IFest Boston — a three-day festival that will gather the “Best of Ireland” in the heart of the city’s Seaport district —will take place at Boston’s Seaport World Trade Center from Sept. 26 to Sept. 28. The first-of-its-kind event is expected to draw big crowds to the waterfront venue to showcase the best of Irish food and drink, top musicians, and entertainers— all in an effort to draw more tourists back to Ireland and re-energize cultural and business ties between Boston and Ireland.
The event, if successful, will likely be replicated in cities across the United States. Boston was the natural choice for the launch, according to event organizer Rachel Kelly.
“IFest will be born and grow up in Boston,” Kelly said in an interview with the Irish Reporter. “It’s not something I plan to do once and then move on. I’ve invested in Boston and this is where I want it to grow and become an essential part of the calendar. As long as Boston wants IFest, we will stay here.”
The event is the brainchild of Kelly, a high-energy, go-getting Dubliner who is a veteran events planner in Ireland. In 2010, as the post-Tiger malaise burrowed into the country’s psyche, Kelly decided to fight the condition with a new idea —put Ireland’s best foot forward through an international event.
“There was a huge amount of negativity and depression and I just thought, ‘You know what? We have a huge amount to offer the world, and we still have a lot to offer – and we’re going to celebrate it,” Kelly explained. “If we could get the very best of all strains of our culture – the music, the arts, culinary, sports – and get all the best people in one place to celebrate, maybe we can give back pride and hope to ourselves.”
Next month, Boston’s Seaport district will become the proving ground for whether Kelly’s vision is ready for prime time in the States. She picked Boston, and specifically the Seaport/World Trade Center, as the first venue because of the “unbelievable welcome” she received from the city’s business and political leaders when she first arrived in Boston three years ago to pitch the idea.
“I absolutely fell in love with this city,” said Kelly. “The Seaport/WTC got in behind us and the team there gave us their full support. That was the first building block and being introduced into the business community, the more I spoke to people I became convinced that Boston is where it should be, because Boston is an extension of Ireland and vice versa. Boston stands together and that’s how we have now pulled ourselves up as well. The spirit is the same.”
Kelly’s investment in the city goes beyond the inaugural festival itself. The company that she created to run the IFest is headquartered in Boston, although it also keeps offices in Dublin.
“It wouldn’t be happening without the support of Mayor Walsh,” said Kelly. “And chef Barbara Lynch has been just an incredible ambassador for the event. She’s lined up some of Boston’s finest chefs to be a part of the event.”
Other key players in the festival presentation include Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, who will be one of the headlining musical acts that will perform on four stages throughout the venue, including a massive outdoor seisuin planned on the World Trade Center’s concourse.
In addition to Lynch and Boston-based chefs, Kelly says that more than 30 food and drink purveyors will be flying in from Ireland. They’ll be joined by 70 buyers from around the United States with the thought that companies will find Irish goods to import into America. Making such connections is why the Irish government’s Food Board – Bord Bia – has helped to underwrite IFest Boston.
“Bord Bia got the vision straight away,” explains Kelly. “America is such an incredible market and there’s such potential still there. They could see that potential in IFest to give the food and drink sector a platform.”
Tourism Ireland – the country’s travel and leisure board – is also a supporter of IFest Boston and Ireland’s leading politician – An Taoiseach Enda Kenny – has also lent his vocal support to the effort, appearing in promotional photos.
“The Taosciech launched it in May and is very excited because it’s a statement that we are back and we’re strong and resilient,” said Kelly.
One-day tickets for IFest Boston start at $45 – an early-bird fee that will include general admission access to live entertainment, cooking demonstrations, a food hall with bars featuring Guinness and Jameson, and big screen documentary and sports action. Ticket prices will go up closer to the actual event, but the early bird prices are in effect now on the festival’s website, ifestboston.com. VIP packages, which offer access to an exclusive lounge, start at $95.
With just two months remaining until the big weekend, Kelly is reluctant to look beyond the inaugural IFest. But her business plan does call for similar events to be staged in other American cities. After IFest Boston is wrapped, she and her team will step back and review its success with an eye towards replicating it in places like Chicago and New York.
“I’m so focused on getting this one right. It’s been three years in the making and incredibly challenging and much harder work than I imagined,” said Kelly. “We will sit with our stakeholders and say, ‘Okay, how did that go?
"It’s the first, so it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next. We need to make sure we execute it in the best way possible and then we’ll review.”