THE 27th annual Milwaukee Irish Fest closed out Sunday night literally with a bang with the usual fireworks display over the Lake Michigan shores alongside the Henry W. Maier Festival Park. Usually it provides the final memory for those who stick it to the very end of the four-day event every August that represents the largest Irish festival in the world on the spacious and convenient grounds just made for an outdoor summer festival that has attracted 140,000 in the past for Irish Fest.
But an ill-timed and severe rain storm arrived Saturday and Sunday curtailing some of the performances of the 100 acts who were to perform on the 16 well-placed stages over the two busiest days of Irish Fest, testing the mettle of the 4,000 strong volunteer operation and also the fortitude, determination and pride of thousands of Irish music fans who flock to this Wisconsin marvel each year.
The thousands of fans who remained for the final moments were heralded first from the stage by all the artists gathered for the ritually symbolic scattering on the Aer Lingus stage with Mistress of Ceremonies Joanie Madden declaring, "The Milwaukee audiences the best in the world" especially for sitting in the rain at exposed stages.
More poignantly, those same fans got applause and high fives from a representative sample of that volunteer brigade led by the Irish Fest President Joe King as they made their way to the main exit gate who also admired their support and pluck under the adverse conditions. After all, the rain for the Irish only makes the celebration of their spirit that much hardier.
The Midwest was hit with a terrible rain storm this past weekend that flooded out other parts of Wisconsin and the Mississippi region that created more tragic circumstances elsewhere, so at least things weren't that drastic on the 80 acres of this outdoor festival site.
Some performances were dropped or rescheduled on Saturday, the worst day of the festival as the committee sought to salvage it as best they could given the extraordinary number of travelers who come from far and near each August.
In particular Leinie's Celtic rock stage facing the lakefront directly took the major hit from some damage to the equipment and stage that knocked it out of commission. Ironically this provided a relief to its neighboring Celtic roots stage that was a sheltered tent and therefore unaffected by the storm since the annoying drum and bass beat wasn't there to disrupt the acoustic music that was the featured here all weekend.
A special theme at this creatively programmed site this year was Celtic women in music, which not only featured a photographic display of women down through the years but it featured most of the female guests selected for it.
Liz Carroll, Aoife Clancy, Cathie Ryan, Eddi Reader (from Scotland) and Liadan (from Ireland) made repeat performances there, and all managed to also be on hand for Sunday Cherish the Ladies gig.
Billed as the 20th anniversary reunion show on the larger Aer Lingus stage in the middle of the grounds, the heavens were dry for most of the fabulous show produced by Madden the founding member along with Mary Coogan who welcomed their muse, Dr. Mick Moloney as the first performer for this memorable show.
It also featured the leading vocalists like Ryan and Clancy (Deirdre Connolly was unable to come due to illness) along with Reader who performed on the last Cherish CD Woman of the House along with Cherish the Ladies regular dancers Donny Golden, Michael Boyle and Noelle Curran.
The Milwaukee Irish Fest prides itself on providing an array of talent for all tastes, and for those traditionally minded folks like me it appeals to all age groups as well, showing some of the spark and dazzle of some of the upcoming acts like the David Munnelly Band, Beoga and Liadan, who toured with the Chieftains earlier this year to great acclaim.
This year's festival was dedicated to the memory of the late, great Tommy Makem who died earlier this month, and there was another fantastic photographic display alongside the recently revamped Miller Stage near the main entrance.
Considering that Makem spent many of the 27 years here at Irish Fest and his influence and friendship was felt on local organizers like Ed and Chuck Ward as well as all the musicians who ever shared the stage or afterhours with him, you knew he would be well remembered all weekend long, and he was.
Every night a special show was held on the main stage led by his sons who performed with the Spain Brothers. On Friday night, even his daughter Katie came out to render one of his signature songs, "The Butcher Boy" closely followed by her own daughter Molly dancing a slip jig which would have made her grandpa proud.
Tommy's nephew Tom Sweeney and Brian Doherty also made sure that the popular Bard of Armagh would never be forgotten over the weekend each night.
This festival always creates a grand "Ballyfest" site away from the main stages where more low-key but highly informative tents can be established, which also provided shelter from the storm while raising the consciousness of those who ventured there.
Of note this year was the Banner County which sent out a strong artistic presence and provided quite a few lectures that told of the prominence in Irish history and culture of people like Michael Cusack, the founder of the GAA and traditional music in Clare as observed by the founder of the Willie Clancy Summer School, Muiris O'Rochain.
The weather prevented any record-setting Siege of Ennis as promised, but the Clare Ceili Band led by Denis Liddy did its best to keep the dancers happy in the nearby dance pavilion, as did the pride of Connemara, Johnny O Conghaile and Meati Jo Sheamuis who also lit up the Gaelthacht tent along with the nua sean nos stylings of dancer Brian O Cuinneagain.
The festival was honored with the visit of the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Reverend Sean Brady who concelebrated the Sunday Mass along with Milwaukee's own Archbishop Timothy Dolan who also delivered a lecture on the state of the Catholic Church today in contemporary Ireland.
I have been fortunate to attend four of these Irish fests now over the years. In the past I experienced glorious summer weather that complemented the facilities and gave you the energy and stamina to witness the hundreds of performers who ply these stages every year.
But it is a credit to their organization that it can be just as much fun in the rain as it was those other times, and while the grounds may be dampened, the spirits are hardier than that.
I'll be back and so will many others who value the hard work, imagination and the generous good fellowship that remains a hallmark of the Milwaukee Irish Fest.
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