We hit the 40th MKE Irish Fest this past Friday. It was a kilt-less journey as to not scare children or frighten farm animals.
As is our custom, my friends and I traveled from the northwest Chicago suburbs to MKE Irish Fest via Route 31 and through the tiny Illinois-Wisconsin border town of Richmond, IL.
Alas, the high school team there plays as the Richmond-Burton Rockets, not the Cleopatras, Walking Egyptians or even the Virginia Wolves.
Richmond doesn’t have a Tastee-Freeze, so nobody can suck on chili dogs outside it. Come to think of it, who sucks on chili dogs? Ick.
We stopped at the Dog N Suds there for root beer, pizza puffs and our first taste of nostalgia for the day.
Who hasn’t stopped at this Dog N Suds on the way to Lake Geneva to get grub served on a tray brought by a car hop? Well, no trays this time, but we still had food brought to us in the car. No mugs for the root beer, either, just standard fast food place paper cups.
Bellies full, we used the Waze app to guide us. I’m always wary that relying on such tech one day will have hackers luring us into a trap where the car and all our belongings get stolen. We’d get left naked on the side of the road, mistaken for wildlife and have to live the rest of our lives eating wild berries and subdivision flowers.
Not this time, though, as the Waze ways cut a good amount of time off our journey to the 40th MKE Irish Fest, shortcutting us down rural roads for one part of the trip and back streets in Milwaukee not far from our destination. (I’m sticking with the MKE for SEO purposes and as a nod to CelticMKE, the group behind the Irish fest. Also, MKE looks a bit like Mike, flattering my ego.)
As luck would have it, we found parking at a meter and paid by credit card, less than $3 for four-hours time, right next to a lot charging $20 for a space. Bargains like that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon in Chicago, sister!
Waze made us arrive early, so we waited in line outside the Summerfest/Irish Fest grounds. Given the demographics of the crowd, it felt like a Sunday after church at an Old Country Buffet – maybe one in the Ozarks, given the outstanding mullet haircut on one gentleman standing near us.
Or maybe he was an Irish traveler. I didn’t ask. I became preoccupied when a Paul Blart, Mall Cop security guy demanded, at the top of his voice, that we all form one – or maybe two – lines. This, despite signage seeming to indicate we were fine standing where we were.
That turned out to be the case as multiple check-in points soon opened and we smoothly made our way in – to the bathrooms first, of course, because of all that root beer.
The Summerfest grounds seemed in good shape, spiffed up in fact, since our last visit in 2019. Mostly because of that crazy little thing called COVID-19, the trip to the 40th MKE Irish Fest was just my second time outside of Illinois and the Chicago suburbs in almost two years.
The other journey was earlier this summer to Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana. On a dare from Best Fest Buddy Tom, I bought a 3XL Polish Princess t-shirt at that gathering.
I wore my red t-shirt proudly to the 40th MKE Irish Fest, because confusing people can be fun and because it’s interesting to see if anyone pays attention. (Incidentally, Tom dressed his usual fest way, which made him look a bit like celebrity chef Jose Andres. Or a French rapper. Or somebody who likes to pose with sheep.)
One of the people who noticed me was a woman working a booth selling scents. Using her wiley sales ways, she asked me about the shirt, then began to speak Polish to me. I told her the shirt’s backstory in English, which eventually led to her putting some concoction on my wrists, ostensibly to attract attention from women.
It did – from the women I asked if I could borrow their hand sanitizer to rid myself of the smell, a smell which for some reason reminded me of Stevie Nicks, which reminded me of songs about witches, which reminded me of curses.
But that’s jumping ahead in this story, or at least meandering sideways, which might be a side effect of the scent.
Back on the timeline: Masks handy, bladders empty, we avoided dehydration with some CiderBoys ciders. No, CiderBoys aren’t the latest Marvel superheroes. At least not until Marvel scrapes the idea barrel again for another mindless movie.
Next it was off to hear Mick Moloney, Jimmy Keane and Pat Broaders. They played under the Celtic Roots State tent that held a Jameson booth. At past fests, that booth formerly occupied a rooftop. I have quite a few memories of that spot, but I won’t kiss and tell.
Friday, we just had a “Jamorita”, a margarita made with Jameson, which wasn’t as bad as it might sound.
As advised before the trio’s set, we kept a good social distance and did not approach the musicians. That made sense, given the pandemic and the prior restraining orders.
As it was a bit hard to hear from the back of the tent, one of the song’s lyrics seemed to mention doing something with a mother, then with a brother, then holding a stick in a hand. Thus, it illustrated the ties between Celtic and country music.
