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Tara Feis: Dervish headlines family festival Saturday
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Fans of Irish music, dance and entertainment will fill Robert Emmet Park on Saturday, March 11 for the 15th Annual Tara Feis.

This Irish festival is always held the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day. All events and stage performances are free.

“The main concept of Tara Feis is a family day,” says co-chair Bernadette Winters. “We have little newborn babies and grandmas, people with their dogs on blankets in the park, just everyone.”

The contrast between Tara Feis and the sometimes ribald street party that occurs on River Street during St. Patrick’s Day is deliberate. “We’ve done everything we can to make it be a real family day,” Winters says.

Alcohol is banned from Tara Feis, and police officers patrol the park to make sure the ban is enforced. The park is the perfect setting for the festival, Winters says.

“Emmet Park in the early days was almost like the play area for the Irish,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of history there.

“Fifteen years ago, we started Tara Feis on River Street,” Winters says. “It was okay, but then when we moved upstairs to Emmet Park, it was kind of like coming home, where we should have been all along.”

Over the years, Tara Feis has grown steadily, prompting some to suggest it be moved to Forsyth Park. However, Winters says it will stay in Emmet Park. “It’s just a nice-sized area,” she says.

“We are paying tribute to our ancestors by presenting their culture and crafts,” Winters says. “We try to keep everything geared towards learning a little something about the Irish and getting immersed in Irish culture.”

A major attraction of Tara Feis is the entertainment, which is presented on two stages. Headlining the festival this year is Dervish, a traditional Irish group that was formed in 1989 and has gone on to achieve international acclaim.

Members of the group are Brian McDonagh on mandola, Liam Kelly on flute and whistles, Tom Morrow on fiddle, Shane Mitchell on accordion, Michael Holmes on bouzouki and

vocalist Cathy Jordan, who also plays the bodhran and bones and tenor guitar.

McDonagh hopes that the group’s journey to Savannah is more successful than a recent trip to Hartford, Conn., where the show was canceled because of snow. “We’re on the road all the time, going on about 15 years,” McDonagh says.

The original five members of Dervish, all from Sligo County in Ireland, got together to make a recording of music from their northern region, then decided to stay together as a band. The group’s intriguing name actually comes from their music.

“It’s about the motion of music, the feeling of spirit,” McDonagh says. “We weren’t a band when we made the recording. We needed a name for the recording, so we put Dervish on it.”

At the beginning, Dervish performed only instrumentals, until Jordan was added to do vocals. “Having a singer is very important,” McDonagh says.

The band received critical acclaim for its first album, Harmony Hill, then their second album, Playing With Fire, reached No. 1 on the Irish Folk Music Charts. When the albums were released in the United States, the band’s popularity soared.

Dervish has performed at festivals such as Wolf Trap and opened for performers such as James Brown. An Irish traditional band and James Brown may seem like an odd mix, but Brown is one of many big names the band has shared the stage with, including The Buena Vista Social Club, REM and Beck.

“We played at Rock in Rio in Brazil,” McDonagh says. “Neil Young, Sting, Oasis -- some huge, huge names were there.”

McDonagh became interested in traditional Irish music during the 1980s. “My parents don’t perform, but my grandfather did,” he says. “He was more a classical player.

“I just got into Irish music,” McDonagh says. “In the 1980s, there was a revival of Irish music. I was swept up in it with other people. We were emulating our heroes. That’s the way it works.”

At first, music was a part-time gig -- then it became a full-time job. “All of sudden, we were asked to play for a gig here, then a gig there, and people were paying us to do it,” McDonagh says.

The audience in Savannah is in for a special treat. “We have been rehearsing the last month or so on new material,” McDonagh says.

“We have material we’ve never played on stage,” he says. “That’s always a bit scary.

“Almost half our show is material we’ve never recorded before,” McDonagh says. “I hope everyone in Savannah will enjoy it.

“We are really looking forward to getting there,” he says. “We want to meet everyone after the show. If anyone has questions, they can come up and ask.”

Winters is excited to bring Dervish to Savannah, because the group is so well-known. She credits Tara Feis emcee and performer Harry O’Donoghue with landing the group.

“I can’t ever say enough good about him,” Winters says. “He’s been involved in Tara Feis since Day One. He really is very instrumental in helping me secure high quality Irish entertainers.”

Other performers will include storyteller Sean Driscoll, the Conrad Hartz Marionettes, the Savannah Irish Dancers and the Pride of Ireland Dancers.

The two Irish dance schools Have quite a following, Winters says. “They bring a lot of folks in,” she says. “It’s fascinating to me to watch them.

“I particularly like the hard-shoe dancing with all the noises and banging,” she says. “It’s always been an important part of Tara Feis.”

Winters and co-chair Mike Beytagh have organized Tara Feis from the beginning. Winters notes that several other Irish events, such as the Celtic Cross Celebration, have been added in the past 15 years.

“All the things we have come to cherish are a tribute to our ancestry and our ancestors,” Winters says. “They went through a lot of adversity so we could be where we are today.”

Winters is the music director at St. Vincent’s Academy. “Our students got involved in Tara Feis about 10 years ago,” she says.

The students from the Benedictine Military Academy and St. Vincent’s Academy staff all the booths, crafts, games and rides, Winters says. “Part of the reason we wanted to get the young people involved was so they could have some ownership in Tara Feis,” she says.

“When I was young, the night before the parade, we went down and decorated the cars,” Winters says. “That made us feel part of it. Over the years, the kids were removed. There was a concerted effort to involve young people again,” she says. “We have more than 100 kids who have already volunteered for Tara Feis and the list was just put up this week. It’s like it’s their thing.”

So far, the weather has cooperated with Tara Feis. “Last year, it was really cold, but as long as it’s not raining, we’re fine,” Winters says. “We have been blessed with more beautiful days than not.” w

Tara Feis takes place this Saturday, March 11 at Emmett Park.