exploits in combat, clansmen would trace family genealogies, and bards and balladeers would lead the groups in legends, stories, and song.
These gatherings eventually gave rise to athletic and sporting competitions, including horse- and chariot-racing, as well as feats of strength and endurance.
Today the Feis has experienced something of a rebirth, both for ethnic Gaels and for enthusiasts of the Gaelic culture in Ireland and Scotland, as well as throughout the world. Typically they are community-based festivals seeking to promote and maintain Irish Culture, tradition, and pride.
Feiseanna are generally centered around Irish Dancing competitions, and sometimes include music competitions, art competitions, Irish language classes and soda bread baking competitions. An Irish Dance competition that features only dancing is called a "Feile"
When competitors begin to dance in these competitions, they traditionally wear a dance costume decided on by their dance school. When these students reach a competition level decided on by the dance school, they have can design or choose a costume of their own. Girls wear ornate dresses with long sleeves and a paneled skirt. The skirt panels are often stiffened with cardboard inserts. Boys usually wear a dress shirt, tie or vest, and dress pants or a kilt. Girls that are competing also curl their hair or wear a curly wig.
The most important Feiseanna in Irish Dance are the "Oireachtas"(pronounced oh-rok-tis) competitions. There are regional Oireachtas competitions in Eastern and Western Canada, Northeast, Midwest, Southern and Western US, plus locations in Europe (Especially GB and Ireland) and Australia. Regional Oireachtas are open only to dancers from their defined region, and serve as qualifying competitions for National and World Oireachtas. Important National Oireachtas include North American Nationals (NANs), All Irelands, and All Great Britons.
The most prestigious competition for top dancers is the World Oireachtas. Worlds were held in Glasgow in 2007, Belfast in 2008, and will be held in Philadelphia in 2009. The World Oireachtas (Oireachtas Rince Na Cruinne) is typically held Easter Week.
Feiseanna are held all over the world, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, all over Europe, the USA and Canada. In order to be a valid event, the feis must feature adjudicators certified by their respective Irish Dance Commission or Organization, and students must be registered in the school of a certified teacher.
In Irish dance there are different levels of competition: beginner, advanced beginner, novice, open/prizewinner, preliminary championship, and championship. The names of categories vary by region. There are also special categories for adult.
Dancers advance levels by gaining medals in different dances. The dances include jig, Hop jig (single jig), treble jig (hard jig), slip jig, hornpipe, traditional set, reel, nontraditional set and treble reel (tipping reel).
In a feis a variety of soft and hard shoe dances are performed and individually judged.
1) Beginner to Prizewinner dances include:
Soft shoe Dances: Reel, Light Jig, Single Jig, and Slip Jig (Slip jig is very rarely danced by males and is normally classified as an all female category)
Hard shoe Dances: Treble Jig, Hornpipe, Traditional Set (Traditional Sets are St. Patrick's Day, Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, and Garden of Daisies)
Trophy Dances: Beginner and Advanced Beginner perform a soft shoe reel Novice and Prizewinner perform a hard shoe Treble Jig
2) Prelim and Open Champions compete in 3 individual dance competitions, which are then combined for an overall placing:
Soft shoe Dances (For overall placing): Reel or Slip Jig
Hard shoe (For overall placing): Treble Jig or Hornpipe
Hard shoe Set (Solo) Dances (For overall placing): There are a variety of set dances, that are performed as solo's by the dancer. These dances are too numerous to name, and may performed at a variety of speeds.
Trophy Dances (Not included in overall placing): Preliminary and Open Champions also compete in Trophy dances, usually limited to champion level dancers. These Trophy dances will usually be Hardshoe, and a Treble Jig or Hornpipe.
Beginners to Open Dancers may compete in a Special Trophy Dance which is either a Treble Reel (hard shoe) or Slip Jig(soft shoe, females only)**
Different Rules and Dances are used during an Oireachtas or for a Beginner's First Feis