Irish festivals… Great craic and thoroughly Celtic! Part II.

By: Eric Johnson
The Celtic Force

I was fortunate enough to spend a Friday evening in Milwaukee this year. And, while I’d heard so much about Milwaukee from friends, I can’t say I was prepared for the real deal. Even for a Celtic experience junkie such as myself, with 150,000 attendees, Milwaukee’s so immense as to be slightly overwhelming. Festival Director Barry Stapleton generously toured this “newbie” around the grounds, walking one end of the waterfront to the other. While glimpsing several acts (including the Screaming Orphans) from backstage, Barry briefed me on what it takes to hold this festival.  That would be 4000 working volunteers. Now, that’s a festival!

Milwaukee Irish Fest is the world’s largest celebration of Irish music and culture, showcasing more than 100 entertainment acts annually at the four-day, 16-stage event at the Henry W. Maier Festival Park on Lake Michigan. Passionately committed to igniting a love of Irish culture in all people, Irish Fest teaches Ireland’s music, dance, drama, sports, culture, children’s activities, and genealogy at the festival and through year-long programming. 

This year’s line-up included music from North America, Ireland, Atlantic Canada, and Scotland. Here’s a short list of performers: Gaelic Storm, Aoife Clancy, Natalie MacMaster, and Donnell Leahy, Scythian, Tommy Sands, Sean Keane, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Salsa Celtica,. Screaming Orphans, Drum, Pogey, etc. I found myself having to make tough choices between seeing great bands play simultaneously on different stages. In some cases, each of these individual bands would be a strong closing act for a festival other than Milwaukee. 

Milwaukee Irish Fest also enjoys strong Celtic ties with the province of Nova Scotia and its Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage. This year the festival featured a theme concentration of The Maritimes, billed as “The Nova Scotia and Friends Showcase,” welcoming nine entertainment acts from Canada’s Atlantic Provinces. 

One of the choices I made was to see DRUM!, a Canadian entertainment production featuring 11 musicians, dancers, drummers and singers, DRUM! represents the musical heartbeat of Nova Scotia. Highlighting the four principal cultures of the province – Aboriginal, African, Celtic and Acadian – DRUM! fuses music, dance, poetry, video, rhythm and song, bringing together the tradition and heritage of the founding cultures of Nova Scotia, making it a unique and memorable experience. The Milwaukee crowd was inspired by DRUM! into a standing ovation of several minutes long.

So, that’s what I hope is a teasing glimpse into the world of Irish Festivals and the broader span of world Celtic music. Space doesn’t allow doing it justice here. Thanks to Barry Stapleton, as well as Kris Pluskota from the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center for making my first Milwaukee experience a great one. Thanks to the Killdares and Screaming Orphans for sharing with Rhode Island. And, with hearty encouragement I suggest you find out “what’s the craic?”

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