They started with a wing and a prayer, a few dollars in the bank, and a big idea: find a way to celebrate Irish culture in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city known for its German heritage since the 1840s. Their idea worked. This year, as the Milwaukee Irish Fest marks its thirtieth anniversary August 19 through 22, well more than one hundred thousand people will come along to join the celebration. Over the years, the festival has become recognized as one of the top Irish cultural and music events not only in the United States but across the world.
“We’re hoping for good weather, that’s always at the top of the list,” said festival founder Ed Ward, who has been with the festival from the first days. He knows, though that people come out, rain or shine. Musician Aoife Clancy, who has appeared at the fest several times, recalls one year when it poured buckets. “The people still came out. They came out, and they stayed,” she said. “I was amazed.”
People come from all over the United States, and beyond, to explore Irish culture through music, food, arts, language, and story telling. “You could spend a whole day in the cultural village and fill your time up, and never even make it to the music stages,” Ward says. You could, for example, learn about the Celtic Canines, plan a trip to Ireland, talk with a lace maker and a woodcarver, and take in a play in Irish.
Music is really at the heart of things, though. This year, Cherish the Ladies will return to the festival stages. In 2007, the festival was the site for a reunion concert of the all woman Irish and Irish American band featuring many former band members, including Aoife Clancy and Cathie Ryan, who’ve since gone on to top notch solo careers. Another super group of sorts, Greenfields of America, will be on the program this year as well, with members including singer and banjoist Mick Moloney, guitarist John Doyle, and fiddler Athena Tergis.
Tommy Sands, songwriter and peace activist from County Down in Northern Ireland, will be retuning. to the festival. “We’ve always made it a point to have the festival be about the island of Ireland,” Ward said, and this year many artists from the north will be there, including well known songwriter Kieran Goss, whose most recent album was produced by an equally well known American songwriter, Rodney Crowell.
The international artists will share stages with many bands and artists from around the midwest, as well. There are big festival stages, and smaller, more intimate venues on the festival grounds, and sometimes sessions break out there after things close down for the night. There will be a mass on Sunday morning, and on Sunday evening, a closing concert. Then fireworks will light up the night sky to send people on their way — until next year.