Byline: Kathy Rodeghier Daily Herald Travel Editor
If you've ever attended a wedding reception for a couple of Irish descent you know what a knack Irish-Americans have for gaiety.
You'll hear Irish music, of course, maybe bagpipers and a fiddler, too. There will be lots of food and drink, blessings and toasts. And dancing - Grandma swaying to those fine old ballads, the young folks jumping to Irish rock and tykes trying out step dances, or maybe just another chicken dance, while their adoring relatives look on.
Now imagine 100 Irish wedding receptions going on at once and you'll have an inkling how it feels to stand in Milwaukee's festival park on the third weekend in August.
Milwaukee Irish Fest, Aug. 18-21 this year, isn't just the biggest Irish festival in the Midwest. It isn't just the biggest in the United States. It is the biggest festival of Irish music and culture in the world: more than 100 musical groups performing on 17 stages plus Irish sporting events, shops, dance, cultural exhibits and food.
"This is the best. Nothing else comes close," says Shay Clarke, owner of Blarney, Everything Irish in Schaumburg's Woodfield Shopping Center. The West Dundee resident attended his first Irish Fest after emigrating from Dublin in 1987. "I couldn't believe it. I'd never seen anything like it anywhere," he says.
An Irish Fest regular for 16 years, Clarke is a vendor in the festival marketplace. His business takes him to 24 annual Irish festivals around the country, but he says none compares to Milwaukee's. "It's the benchmark for Irish festivals everywhere."
In Boston, which has a large Irish population, you might get 14,000 or 15,000 people attending, Clarke says. Milwaukee Irish Fest puts its attendance at 130,000, twice that of the nation's second-largest Irish festival in Dublin, Ohio.
Secrets of success
Why Milwaukee, a city with the biggest German population in the United States?
The proximity to metropolitan Chicago helps. Clarke estimates half his customers at Irish Fest live in suburban Chicago.
Perhaps the biggest factor, though, is the festival site. Henry Maier Festival Park covers about 75 acres along Lake Michigan near downtown Milwaukee. One of the top festival facilities in the country, it has permanent washroom and kitchen facilities and an indoor amphitheater. Many of Milwaukee's ethnic festivals take place there, as well as Summerfest, a music festival that draws about 900,000 during its 11-day run.
A third factor in the success of Milwaukee Irish Fest is the entertainment. "The lineup is outrageously good. There's not a place in the world that has the sheer volume of top Irish entertainment," Clarke says. "All credit has to go to the Ward brothers for putting it together. Irish fests come and go, but this one has endured."
Ed Ward directed the first Irish Fest in 1981, an outgrowth of a desire by members of Milwaukee's Irish community to promote their culture in a city of such strong German heritage. As president of Irish Fest, he works along with his brother Chuck Ward, who coordinates entertainment, and his sister Colleen Kennedy, whose duties include handling visiting dignitaries.
But Irish Fest is no family-run event. It employs an executive director and staff and relies on the services of more than 4,000 volunteers. It has evolved into a year-round organization with a cultural center, music school, Irish music archives, philanthropic foundation, choir, theater and a summer school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Irish government also contributes to the success of Milwaukee Irish Fest, sending dozens of artisans and lecturers to appear at the festival and to teach summer-school classes. This year, Irish Fest's 25th anniversary, Ireland President Mary McAleese will give a public address as well as a reading during the Liturgy for Peace and Justice. …