Irish Festians Reflect on 35 Years of Family, Fun

By Paul Enea

Despite a Friday night storm that briefly swept the grounds, this year’s 35th Milwaukee Irish Fest was as easygoing as the wind at Milwaukee’s the Henry Maier Festival Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, is renowned worldwide for promoting Celtic cheer and culture. 

Festival-goers hear masterclass musicians play traditional and contemporary Irish tunes as hearty aromas of stew and ale stir the air. It’s an event where people from all over generate good memories while tipping their flat caps and dancing the jig. 

For the 35th anniversary, the road rises to meet us as we stroll memory lane with the Chieftain’s Circle, organizers of the first Irish Fest and the many to follow. Members include founders Ed and Kathy Ward, as well as Mary Cannon, Sandy Wright, Jerry McCloskey, and John Maher. The IAP spoke with each of them about their experiences over the past thirty-five years.

What’s the best part about being involved with Irish Fest?

Ed Ward (festival founder):
"Family would certainly have to be a big thing. My wife’s been involved since the first year just like I have, and then all our kids pretty much grew up at the festival. And that’s the story of a lot of people at Irish Fest, in its third generation of volunteers. Family involvement has been a big deal for everybody. Our oldest volunteer is 95-years-old and she’s been involved since the first year, and our youngest volunteer is my little grandnephew, who is probably three months old and [laughter] just had his first festival."

Sandy Wright (first public relations consultant):
"I think there are probably two or three things. One is the people. We made a lot of good friends who we went through life and death with, and building something that we're all proud of. We had a lot of meetings and we've celebrated successes and we got together for birthdays. It became an important group of people who had a common purpose. The second level was that, for those of us who are Celts, it really opened up a whole experience and adventure into our personal cultural heritage. Things that we might not have been exposed to in regular life, like some of the more obscure literature or the various range of musicians. The connection to Ireland and Scotland became significant. It opened up some travel opportunities and some other ways for us to connect to our own heritage."

Mary Cannon (food director):
"Seeing the generations. I’m the food director and have been since the beginning. I’m on my third generation of food vendors in the same family now. So the parents started it, then the next generation, and now their children are starting to get involved. It’s the same with the volunteers. Now we’re on grandchildren that are very active."

Is there an incident or event from one of the festivals that stands out?

John Maher (coordinator of the ground’s office):
"Yes. The weather that we had in 1987. That was what we call the ‘Year of the Flood.’ It was a terrible year. But there is an upside to that because the worse the weather the better the story. And we’ve told stories about that countless times. I would say, for people who have been with the festival since the beginning, they could tell you more about the 1987 festival than any other one."

What sort of obstacles did you face in the beginning?

Jerry McCloskey (entertainer’s café; one of the festival’s first treasurers):
"It was just getting started, getting people involved. To this day we have over 4,000 volunteers and a waiting list. So people are very much interested. If you’re Irish, you want to become involved. It’s a family-oriented festival and we wouldn’t have it any other way." 

Any funny or unusual stories from past festivals come to mind?

Kathy Ward:
"The Chicken Story. That’s a Gaelic Storm [Celtic band] story. One year they were promoting one of their new albums, and they dressed up like chickens that were…[laughter]."

Ed Ward:
"Yeah, the title of the album was Chicken Boxer."

Kathy Ward:
"Right. So they dressed up like chickens that have boxing costumes on and boxing gloves. One of the performers, with Ed, came out [on stage] dressed like that with Matt Miller, who is the executive director of the Oshkosh Irish Festival, and they pretended to duke-it-out, except at one point Ed slipped and fell…"

Ed Ward:
"No, I fell on purpose."

Kathy Ward:
"Oh, you fell on purpose. Matt really thought that he fell and hit his head on the speaker, which he did [laughter]. Matt, I think, had a heart attack, thinking he killed Ed."

Ed Ward:
"I was lying there on my stomach in this chicken outfit and he was lying next to me and he kept going, ‘Ed, are you alive? Are you okay?’ [laugher]. And the fiddler from the band, Jessie, she had her leg up on me, playing the fiddle with one foot on me and I’m yelling, ‘I’m okay.’"


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