Slainte! Irish Fest heats up the lakefront

By - Aug 17th, 2011 04:00 am
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Irish Fest Parade Milwaukee

All photos courtesy Milwaukee Irish Fest

The third week of August usually means a number of things. The heat index begins to retreat back towards normalcy (hopefully…maybe?), parents are dropping off their children for the first week of school, and in Milwaukee, the city’s celebrated summertime activities are winding down…sort of.

At this point even first-time summer residents of Milwaukee like myself have become seasoned festival-goers of some degree, whether that means the Wisconsin State Fair, lakefront festivals, or even Thursday nights at Jazz in the Park. But there’s no better way to kick off this final wave of summer fun than with the largest festival of its kind in North America —Milwaukee’s 31st annual Irish Fest.

Music, culture, shopping and food on Milwaukee’s lakefront — what more do you need? As in years past, Irish Fest 2011 will feature its renowned Cultural Village, offering visitors the opportunity to interactively learn about the Irish culture, as well as two Marketplace areas where over 90 vendors will be selling authentic Irish crafts and retail items.

“People love to shop at Irish Fest,” says festival director Jane Anderson.

Vendors hail from as close as our own backyard, and from as far as both coasts of the U.S. and of course, Ireland. While the Marketplace at the south end of the grounds will host the majority of the vendors, the north end will hold the Music Mart where CDs of this year’s artists will be sold.

Milwaukee Irish FestSpeaking of music, this year’s Irish Fest brings 100 musical acts on 16 stages, with headliners like Gaelic Storm. There is something for everyone as the festival draws entertainment from several genres including rock, contemporary, folk and the traditional Irish favorites. With groups from all over the world, few will be able to resist rocking out.

Each year festival organizers showcase a region of the world by highlighting that country’s food, music and culture on various stages and pavilions throughout the grounds. Past showcases have featured areas such as Nova Scotia and Galway City, and this year will focus on Northern Ireland’s Derry and Donegal Counties, known as the “Atlantic Gateways.”

Boasting over 6,000 years of vibrant creativity, the walled city of Derry is one of the oldest inhabited places in Ireland. As origin to the politically unstable period known as the “Troubles” and home to tragic events like “Bloody Sunday,” the city is rich in its history.

“Ireland is very historically rich in culture, which is part of the thread of their society,” Anderson said. “The effort now is to turn that [period of history] around by rebuilding the city.” Anderson added that this is a particularly important time for the city of Derry, as it will be designated the first “UK City of Culture” in 2013.

Donegal also has a storied past and vibrant culture, especially when it comes to music. While it is by far one of the most welcoming cities for miles, be sure not to confuse a Donegal fiddler’s unique style with other parts of Ireland — fiddling is a serious business here.

Derry and Donegal will be mainly featured in the form of film, theatre and literature exhibits throughout the festival, and for the first time, award winning documentary films will be shown at Irish Fest in the Volta Theatre.

Milwaukee Irish FestAside from these rare opportunities to engage in the arts, Anderson encourages visitors to also check out the Cultural Village and Cultural Pavilion. Located at the south end of the grounds, the Cultural Village will boast authentic Irish crafts, writers, storytellers and lectures on Irish history, literature and language. Festival goers will also have the chance to learn several native Irish instruments (including Ireland’s national instrument—the harp), trace their family’s genealogy and give the sliotar a whack with a hurley in the hitting tube (Huh?? That’s hurling speak—an ancient Gaelic sport similar to field hockey).

For the kids there will be an entirely free children’s area, which includes a family-friendly music stage, miniature golf and tons of other activities to keep them busy for hours. And for the adults (possibly in need of relief from the kids…), the Jameson Lounge returns! Open Friday to Sunday for guests 21 and older, the Lounge allows attendees to try select brands of Jameson Irish Whiskey (along with several specialty drinks, including the “Bloody Molly”). New to Irish Fest this year is The Cottage, which will serve Jameson drinks as well as the traditional Irish wine, Bunratty Mead, in a more relaxed atmosphere.

“There’s truly something for everyone,” says Anderson, who has been an active organizer since the festival’s inception. Though people of all ages attend Irish fest, she especially gets excited to see enthusiastic young people there because they will eventually fill her shoes. “We strive to keep it fresh and new and keep young people involved in positions of responsibility.”

Irish Fest kicks off August 18-21 at Henry Maeier Festival Park. For tickets, hours and more information, click here

Categories: Life & Leisure

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