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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

Authentically Irish

Fun, fervor and music at this year's fest

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WHY US? WHY MILWAUKEE? HOW DID A CITY KNOWN FOR ITS GERMAN ROOTS BECOME HOST TO THE WORLD’S LARGEST CELEBRATION OF IRISH MUSIC AND CULTURE?

After all, Boston’s Irish ancestry is so dominant that the city named its basketball team the Celtics. Chicago goes to the trouble of dyeing its river green for St. Patrick’s Day. Comparatively, Milwaukee doesn’t have a huge Irish population, but we do have the fervor, enthusiasm and dedication of the nearly 4,000 volunteers who commit their time and energy to ensuring Irish Fest’s success.

That sort of devotion doesn’t come from a superficial celebration of four leafed clovers and pub songs, but rather a deep and authentic expression of Irish culture. Language, music, art, literature, drama, sport, dance, cuisine—the growth and transformation of each aspect of Ireland’s ancient culture makes it more profound. Recognizing the culture’s dynamic nature, Milwaukee’s Irish Fest strives to be fresh and innovative from year to year while honoring the country’s history. Irish Fest introduces new performers, cultural exhibits, special events and themes each time.

Galway, Milwaukee’s sister city on Ireland’s west coast, is this year’s theme and will be represented in all areas of the festival. “Irish Fest’s goal with the Galway Showcase and with every Irish and Celtic partnership is to bring a true taste of Ireland to the festival,” says Jane Anderson, the festival’s executive director. “Galway has such a rich blend of traditional and contemporary influences on its culture and music that there will be something for everyone at the festival this year.”

For All Ages

In addition to maintaining its novelty, the 28-year-old event is committed to offering a variety of activities to satisfy visitors of all ages. Irish Fest recognizes the layers that make us human—how we spend our time, what we eat and drink, our culture, history, genealogy and spirit—and provides an outlet for each. In short, Irish Fest always has its bases covered.

For kids, the festival offers the Family Passport, a game that enables families to pick up a passport and travel with their children to 10 destinations, each rich in Irish culture. Kids collect prizes along the way and can participate in activities offered at several of the stops. At the Gaeltacht, named for the districts in Ireland where Irish is the predominant language, guests are given the opportunity to speak and listen to the Gaelic as well as watch an original children’s play written in Irish and English. Tadhg Mac Dhonnagain will be there, sharing his collection of children’s stories and songs, including traditional rhymes from the Connemara tradition. At the Literary Corner, artist and writer Cindy Matyi will feature her new children’s book, Little Town of Spirals.

Irish Fest appreciates the plight of the poor college student seeking intellectual enlightenment, and so it offers College Day, six hours on Sunday when college students are offered a reduced entry price. With the young professionals in mind, the Fest is throwing Milwaukee’s largest Irish happy hour on Thursday evening from 6 to 9 p.m. “Where’s Your Paddy” offers guests (who must be 21 or older) two free beers, live music and giveaways.

Something else that may interest students of legal age, as well as other adults, is the Jameson Lounge. Patrons can taste special marks of the Irish whiskey by order ing drinks in the lounge or by reserving a spot at whiskey tastings on Saturday and Sunday led by an official “Jameson Irish Whiskey Ambassador.” Reservations for the whiskey tastings are made on the grounds on a first-come, first-served fashion and cost $15 per person.

If hard alcohol isn’t your thing, major sponsors of the event—Miller, Leinenkugel, Lakefront and Sprecher breweries—will be offering their wares. It’s never a good idea to drink on an empty stomach, so fill up on the delicacies of Ireland, including stew, potatoes, salmon, lamb, sausage, scones and soda bread.

As part of the Galway Showcase, the Cultural Village will offer guests the opportunity to learn why Galway is also called the City of Tribes and the history of the Claddagh ring. In the same area, Tim Campbell, director of the St. Patrick Centre in Northern Ireland’s County Down, will host an interactive exhibit high lighting the work and accomplishments of Ireland’s patron saint. Also on display in the Cultural Village is a series of miniature landscapes of historic and prehistoric Ireland, as well as a history of the Ulster-Scots. The Genealogy Pavilion gives fes tival-goers the opportunity to dig down to their roots. Irish Fest provides two faced computers that allow students to sit across from the genealogy expert while researching ancestry on-line.

If your inner Leprechaun is itching for a wool sweater or a triple spiral carved in wood, visit the Moore St. Market. On Thursday, Tony Hearty, who has appeared on Britain’s “Antique Road Show” with his Belleek pottery collection, will appraise festival-goers’ Belleek collectibles. Hearty will display and sell some of his collection throughout the weekend at the marketplace.

Lots of Music

Even if Irish Fest had nothing else to offer, its strong entertainment line-up alone would be able to carry the festival. The schedule is packed with such a diverse and expansive selection of local, national and international musicians and dancers that there is surely a style and flavor for everyone. According to a good source, if you’re a band in Ireland, Milwaukee’s Irish Fest is the gig to get. This year, the Galway Showcase will host Trad on the Prom, a contemporary Irish show featuring music and dance. Members include Mairin Fahy, soloist with Riverdance and The Chieftains, and her brother Gerard Fahy, multi-instrumentalist and director of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance.

Also on the Galway docket: Furry Village, The Saw Doctors, The Kane Sisters, Marc Roberts and The Maimin Cajun Band with an intriguing mix of Cajun and Irish traditional music. This year’s Irish Fest will introduce more than 20 new bands. Many of the artists performing in the Scottish Sampler, dedicated to the influence of Scotland on Celtic culture, are not only new to Irish Fest, but are mak ing their American debut. Featured are talented fiddler Jenna Reid, folk artist Anna Massie, traditional Celtic trio Lau, Celtic rockers Peatbog Faeries and the young trad band Bodega.

This year’s talent ranges from the young to the very old. The Omagh Choir unites Catholic and Protestant children in songs of peace, while the Irish Fest Choir features young singers between the ages of 14 and 20. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Kilfenora Ceili Band will soon celebrate its centenary. Visit www.irishfest.com to read up on the more than 100 acts playing at this year’s Fest, listen to samples of their music, and make a personal itinerary for the performances you want to catch.

On Sunday morning, the bishop of Galway will celebrate the Liturgy for Peace and Justice with Milwaukee’s newly appointed auxiliary bishop William Callahan.

Later on Sunday evening, Irish Fest will draw raffle tickets at 7:30 p.m. Admission to the festival already includes a ticket for the raffle drawing. First prize is round trip for two to the Green Isle as well as a land package with Celtic Tours. Second prize includes airfare for two and seven nights at Castledaly Manor in County Westmeath. Third is $1,000 straight up. You can improve your odds with the purchase of additional tickets for $3 each.

Irish Fest Hours: Thursday, Aug. 14: 5-10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15: 4 p.m.-midnight Saturday, Aug. 16: noon-midnight Sunday, Aug. 17: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

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