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The official kick-off to St. Patrick's Day
16th Annual Savannah Irish Fest offers culture, food and fun for all ages
Roger Drawdy & The Firestarters

LATELY IT SEEMS (around town at least) that St. Patrick’s Day is on everyone’s mind.

With talk of our fabled festivities being further truncated in the name of “public safety,” it would be easy to think that all manner of Irish-themed celebrations in Savannah center around March 17.

And yet, for over a decade and a half, a small, hardworking group of local members of the Irish and Irish-American communities have thrown another annual event which easily boast much more, well, Irish-ness than either the city’s parade or River Street’s multi-day party zone.

Smaller in scale but larger in scope, this weekend’s 16th Annual Savannah Irish Festival (there’s a straightforward name for you) offers the widest array of cultural, educational and entertainment options for those interested in the Green Island.

“It’s come to be seen as the kickoff to all the Irish-related celebrations that take place from now till St. Patrick’s Day,” says Chris Hagan, Vice Chairman for this year’s festival (and, coincidentally, President of the Savannah division of The Ancient Order of the Hibernians).

“It always takes place the third weekend in February, and between now and St. Pat’s there’s some sort of Irish celebration taking place every weekend.”

Hagan, who’s attended and/or taken part in almost every one of the past 15 Irish Fests before finally accepting the role of Vice Chairman this year, says the focus on both Celtic heritage and the family unit is what sets this event apart.

“That was the original intent of the festival itself — to share the culture of the music and the dancing and to make it available to children as well as adults. We’ll have magicians and all sorts of fun stuff for kids on their very own stage, while there’s plenty for adults to take in as well.”

The Vice Chairman —who’s served as an MC at the past few Savannah Irish Fests— cites the wide range of activities, such as live Irish and Irish-influenced music, ethnic food and drink, lectures and discussions on Irish history and art and authentic crafts and products from across the pond as examples of what’s in store for the public at the 2008 event.

“We’ll have almost 30 different vendors on hand, most of whom travel all the way from Ireland just to offer their wares at festivals like ours,” he offers, adding that many of their handicrafts are not easily found elsewhere in our country.

“We’ve also got quite a range of acts, from folk singers to traditional Irish balladeers to Celtic rock bands that blend in modern music styles.”

All food sold on site is prepared by members of ten local Irish organizations.

“The food is great,” says Hagan. “The cost ranges from about $5 to no more than $7. We’ll have Shepherd’s Pie, Irish Bangers (which are sausage dogs with peppers and onions) and Irish beef-and-vegetable stew. For dessert, we have one group that does Whiskey Cakes, but they’ll actually have non-alcoholic Whiskey Cakes as well. (Laughs) I don’t know how they do that, but they do.”

While the event is family-oriented, that’s not to say that those 21 and up can’t imbibe if they so choose.

“We’ll have all manner of soft drinks as well as beer, Guinness and other types of adult beverages available,” Hagan adds.

One thing different than in recent years will be the actual layout of the event at the Savannah Civic Center’s MLK Jr. Arena (its location for the past five years or so, after stints at the National Guard Armory, Grayson Stadium and Camp Villa-Marie).

Hagan explains these changes were made after suggestions from both entertainers and audience members alike, and are designed to increase everyone’s enjoyment of the musical performances.

“The main stage is being moved to create a more intimate feeling in that huge room. We’re also going to drop the height of the stage a foot or more, so it’s not as though we’re trying to play to the whole arena. Now, all the food booths will be directly across from the stage, with tables and chairs in the middle of the room.

“We’re keeping the vendors to the sides and the Cultural Stage has been moved to the second floor of the Civic Center to make room for replicas of the ‘Murals From Derry,’ an exhibit that’s been on display at Georgia Southern University.”

“There are 11 replicas of original murals found on three to four story buildings in Derry in Ireland. The most recent one that’s been done was a peace mural, which is also being used as the back design of our festival T-shirt. There will be discussions on these murals by folks from the University. They were excited to bring them down and have them seen by a wider audience.”

“We also have the author of a book called Paddy On The Hardwood. He’s a basketball coach from New Mexico State who coached the semi-pro basketball team in Ireland for several years. He’ll speak on his travels and experiences over there.

“And musician Harry O’Donoghue moderates a discussion in the round by several Irish singer/songwriters on how they choose traditional tunes and how they compose their own material.”

With so much going on in a relatively short time period, one wonders whether or not Hagan realized just what he was getting into by agreeing to become Vice Chairman of the festival. I ask if he was at all intimidated at stepping into that role.

He laughs immediately.

“Yes! It is overwhelming how many tasks are involved to put this on. There’s really only a handful of folks who are doing it all. For example, I handle the marketing, which includes newspaper, radio and poster advertising, and going after sponsorships — both from the corporate side and from smaller businesses owned by Irish families that have been involved all along — like Jerry Hogan and Hogan’s Marina and John Coleman and his family’s company Bonitz of Georgia.”

“Jimmy Buttimer, who served as Chairman for ages, stepped down this year, but he still helps with booking the live entertainment, and of course our hardworking volunteers work alongside the Civic Center staff to keep everything running smoothly.”

Still, despite wearing many caps, Hagan most relishes his chance to perform in the festival himself.

“In fact,” he says, “what I’m most looking forward to personally is the chance to play with some of the talent that comes through town — especially the very traditional acts. There’s one coming called Henri’s Notions that have played Irish music in Alabama for about 30 years.”

“Sometimes, after the fest, there are gatherings —usually at Kevin Barry’s or Murphy’s Law Pub— where you can sit and jam with some of the guest musicians.”

A former member of Celtic band The Terry Alts, Hagan — who sings, and plays both banjo and guitar— is now part of the five-piece Savannah Ceili Band, who’ll play a few times during the festival as well as offer an instrument demonstration for kids.

“We’re also doing a ceili on Friday night in the ballroom of the Civic Center,” Hagan adds. “We’ll have a caller from the Irish Dancers of Savannah who’ll teach everyone traditional folk dances and then they can all can join in together.”

What: Four stages of continuous live entertainment plus Irish food, arts and crafts, dancing and vendors

Where: Savannah Civic Center

When: Friday, 6:30 - 9:30 pm; Saturday, 10 am - 8 pm; Sunday, noon - 7 pm

Cost: Friday: $5 donation; Saturday & Sunday: $11.50 per day or $20 for both

Discounts: Kids 14 and under free w/paid parent; Sunday only, students, active-duty military and their families get in free with proper ID

Noteworthy Acts: Jack Hardy & Band (acclaimed singer/songwriter), Roger Drawdy & The Firestarters, Brendan Nolan (Native Irish songwriter based in Fl.), Glor na h'Eireann School of Irish Dancing, Harry O'Donoghue, Pat & Rosie Maloney (Az. duo of contemporary Celtic folk), The St. Vincent's Academy Chorale, Henri's Notions (premier trad acoustic band from Al.), Rathkeltair ("Best Celtic Rock Band of 2006")

Complete Schedule & Info: