Food, music, dance emerse attendees in Irish culture

Seth Culp-Ressler | The Duquesne Duke

St. Patrick’s Day might be seven months away, but this weekend the Steel City is still getting a nice dose of Celtic flavor in the form of Pittsburgh’s 24th annual Irish Festival. Spanning a full three days, Sept. 5-7, the celebration of all things Irish will converge at the Riverplex at Sandcastle for a weekend of music, culture and food.

Mairin Patrone, special projects director of the Irish Festival and Duquesne alumna of ‘10 with a bachelors in marketing and ‘13 with an MBA in business, explained that the festival tries to be all encompassing with their offerings to attendees. From traditional food and beverages to cultural education and dancing, patrons are provided with multiple outlets with which to get their Irish fix. For Patrone, though, one of the most anticipated aspects of 2014’s event is the music, over 30 acts in all.

“One of the things we’re most excited about this year is the additional entertainment we’re bringing in,” Patrone said. “We have several new bands coming to the festival this year that have never been here before. Actually, they’ve never been to Pittsburgh as a matter of fact. We’re really, really excited about that.”

Patrone specifically mentioned three she was looking forward to — The Willis Clan, Scythian and Socks in the Frying Pan. The Willis Clan, a family of 12 children ages 3 to 22, were featured on America’s Got Talent earlier this year, and are all world-class dancers and musicians. Scythian is returning to the festival after a three year hiatus, and with that comes a unique blend of Irish and Ukrainian musical styles. And finally, Socks in the Frying Pan, a band loved for its modern take on the traditional Irish sound, is making its first ever appearance at the festival this year.

While those descriptions and names may seem a bit alien, or even off-putting for some, Patrone is quick to point out that there is music to suit everyone’s tastes.

“What we’re really excited to have this year is a unique blend of different types of Irish music, ranging from traditional to Celtic rock,” she said. “We have a Scottish band coming in, and a little bit of Ukrainian music thrown into this band called Scythian. Whether you are interested in Irish music or not, you will find a group that you enjoy because of this diversity in music.”

While music is no doubt essential for creating the ambiance of the festival, no proper Irish gathering is complete without some traditional Celtic cuisine. That’s where Leah Fitchwell, a cook at the festival’s McCarrick’s kitchen, comes in to play. Her job is one of delicate balance — crafting food in the Irish tradition while at the same time adding just a hint of Pittsburgh spice. As she put it, Pittsburgh’s unique take on Irish food is simply the result of a natural progression.

“Our Pittsburgh Irish food has a touch of all the other immigrants that cooked at the time [of their initial immigration],” she said, “And that was bottled over the ages into the recipes that were basically Irish, but with a little touch of Germany, a little touch of Italy, but still the basic ham and cabbage and potatoes. And we dress it up to fit the city of Pittsburgh.”

As Patrone pointed out, there are a few new food and drink items available this year, ranging from a pulled pork sandwich topped with pierogies to the addition of Magner’s Irish Cider to the beverage list, for those 21 and older of course. A seafood section also makes its debut this weekend.

“Every bite that you buy is going to taste good,” Fitchwell said. “We’ve never had anyone return something and say ‘eugh’ or ‘I can’t eat this’ or ‘I don’t like it’.”

With the music jamming and stomachs full, it only seems natural that people’s outfits should match the mood, and Peggy Hill — proprietor of the booth Parlour Green and 18 year veteran of the Irish Festival — is happy to help. Selling custom designed T-shirts and jewelry, all with significant Celtic designs and motifs; the festival is always one of the highlights of her year.

“It really makes me happy to find families coming back to my booth year after year wearing my jewelry, and coming back for more,” she said. “So it’s really a pleasure. It’s sensational. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

Of course, as Patrone said, there are many more attractions taking place over the three days, more than can be covered in such a limited space. Nevertheless, a short rundown includes Irish step dancing, education and demonstration of Gaelic sports and, as to not offend anyone, abundant flat screens to make sure any relevant Pittsburgh sporting events are never missed.

On Sunday the annual Duquesne University sponsored Gaelic Mass will be led by Father Naos McCool, in both English and Gaelic. Some altar servers, singers and performers are also from Duquesne.

Overall, the weekend promises to be one of unabashed celebration of all things Irish, and as Hill said, there really is nothing finer than that.

“It’s the best ticket in town, you just can’t get anything better,” she said. “You go dizzy with everything that happens all at once. It’s wonderful, it’s just wonderful.”

Tickets are $8 with student ID and $14 for general admission.