New Jersey has always been the butt of jokes, and as a proud resident of the Garden State I get my back up when I hear jokes about the state bird being the mosquito, or how everyone in the state is connected to the waste management business like in The Sopranos.

TV has been particularly rough on New Jerseyans, with shows like Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jerseylicious, and MTV’s abominable Jersey Shore getting huge ratings on cable. One friend remarked that all of this publicity was making New Jersey hip, but I am deathly afraid that people living in Oklahoma watch these shows and think we all have big hair and fake orange spray tans.

This fear was confirmed over the weekend, when I was at my aunt’s house for a barbecue welcoming some Irish relatives on holiday. “You all seem normal,” says one in a British accent. “None of you look anything like ye do on TV.”

Jesus, take the wheel!!! This drivel has even reached Ireland!

Well, I am writing this column to tell you that the Jersey Shore I know is more green and Gaelic than it is gaudy and Guido, and I encourage the Irish music fans that read this column every week to come on down the Garden State Parkway for the sun and great sounds!

“The Irish here at the Jersey Shore are a lot like those in Ireland,” jokes Mary Reilly, owner of the Irish Centre on Third Avenue in Spring Lake.

“You stop and ask them where there’s a good place to eat around here and they answer your question with a question -- what do you feel like? Where are you from? What are you in the mood for?”

If you are in the mood for a buffet of Irish music, there are a number of Irish festivals in June. The New Jersey Irish festival takes place this Saturday, June 12, at the Lakewood Blue Claws First Energy Park (located right of Exit 89 on the Garden State Parkway).

This is a huge show that continues to draw people from three states, and the talent is exceptional. Philadelphia’s Blackthorn, led by blues great Seamus Kelleher, shares the stage with Celtic Cross from New Jersey and New York’s Jameson’s Revenge. Willie Lynch and the Bantry Boys round out the lineup, along with Girsa, a troupe of wildly talented young gals serving up fiery traditional music.

The green of the ballpark is the perfect place to display your Irish pride. Throughout the perimeter of the field are a host of Irish vendors and foods, with bagpipers snaking their way through the onlookers. This week’s back page ad has all the info you’ll need to get you there.

On June 19, the town of Spring Lake will host the first annual Irish festival in the center of town (Third Avenue). “All of the local merchants chipped in and the proceeds are going to repair the clock in the center of town,” reports Reilly.

“There are four sides to the clock and each one of them tells the wrong time, but they all point to a happy hour time – four, five and six o’clock. Now that’s an Irish town!”

The festivities take place from 1-6 p.m. and features local talent like the Snakes, Bantry Boys and Paddy and the Pale Boys.

Reilly has been a cheerleader of Ireland in a corner of New Jersey that has earned the nickname the Irish Riviera.

“We named the store the Irish Centre because we wanted this to be a lot more than a shop,” she explains.

“We started the shop because a lot of people didn’t feel like paying high prices for Belleek at department stores, but now we host book signings with people like Larry Kirwan, artisan shows, opportunities to meet craftsman from Ireland, and of course, Irish crystal and china.” In keeping with the times, you can visit them online at www.theirishcentre.net.

Reilly has seen the rise and fall of Irish festivals in New Jersey over the years. The festival used to take place at the PNC Bank Arts Center but now has splintered into a number of events throughout the summer.

“There used to be two times to be Irish on the Jersey Shore -- at the Arts Center, on St. Patrick’s Day,” says Reilly. “Now, we have events happening all summer, which is great for our culture.”
Irish festivals also take place on September 18 in Sea Girt and September 23-26 in Wildwood.
My father often tells me about the wicked Irish hooleys that took place at Jimmy Byrne’s, a family nightclub in Sea Girt that gave birth to showmen Mike, Jimmy and Bobby Byrne. When that place closed, no one really kept the tradition of regular Irish music shows alive.

Mad props must be given to St. Stephen’s Green, an authentic Irish pub on Route 71 in Spring Lake Heights. It is rare that a pub in Manhattan hosts a midweek Irish seisiun, but you can witness a ramshackle band of musicians gel into something magical and marvelous most Tuesdays.

On the weekends, local Irish rock bands like the Snakes and Turnpike Mike delight the crowd with diverse selections of songs. If you ever wondered how an Allman Brothers tune might sound next to “Dirty Old Town” on a set list, drop by the pub some Saturday night. For a schedule of music, log onto ststephensgreenpub.com.

If you think you’re gonna see tacky characters like Snooki and The Situation in this neck of the woods, fuhgeddaboutit!