Posted by: Ardcrú Books | July 5, 2009

American Irish Fests going for homegrown performers

Governor Martin O'Malley's multi-instrument Baltimore celtic rock group

Governor Martin O'Malley's multi-instrument Baltimore celtic rock group

The wave of interest in Irish music set in motion by Riverdance over a decade ago appears to have run its course. Once again many top Irish musicians are resting. Things are also changing on the lucrative Irish festival circuit in the USA.

To take one example: In Chicago, Irish Fest returns for its 10th year this summer, July 24-25, for two days packed with Celtic music, food and dance, all on the scenic grounds of the Arlington Heights Historical Museum.

“We’ve grown a lot over the years,” said Cathy Robertson, one of the organisers. Attendance at Irish Fest has more than doubled, she said, but they also have grown to include more variations of Irish music. “We started with the traditional step dancing, pipe bands and folk groups,” she said.

“But then we saw how many people the Celtic rock bands drew, and we knew we had to have a mix.”

I first noticed this trend when I came across the Kansas City Celtic Music Fest website. The bands had Irish names, but none of them were of Irish origin.The site is run by artist and web designer ‘Eolai gan Fheile’. I emailed him and asked what was happening. His reply was most informative:

“I’m witnessing more and more neighbourhood Irish festivals with, if not entirely homegrown, then at least US-based, Irish entertainment, and city festivals are heading that way – though I doubt it will go completely that way as, despite the growth in N America, there still isn’t the depth of talent in traditional music there as exists in Ireland. That said, with groups like Solas, Cherish The Ladies and so forth it is possible and indeed if it happened probably no one would necessarily notice.”

He added: “Also with the growth of the festivals in the last 10 years you have specific types of “Irish” music that seems almost unique to North America – for example Celtic Rock is hugely popular with every town having at least one band that indulges in something it calls Celtic Rock. While you can trace lineage of such music in Ireland from Sweeney’s Men and Horslips through to the Sawdoctors with a dousing of the Pogues – in North America it has spun off into a very big genre that is perfect for festivals however Irish it may or may not be”.

Big Irish names are still being invited to perform in the USA, but shortage of funds, transport and visa difficulties mean the larger festivals club together and jointly host Irish acts (the larger Kansas festival in the autumn will have a number of native Irish acts). A quick check through the tour schedules of, for example, Dervish, Danu and Clannad, suggest they rely on more concert tours, particularly in winter or early spring, to bring  in the dollars. Also, many Irish acts now depend on Europe for festival income.

The visa problem is a thorny old issue. Back in 2003, the successful Boston College Gaelic Summer School and Festival came to an end over Homeland security strictness. One fiddler from the Shetland Islands had to travel to London to get her work visa. Singer Len Graham had to travel from Co Down to Belfast three times before he was cleared to travel.

I leave the final word on the growth of American-based acts to ‘Eolai gan Fheile’. “It’s undeniable that there’s a significant growth in numbers playing traditional music – you’ve had US All-Ireland champions at this stage – and Irish dancing, as well as all the various forms of whatever Celtic Rock may be – something with very few barriers to entry, however you define it”.


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