On a cool autumnal Saturday afternoon in Coney Island, a steady stream of revelers enter the grounds of MCU Park for the 30th annual Great Irish Fair last weekend. Young and old, couples, families and friends, they were all united in a shared appreciation of their Irish heritage.
The tradition began in 1982 when Monsignor Joseph Funaro of Catholic Charities and members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) coordinated the inaugural Great Irish Fair under the Brooklyn Bridge.
An ethnic festival showcasing the diversity of the immigrant neighborhood, its popularity and success meant it would soon become an annual event.
After a brief hiatus, the Irish American Building Society reestablished the three-day festival in 2007, and the event has continued to draw a strong crowd since. Keeping with tradition, all net proceeds are donated to a charitable fund for the benefit of Brooklyn Diocesan Catholic elementary schools.
Martin Cottingham, chairman of the Great Irish Fair was busy greeting the crowds on Saturday.
“What’s up big guy, how are you doing? Thank you for coming down,” he says to one passerby.
The award ceremony for the 2011 honorees is complete and now the swelling crowd seems absorbed by the music, food and fun on offer.
“Today is definitely a busy day,” he says with a smile.
“We have been planning this for a full year in advance, a tremendous amount of logistics, preparation and co-ordination,” he told the Irish Voice. “It’s well worth it. We have an outstanding committee who are extremely dedicated.”
Cottingham himself has vivid memories of attending the Great Irish Fair as a child.
“I remember staying late and having so much fun,” he said.
Witnessing his own daughter participate in the fair is something very special he says.
“When you see them Irish dancing here in Coney Island you realize that is what it is all about. You need to pass these traditions on and pass the Irish culture forward and we like to think that in a small way we are doing our part,” he reflected.
“It’s a day for the community to gather together and see a lot of friends that you may only see this weekend. It’s a great cause and really all you have to do is show up.”
Dozens of stalls are dotted throughout the park as people wander around browsing. A couple is examining a Celtic chain at Stephanie’s Silver, admiring the detail of the ornate cross.
“It’s for me,” Neil Nally tells me.
“I will get mine later on!” his girlfriend Valerie jokes.
Nally, who was born in the Bronx to Irish parents, says his father has been attending the Great Irish Fair for years. Curious, he finally decided to check it out.
“It’s my first year and it’s a great day out. There is good food, lots of beer. We are having a good time,” he said.
His red hair is not the only indicator of his Irish lineage. Dressed in a green check shirt, he says he tries to get back to Ireland as often as he can.
“We used to live in Ireland, myself and the family, so the parents are here today. I am from a firehouse in Queens so I invited all the guys out here after they get off work,” he said.
“It’s a great day to come out and celebrate our heritage.”
On the main stage, the Canny Brothers Band is entertaining a lively crowd. As the Brooklyn group pause between tracks, lead singer Keith Fallon addresses the audience.
“Good afternoon Coney Island!” The crowd cheers in response.
Weaving through the stalls, two young ladies are dressed in green from head-to-toe. Green sunglasses, green beaded “Irish” chains -- there is no way of missing their loyalty to the Emerald Isle.
After growing up in Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn, the ladies tell the Irish Voice, the annual Great Irish Fair is an event they seldom miss.
“Everybody comes. This is a big thing. I am in school in Philly and I came up especially for it,” said Kelly O’Connell.
"There is a big group of us. I used to Irish dance here, so we used to come every year,” she added.
“I even painted my nails green,” she laughed, before showing perfectly lacquered nails.
The two friends are in agreement. “It’s halfway to St. Patrick’s Day so we have got to celebrate it!”
Eying Irish t-shirts and sweaters, the Barrere family are gathered around the Connolly Designs stall.
“Both my parents are from Belfast,” Patricia Barrere (formally Molloy) told the Irish Voice.
Like most Irish American families, the annual outing is something they have been attending for years.
“I have been coming here forever,” she said.
A family day out, Barrere says bringing her three children to the fair is important.
“I want them to remember their Irish heritage. Both my parents are deceased and I want them to know about Ireland,” she said.
It’s a family affair at the 2012 Brooklyn St. Patrick’s Day Parade stall as Kathleen and John McDonagh and their son James are chatting to some customers.
Kathleen’s sweater emblazoned with the words “God Bless America.” It’s clear to see how this Tipperary woman is a pillar of her local Park Slope community.
She talks of how she met her husband John on Donegal Hill in Prospect Park.
“He was playing hurling and I was playing camogie,” she recalled.
Referring to the early years of the Great Irish Fair, she says it is an important date on their social calendar.
“I have come every year for the past 30 years,” McDonagh says.
“We used to play camogie, hurling and Gaelic football when it first started down under the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn is really a fantastic place to have anything because there is a lot of history here.
“I am glad the younger people are getting more involved. We need to just look on now,” she concluded.