BY SEAN SMITH
After a one-year hiatus, the Irish Heritage Festival is set to return on Columbus Day weekend to Dorchester – in a new, albeit temporary, location. The free festival will take place on Sunday, October 13, from 11 a.m.-8 p.m., with music and dance performances and other events at Florian Hall and the John McKeon Post AmVets 146. Perennial favorites Robbie Connell and Aoife Clancy highlight a roster of performers that represents a cross-section of Greater Boston’s diverse Irish music scene. Family and children’s activities – from rock-climbing to face-painting – as well as other attractions, such as a genealogy tent and visits from Irish wolfhounds and Irish setters, also are on the 2013 schedule.
Festival co-director John O’Toole says the decision to take a year off, however disappointing it might have been to the festival’s legion of fans, was simply a good idea.
“The most recent festival, in 2011, was a resounding success – we had more than 10,000 people come,” says O’Toole. “But the core group of volunteers who organizes the festival, while dedicated, is a pretty small one. It is an all-consuming event, like putting on a wedding for 10,000 people; there’s not only the entertainment part, but you also have to coordinate traffic, parking, safety and so on. And as time wore on last year, we just felt – for a variety of reasons – that we needed to catch our breath, because the one thing we absolutely did not want to do was to put on a substandard festival.”
As it turned out, the festival committee’s previously announced plans to return in 2013 were nearly thwarted due to a major construction project in the Adams Corner neighborhood of Dorchester where the festival had taken place during its first three years. Faced with the prospect of cancelling again, O’Toole and his colleagues looked around for an alternative, and found one through what he describes as practically divine intervention.
“The only place we could think of was Florian Hall, and the McKeon Post,” he explains. “It’s very unusual for either one to be available that weekend, but as it turned out, they were – one of them because of a cancellation. So we said to each other, ‘This is a sign from God.’”
O’Toole lauds the support from Adams Corner businesses and residents, which he says has been vital to the festival’s success. “We certainly wish we could have held the festival in its original location, because we’ve had such great results. However, we feel very confident that Florian Hall and the McKeon Post will work very well as the festival sites for this year. There is actually more square footage to work with, and we will be able to bring the entertainment inside if the weather proves to be a problem.”
Eight auxiliary parking lots will ring the festival site, O’Toole said, and there will be shuttles from the Ashmont and North Quincy MBTA stations.
O’Toole praised organizing committee members, especially Sean Weir, Patrick McDonough and Mairin Ui Cheide, for their efforts and says the festival is looking for volunteers and other behind-the-scenes support. One way to aid the festival, he notes, is through its “passport” stickers campaign – the stickers are available with a suggested donation of $5, $20 for families – and individual and corporate sponsorship of festival performers. O’Toole invites anyone interested to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-201-7866.
“We’re very excited to be bringing the festival back this year, but there is a lot of work to do,” he says. “Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of people behind us during those first three years, and hope they’ll come through again.”
O’Connell and Clancy have been staples of the Irish Heritage Festival in its short history, and organizers are happy to have them back to help rejuvenate the event. Many of O’Connell’s songs have become part of the modern Irish song canon, including “The Islander’s Lament,” Keg of Brandy,” “The Man from Connemara” and “You’re Not Irish.” Clancy, a former member of Cherish the Ladies, is known for her lively stage presence as well as her superb vocals, whether singing a contemporary song or one from the Irish tradition her family has done so much to pre- serve. She and O’Connell – a nephew of the Clancy Brothers, with whom he has often appeared – frequently perform as “The Clancy Legacy,” sharing generations of Clancy music and memories.
A special guest at this year’s festival is TR Dallas, a County Westmeath native who is one of Ireland’s best-known country singers. He has recorded several hit records, including “Who Shot JR Ewing,” “Hard to Be Humble,” “Daddy’s Girl” and “This Story I Tell You Is True,” made numerous radio and TV appearances and toured with such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Boxcar Willie, Don Williams and Foster and Allen.
Other acts confirmed so far for the festival include: Erin’s Melody with Margaret Dalton; Mike Reynolds; The Joshua Tree; Pauline Wells; Devri; The Gobshites; The Fenian Sons, Padraig Allen; Erin’s Guild; Ceol Tradaisunta na hEireann; McLean Ave.; The Tom Lanigan Band; Noggin; Michael O’Leary; Patrick Kennedy and Tin Can Hooley; John Dalton; The Silver Spears; Corvus; the BFD Pipe Band; and musicians from Boston’s Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
Also slated to appear are Liam Harney and the Harney Academy of Irish Dance, Keane-O’Brien Academy of Irish Dance, Smith-Houlihan Dance Academy, Clinton School of Dance and O Shea-Chapin Academy of Irish Dance.
A special addition to the event this year is the establishment of the Larry Reynolds Spirit Award, which will be presented to a festival performer at 4 p.m. that afternoon. The award is named for the long-time mainstay of Boston’s Irish music scene and co-founder of the area’s Comhaltas branch who died last year.
Ui Cheide, in a statement announcing the creation of the award, said, “We establish this honor and award in Larry Reynolds’ name to keep this spirit of generosity alive in our community of musicians, in a small way, to share a little of what we are blessed with to enhance the lives of others.”
The festival website, irishheritagefestival.com, is in the process of being updated to provide information about this year’s events, activities and other features. The festival also has a Facebook group and fan page to facilitate communication.