Ashley Newman | Staff Writer
As I walked through Sandcastle waterpark, the scene looked pretty desolate. The closed park was almost completely empty, with dry pools and windows closed on every concession stand. As people neared the entrance of the park, the faint sound of bagpipes began.
The 29th annual Pittsburgh Irish Festival was underway. Getting closer, the bagpipes grew louder and more people started appearing. Swarms of green took over the lot along with the smell of traditional Irish food.
The festival took place Sept. 6-8 in the main parking lot of Sandcastle. According to the festival’s official website, it is run by the Pittsburgh Irish Festival Inc., a nonprofit corporation that also runs the Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day Festival.
People of all ages attended, from babies to their grandparents. The festival also attracted people from all over, including some international bands and visitors.
There were a variety of activities available to visitors, such as axe throwing, mini golf, dancing (both traditional Irish dancing as well as some from the Pittsburgh Ballet Academy) and live music, as well as a marketplace with everything from kilts to handbags and more.
Although the entertainment filled the atmosphere with music, voices and laughter, the distinct aroma of food still cut through the air. There were many offerings of traditional Irish cuisine, including bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, corned beef, Irish stew and bread pudding. However, other foods such as soft pretzels, stromboli, pulled pork sandwiches and french fries were also available.
Mary Ging has been volunteering with the festival for 28 years. For the last 25, she has been the event coordinator. Ging remembers how much smaller the festival was when she first started volunteering, which originally took place in an amphitheater in Station Square that they quickly outgrew.
After that, they moved the festival to the Riverplex at Sandcastle, where it remained for many years. However, with the intense rain and flooding last year that cut the festival short, festival director Mairin Petrone chose to move it to the main parking lot of Sandcastle, according to Ging. Thanks to the new location, they had hopes of being better prepared for any unexpected weather this year.
Ging, along with a number of other longtime volunteers, are part of the so-called “Weekend Warriors,” who have become good friends after working every shift of the festival together, from Friday evening to Sunday evening. Starting off as strangers, the group of volunteers often stay in touch after the festival comes to a close each year.
Ging emphasized that everyone working at the festival booths are simply volunteers who want to help out because the festival has been an important part of their lives.
“The volunteers are just amazing, and when you have ones you trust, you want them to keep coming back,” Ging explained.
One aspect that makes the festival extra special is the numerous familial ties individuals have to the event. Throughout Ging’s 28 years volunteering for the festival, she has done so alongside her sister. Now, her daughter, who has been attending the annual festival for her entire life, is making it part of her adult life, helping both her mother and aunt coordinate the event.
One festival goer, Dawn Blue, attended the festival for the first time this year because her granddaughter was dancing. “Watching my baby girl dance will be my favorite part by far,” Blue said.
Overall, the festival is an event that many people look forward to each year. Many families attend and bring their young children, continuing a tradition that has been going on for nearly three decades.