However, because it’s so ubiquitous, The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights – which just finished its 88th week on the pop charts – was stuck in my head. As such, the music of what I’m now calling Irelnd that day quite often sounded like a take on The Weeknd’s very 1980s-styled dance tune – albeit with different instrumentation and frequently featuring step dancers.
Which reminded me. When MKE Irish Fest debuted in 1981, the top song in the US was the Lionel Richie/Diana Ross ballad Endless Love, from the terrible movie of the same name. U2’s first stateside album, Boy, had been out for less than a year. And it had only been 10 years since the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship.
Random thoughts aside, we next wandered off to the culture area, where 10 years ago Allison Hanstchel and I talked about and hawked our book, Chicago’s Historic Irish Pubs. Some people say Hollywood is still thinking about making it into a movie starring Christopher Meloni as me, or that Broadway might make it into a musical featuring Bernadette Peters.
Then we headed to a tent set up right by the shoreline to check out a skiff modeled after an old Irish fishing boat.
That reminded Tom of the time we hit MKE Irish Fest and listened to tenor Ronan Tynan for a bit. Tynan’s tunes set left Tom so sad he considered jumping into Lake Michigan. Only the promise of a corned beef sandwich stopped him.
At the 40th MKE Irish Fest, we opted for Scotch eggs served on sticks. There were plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options, too. According to a PDF found on the fest’s website, those options included fish, which I thought was the chicken of the sea.
Either way, it was too warm for such delicacies as grandma’s pot roast, Reuben sausages, Irish nachos or something called Bailey’s Balls. We learned our gaseous lessons about having heavy food on a hot day at Pierogi Fest. We also were disappointed the truck typically there selling alligator pierogis was nowhere to be found there.
Alas, given covid as well as the way time changes things, the 40th MKE Irish Fest had fewer vendors then in past years. I missed the booth that used to be there offering t-shirts with dad jokes emblazoned on them.
We thought of Brigid’s Cross and their crowd-pleasing version of Fields of Athenry. I remembered, too, that the late, great Tommy Makem played the MKE Irish Fest. I once interviewed him by phone for a newspaper story, a long time ago when newspapers still had features sections. And reporters.
This past Friday, there was no Jack Baker with his tent full of music. And it’s been years since my unofficial parents Shay and Traci Clarke had the big booth for their Blarney store set up to sell Irish wedding bands, Claddagh rings and other jewelry.
I did find some Jelly Babies candy at the Tralee Irish Imports booth, which made Doctor Who nerd Tom happy. See, on the show, the time-travelling Doctor Who is from a far-off place called Gallifrey, which he sometimes fibs and says is a small town in Ireland.
Speaking of, I am jumping through space and time with the chronology of our visit to the 40th MKE Irish Fest. That’s how memories are. No, not because of drink, which would be cliche.
Besides, the only other beverage I had at the fest was an iced coffee drink containing Five Farms Irish Cream.
That was while watching the Bellator Academy of Irish Dance perform from a social distance, just like that Bette Midler song. There was a lot of inspirational talk during the set, talk of having a warrior mentality.
So moved, if they would have had Michael Flatley buttonless man-blouses for sale right there, I most surely would have bought one. Bang, bang, I’m a warrior.
Anyway, we ended our afternoon listening to the Seamus Egan Project. Tom’s brother Mark is not typically a fan of the tin whistle, but this act had him thinking otherwise.
Perhaps because the band played on a stage co-sponsored by Parkview Senior-Living Community , we felt old and decided to head home. Plus, we had to get back to the meter, which only allowed for four hours parking.
On the way out, I decided to buy a $5 poster for the 40th MKE Irish Fest. The booth selling them also offered a plethora of souvenir t-shirts. One featured a Mexican Day of the Dead-like skull.
That’s not so odd, really. The Pierogi Fest also served up brisket, strudel, gyros, drinks served in pineapples and official Pierogi Fest loungewear.
Ethnic fests of all sorts celebrate the spirits of those who have passed, the cultures they helped create, the mishing and mashing that goes on here in this country.
Food, music and laughs. The ghosts. The rituals. The hitting the Kenosha Woodman’s on the way home for some food and beverage bargains – but that’s another story.
Plus, with September on the horizon, the MKE Irish Fest has always been a get-together – if not to rage against – to at least enjoy the days before the dying of the light. A scattering, indeed – although Tom’s scatterings are often crowd-clearing for different reasons.