I watched an older couple get up to dance. It was difficult for her, age had stolen her flexibility and strength, but she was determined to dance her appreciation of the fiddle band up on the stage. Her gaze alternated between her husband and the ground, checking to see if she was getting the movements right. Her partner was spry, sporting a single diamond in one ear, a day’s grizzled beard growth and a grin. He held both her hands as he kicked up his heels and she tentatively tried a few steps, smiling at the man before her.
Nearby, two little girls in long, flowing dresses and ribbon crowns danced with a third child wearing an “I’m the real boss” t-shirt. Welcome to The Great American Irish Festival, where everyone can be a “weekend Irish” and all, regardless of age, ability or ethnicity are welcome. It’s an annual melting pot in the heart of New York wine country, and far away from everything at the Herkimer Fairgrounds.
It’s said that music knows no boundaries and the adage seems to hold true at this three-day music and cultural festival held every year on the final weekend of July. Naturally, there’s food and drink. Haggis, anyone? Or perhaps a scone? And there are trinkets for those wanting to take a little of the festival home. But the real stars are the music and the stories, and they’re intertwined.
The Irish tell a good story.
This year, Colleen Searson told the story with her fiddle of a night at the top of a secluded stairway on the roof of a castle in Ireland. She spoke, then played and we could all see the black night and the stars, and feel the cool night air in After the Waltz. And the music had no words.
And then there was Joe Keane, the storyteller. Speaking in a soft voice, he told the story of the meanings behind the Celtic knot. It’s about infinity with no beginning and no end. He talked about the tree of life, and the seasons of the earth through an Irishman’s eyes. And he talked about the importance of strong roots, his fingers fanning downward and then upward with growth. It was an old story, but intense in the telling. Joe Keane made certain you were listening and understanding, watching carefully for a nod and smile. It was important to him that you understood.
What is magical about this particular festival, in this particular place, is the diversity.
While there are certainly a great number of Irish in attendance, there are also a number of “weekend Irish” that come for the day. They come to hear the stories, to dance, to laugh, to be part of a connected community for at least a little while. They learn a few words, they marvel at the range of the fiddle and they smile at strangers who smile right back.
The stories told are of the Irish, but they are also of everyone that has struggled and succeeded. And also of the ones that did not, because that is life. The brogue is sweet to the ear, and the stories are familiar. Off to war to fight for home and country. The loss of love. The road home. The heartbreaks and triumphs are universal, even if the language varies.
The message is simple: we are one.
The festival of the Irish is a call to connect, to respect traditions and to know the history of a people. As parents, exposing our children to these snapshots of other cultures and other people is vital to their education. Not only do we engage with folks we don’t know, and learn about our differences, we learn about how much we are alike. We connect.