History of Irish Fest
To preserve, promote and celebrate all aspects of Irish, Irish American and Celtic cultures, and to instill in current and future generations an appreciation of their heritage.
The Birth of Milwaukee Irish Fest
What originated as the seed of an idea for an event to celebrate and promote Irish heritage, Irish Festivals Inc. has emerged into a thriving organization that celebrates the music, culture and history of Ireland during its four-day festival as well as several outreach initiatives throughout the year.
In the early 1980s, members of Milwaukee's Irish community gathered to discuss opportunities to promote their Gaelic heritage in a city known for its German roots. The idea of a festival, a three-day event to promote Irish culture through music, dance, cultural exhibits, drama and sports, was born. The festival wasn't just an opportunity to feature national Irish acts but also an impetus to showcase local groups that celebrate the rich traditions of Irish music.
Under the direction of Ed Ward, the first Irish Fest premiered in 1981 on a shoestring budget. Volunteers spent months planning the event, incorporating an extensive lineup of musical entertainment and cultural programming. Based on the event's success and overwhelming interest by those in attendance, the Smithsonian Institution's National Folk Life program called Milwaukee Irish Fest "the largest and best Irish cultural event in North America."
A Different Kind of Summer School
Based on the continued interest in the festival, Irish Fest established a summer school program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The summer school, which provides a week of courses prior to the festival for adults and children, offers a showcase of workshops in Irish dance and music, crafts, lectures, Gaelic language instruction and a historical overview of the Irish heritage. The school continues to draw hundreds of individuals from all over the world to teach and participate in this annual favorite prior to the festival.
The Irish Fest Center and Ward Irish Music Archives
Led by the year-round opportunities of running the world's largest Irish festival, Irish Fest hired a full-time executive director and opened its first office in 1992. As the festival continued to grow in popularity during the 1990s, so did the continued demands for additional office and workspace. In 1998, the festival opened its doors to the Irish Fest center to provide a year-round facility dedicated to Irish-related activities, including concerts, workshops, rehearsals and Gaelic language lessons. The Irish Fest School of Music began in 2002 offering lessons in traditional Irish instruments and song at the center.
In addition, the center also houses the Ward Irish Music Archives, a collection of more than 40,000 sound recordings and other music items related to Irish and Irish-American music. Named after the late father of the festival's founder, Ed Ward, the Ward Irish Music Archives promote, preserve and celebrate Irish music in all forms.
Irish Fest Foundation
In early 1993, Irish Fest established the Irish Fest Foundation to support the organization's philanthropic efforts. Financed by a portion of the festival revenues, the Irish Fest Foundation provides grants to organizations to promote the development of community service, excellence in Irish music and drama, and to support the special needs of the Irish community in the United States and Ireland. Since the foundation's inception, the Irish Fest Foundation has provided more than $250,000 to civic, cultural and educational organizations. From attending internationally acclaimed workshops to furthering education in Irish history and other cultural activities, the foundation continues to promote the Irish heritage.
A Dynamic Cultural Organization
Each year, Irish Fest presents new themes, new performers, cultural exhibits and special events at its annual festival.
Through the continued popularity of the festival, Irish Fest has developed its own entertainment group. The Irish Fest Choir is a group of more than 25 young adults performing traditional Irish and Irish American songs. The group recently performed with the Omagh Youth Choir in the United States and Ireland. The groups have embraced this collaboration and Irish Fest has welcomed the Omagh choir as part of the 2001, 2003 and 2008 festivals.
Known as a family-friendly festival, it's been said that Irish Fest truly is a taste of Ireland. In addition to promoting and preserving the Irish heritage, the organization also regards itself as a community contributor through several outreach efforts. The festival has developed an award-winning recycling program encouraging festival guests and vendors to maintain the beauty of the Milwaukee's lakefront. These efforts have truly earned the festival the right to be named "The Green Festival."
While the festival only lasts four days each year, the commitment to promote and preserve Irish culture throughout the year has earned Milwaukee Irish Fest national and worldwide acclaim.