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
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
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
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
"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?
"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]."
"Yeah, the title of the album was Chicken Boxer."
"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…"
"No, I fell on purpose."
"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."
"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.’"