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The Jersey Shore is back after Hurricane Sandy - The Irish Festival kicks off

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Seamus Kelleher
My business travel and book tours take me all over America, and prior to Hurricane Sandy somebody would always make a joke about big hair and MTV’s “gym/tan/laundry” ethos of our shore when I revealed I am from New Jersey.

Sandy natural disaster changed all that. “How are you guys making out?” people now ask sympathetically, their furrowed brow showing concern and a begrudging respect for the Garden State’s toughness.

Well, I am happy to report that while we are still coping with raw damage in many towns, there has been tremendous progress made and the people in Spring Lake are eager to show it off.

The Irish Festival: a Spring Lake Homecoming will be staged in the quaint setting of Third Avenue on Saturday, May 18 from noon to 4 p.m.  It promises not only to be a righteous hooley, but also a bold statement typical of the resiliency that the people in this “Irish Riviera” community have in the wake of devastating storm damage.

“There is magic at the shore at the moment, a tremendous sense of cooperation and survival,” reports Mary Reilly, owner of the Irish Centre in Spring Lake and a main organizer of the festival who is rounding up the support of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.

“We named this year’s festival a homecoming because it was not only a nod to the Irish government’s Gathering 2013 initiative, but it’s an invitation for people to come back to our lovely little Victorian village and see that our boardwalk is restored and our businesses are open.”

The festival is also an opportunity for yours truly to put his money where his mouth is.

For over a decade I have been complaining loudly and bitterly about the plastic paddy nonsense in Irish festivals -- the neon shamrocks, beer tents, “No-Nay-Never” played 10 times an hour, yadda, yadda, yadda!

In working with the Spring Lake Chamber of Commerce, I’ve reached out to many of the old and new friends you’ve read about on this page over the years to create an Irish festival that I’d want to attend!

Yes, there will be some high stepping from the Patricia Murphy School of Irish Dance and an Irish soda bread contest to make sure there are familiar sights and tastes that make our culture so vibrant.

Of course, no New Jersey-based Irish festival would be complete without the Willie Lynch Band, who whips the crowd into a knot of pale arms and legs on the dance floor with his spirited read of old Irish parlor songs.

This festival is also about making sure everyone hums some new tunes as well!  Salthill, Co. Galway native Seamus Kelleher will join his old friend Lynch on the main stage for a raucous set that mixes blues, folk and rock. For Kelleher, this festival is an opportunity to give back to the shore community that has done so much for him.

"This past week, I celebrated 45 years playing music professionally,” says Kelleher. “A large part of those years was spent performing with the band Blackthorn and as a solo artist up and down the shore from Spring Lake to Cape May.

“I was saddened to watch the devastation brought about by Sandy to the very places that provided me the opportunity to make a career in music. For me, the festival in Spring Lake signifies the amazing spirit and resilience of the local residents and businesses that make the shore the magic place it is. It tells me these folks are back in business and ready to rock.”

Grafton Street in Dublin is known for its busking culture -- street performers and musicians delight shoppers with entertaining songs and stories. In fact, the Broadway play Once was inspired by Glen Hansard's time as a busker.

We will bring a little Grafton Street to Spring Lake with the Musical Mile, with great Irish American entertainers strumming their guitars and singing their proud hearts out.

Those performers include Kevin McGowan, Thomas Johnston and John Rafferty. They will be playing a mixture of Irish standards and thought-provoking originals.

“I've spent many summer vacations, both when growing up in the Bronx and after moving to New Jersey, at the Jersey Shore from the sixties to the present day,” says singer/songwriter McGowan.

“I have nothing but great memories of the Jersey Shore and look forward to creating even more great memories. I am thrilled and honored to be part of this event and I look forward to contributing my efforts, along with all the fine folks involved, as we bring the Jersey Shore back and make it better than ever!”

For Rafferty, driving down the Garden State Parkway to the Spring Lake festival allows him to reconnect not only to the shore sounds of an influence like Bruce Springsteen, but an opportunity to recapture “the glory days” of his youth.

“As a New York City resident there was a certain magic in that short drive to the Jersey Shore,” he recalls. “The anticipation that the best day/weekend of your life was about to happen was something I still remember!”

Ireland has produced some of the world's greatest writers and poets, and through a partnership with the Irish American Writers and Artists association, the festival will feature an author’s tent with writers reading from their work, talking about the writing process and signing  copies of their new books.

The writers include Maura Mulligan, writer of the memoir Call of the Lark; John Liam Shea, who wrote the poignant and funny Cut and Run in the Bronx; Colin Broderick, whose latest, That's That: A Memoir is causing quite a buzz; and John Kearns, a New York playwright and author of two books, The World and Dreams and Dull Realities. Count on yours truly reading a passage or two from my This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks 1 & 2 series! 

“It’s just so exciting, an opportunity to have the Irish put their best foot forward and let the world know why we are known as the land of saints and scholars,” reasons Reilly as she surveys the songwriters and storytellers on the festival roster.  

When you’re at the festival, make sure you walk the three blocks down to the ocean to see how we have re-built our boardwalk. Both Jersey and Irish pride will be on full display. See you there!

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