Dublin Irish Festival: An oral history

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From the August 2, 2012 edition

This weekend the Dublin Irish Festival celebrates Emerald Isle culture for the 25th time. Since sprouting from a step-dance competition a quarter-century ago, the event has blossomed into the second-largest Irish festival in America and a showpiece for Dublin.

Those seeking a fun outdoor event with music and beer will get their fill. Those looking to dig deeper can experience a world-class array of musicians and dancers; in all seriousness, Dublin’s fest is like Lollapalooza for Irish music.

To commemorate the fest’s anniversary, we talked in a series of interviews to some of the many people who helped it grow.

Tom Davis, entertainment committee and member of General Guinness Band: There was a dance competition called the Columbus Feis (pronounced “fesh”). It started about 32 years ago. They had it at St. Charles for a year or two. They moved it to the Franklin County Fairgrounds for a year or two. And they very quickly found a good home at Dublin High School. The feis here is one of the most successful anywhere, so people were coming from all over the state and beyond.

Tom Murnane, sponsorship director and 25-year festival volunteer: I belonged to a group called the Dublin Irish Celebration, which was the founding group to support the feis … A few of us went over to Coffman Park and put together a little get-together. We had the Irish Brigade, which at the time was the only Irish band in town. We got a keg of beer and said we would entertain the parents while their kids danced in the competition.

Davis: We knew the dance music, so they hired us to play on the tennis courts at Coffman Park, and we had a big dance. That was successful enough that the following year they called it a festival and hired a headliner, Green Fields of America.

Sandra Puskarcik, festival director from 1993-2010: The city of Dublin created a position in 1990 as a special event coordinator/public information officer ... That was a cutting-edge concept for a city government, especially a small local government, to say, “Hey, we can do some things with events, and they can be part of an economic impact for us.”

Murnane: Ninety-two is when the city took over. All prior festivals were run by about five of us. When the city of Dublin got behind this, that’s what launched it and made it is what it is today.

Pat Byrne, entertainment committee and Byrne’s Pub owner: Sandra Puskarcik was hugely responsible for the growth.

Puskarcik: A council member by the name of Barbara Avery took me to lunch and told me, “I would like you, on behalf of City Council, to make the Dublin Irish Festival a signature event.” So I go to the Irish Festival a couple weeks later, and it was quite small. Just a band, a shelter house, a couple of beer pours — but you could see the spirit of the people.

Byrne: I remember sitting in many a Dublin Irish Festival committee meeting saying, “Well, if we wanted to go all-out, we could do this.” And the answer was, “Well, why can’t we?” That was always the philosophy of Dublin: If it can be done, let’s do it.

As Dublin’s population exploded and interest in Irish culture surged nationwide, the festival expanded rapidly.

Puscarcik: What we quickly realized is that there were a lot of Irish organizations who got on board right away. For example, the Shamrock Club got on board and said, “Yes, we will help.”

Alison LeRoy, festival director since 2010 and longtime city employee: I think we definitely were helped back in the ’90s by the interest in “Riverdance.” That was kind of the first thing, and the growth in Dublin’s population.

Byrne: There was a time in the late ’90s when Irish became really, really cool.

Puscarcik: Remember, all along we’ve got the Memorial Tournament going on. So our community understands the value of an international event and how an event can be an economic engine.

Murnane: Fourteen-hundred volunteers, you know? That’s unheard of for a town the size of Dublin to have 1,400 volunteers annually, and that number grows annually.

Mick Broderick, member of internationally renowned Irish folk band Slide: The organizers, I’d have to say, really look after the artists better than most festivals. It’s up there at the top of festivals in terms of after the people come to play. And there’s a good community spirit to it as well. The amount of volunteers that give up their time, not only the festival weekend but days and weeks running up to it, is incredible. It’s something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the bands.

Another way Dublin Irish Festival grew was by branching out from traditional music into Celtic rock and even punk.

Byrne: I started [on the entertainment committee] in probably ’98. Just kind of forced my way in. The year I got involved was the year we brought in Black 47. That was their first Celtic rock band.

Puskarcik: Thinking about Celtic rock in the early ’90s, it didn’t exist the way we know it today. But I had attended the Pittsburgh Irish Festival, and there was a band there called Black 47. I had this idea that we should add Celtic rock to the festival. There was a couple years of discussion, but eventually we added Celtic rock on Friday night.

LeRoy: It definitely was controversial. We have a really good relationship with other Irish festivals. When they come and visit, they always say, “Wow, you have so many more young people than we do.” And that’s really important to us because … that just makes the festival grow and then live.

Puskarcik: The following year we had a Celtic rock stage.

Byrne: The very first visit of Flogging Molly in 2002 would be one of the times we turned a corner.

LeRoy: It was just such a departure. Even though we had had the rock acts, they were definitely the first that had that punk edge to it. We were so taken off guard by the reaction of so many people.

Byrne: The city had no idea what to expect. They had never seen a punk band. They flipped out. Called every cop off the streets. Everybody came to the rock tent. Sandra fired me that night. I got called just about every name in the book. They were drinking and cussing on stage, and they were loud, and people with mohawk haircuts were in the park. None of this had ever been seen in Dublin.

LeRoy: The first night, we were kind of all scrambling, but by the second night we had everything in place and we knew what was going to happen.

Byrne: They came back and played Sunday, and the police were at full alert … It all went very smoothly. When they saw the merchandise sales and attendance it generated, they were very fascinated. I was rehired.

LeRoy: It was because of that response, and having that Celtic rock area be able to grow and be on its own, that we decided to expand the footprint of the festival.

Byrne: Even punks grow up eventually, get married and have kids … And I’m sure that this summer we will have some of those Flogging Molly punks who now have a stroller.

For all its evolution, Dublin Irish Festival remains steeped in tradition and communal spirit, both in the official programming and unofficial jams called “seisuns” (pronounced “sessions”) that spring up around it.

LeRoy: It’s kind of ingrained in our thoughts. One of our ongoing goals is to try to keep the culture there.

Broderick: The late-night thing at wherever the musicians happen to be staying is a big thing at Dublin. A lot of the time, it might not start ’til midnight, but it’ll go on ’til 3 or 4. And there you’ve got a great mixing of the bands. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s a great chance for some of the local musicians to come in as well and play with bands that are coming from Canada, from Ireland, Scotland, all over the States. And they can walk in with them and play a seisun with them, no problem. Everybody’s on the same level when it comes to a seisun. The stage is gone, the barriers are down and it’s just a bit of fun.

Byrne: That’s kind of the inside scene. Go back to the Westin and hang out there until we close them down, until they throw us out in the hallways. And it’s just two or three areas, people will gather up and start a little seisun, sit around and play. It’s where the local people can sit down and play with what in the Celtic genre are international superstars.

Puskarcik: In 1995, Hurricane Erin came through, and we had to end the festival early because Coffman Park was flooded … That night, we made dinner for what we thought was going to be about 20 musicians, and it actually ended up being about 50 … After they ate, they started playing music in the backyard. And it was one of those things that brought the staff together. It was almost like a private Irish festival.

LeRoy: One of my favorite memories, I saw this guy with purple, two-foot-high spiked hair. He and this older gentleman were talking to the guy who makes the fiddles in the workshop area. It was such an odd juxtaposition, but that’s what it’s all about.

Murnane: The important thing about the festival is we’ve kept the Irish culture in the festival. It’s not a carnival, it never will be, and the city sees to that. In conjunction with that thought, it truly is a fine Irish festival in Dublin, Ohio.

File photos

Portrait of Mick Broderick of Slide (shaved head, T-shirt, holding lute): Photo by Tessa Berg