Shay has been minded and safely returned. The Gobbins has finally opened. The ashes are in the trunk. The road ends.
That’s the short version of how I spent the last weekend, the bittersweet one that holds the Milwaukee Irish Fest.
Sure, the humidity Sunday made Milwaukee feel like Florida, but the Celtic gathering along the lakeshore is a sure sign summer is winding down, the kids are going back to school and soon it will be Christmas Day. Sigh.
The light might not be dying but it sure is dwindling. While there was no raging in Milwaukee about this (as far as I could tell), instead of going gently into the night, the 35th Irish celebration in the German-heavy town ended its usual way, with the shining.
Yup, the crowd chanted red rum, red rum, then Jack Nicholson led everybody in a murderous rendition of Tim Finnegan’s Wake. Again.
The finale is called the scattering, where a good many of the acts gather onstage, We Are the World-style, to sing and dance to a bunch of folk favorites.
We left about an hour or so into that, before the fireworks display. (Chinese made fireworks plas Irish music – as if a railroad had been built.)
Best fest buddy Tom and I had done our jobs well that day, misplacing, but not losing our charge, Irish entrepreneur/raconteur/online friender Shay Clarke during our stint as his minders.
Shay is like Donald Trump – with less money, better hair, and a way more pleasant disposition. But like Trump, Shay draws a crowd wherever he goes, and the media pays attention. In Shay’s case that means his 2,974 Facebook friends.
I tried to mind Shay earlier this summer at the Irish American Heritage Center’s fest, but with the huge Summerfest grounds involved this time, Tom was the much-needed extra support.
Tom also is a great friend to have for traveling anywhere, if just for the fact he is better prepared than a Boy Scout. Hot day? He’s got a 12 pack of water chilling in the back of the SUV. Nose hairs too long? He has scissors for you to trim them.
That, and he spots good photo opps and sights to see or not to see. Poor Tom took a bullet for the group, diverting eyes from the man way too proud of what was under his kilt and shaved. Or so Tom says.
It was Tom’s idea for me to pose with sheep, sheep grazing in a large photo illustration that made them look as if they were involved in some sort of farm field rapture. Either way, the display was a nice way to combine the animal husbandry of the Wisconsin State Fair (going on at the same time and just minutes from Irish Fest) with a Joe Cullen-like touch of Ireland.
Shay, of course, found his own photo opps, the first a happenstance meeting with the mayor of Galway, Frank Fahy, whom we bumped into near a booth selling imported cookies, candy and snacks.
Past that, Shay posed with vendor buddies Jack Baker and Danny O’Neill, musical acts including Brigid’s Cross, and even plushies dressed up like a leprechaun and a milkmaid.
So Shay Clarke, a leprechaun, and a milkmaid walk into a bar….or maybe it was a tent where some Irish chefs were preparing a beef roast a newfangled way where you slow cook it in a water bath, a meat hot tub, if you will. Or maybe they were hiking to see the High Kings or or were heading to Minnesota to meet the Vikings.
Anyway, human puppets aside, Shay seemed to have a fan club hanging out with him as if he were in an Irish boy band or Socks in the Dryer or the Kilkennys, who dress like Kenny from South Park.
No they don’t. But I think certain someones who are big trad fans would find these guys every bit as dreamy as they do the Sock Puppets. Plus, the Kilkennys played a fine version of the fest-ubiquitous Galway Girl.
I’d rather hear that catchy song 1,000 times than the oddest cover of the day I did catch – an act whose name I won’t mention crooning Air Supply’s All Out of Love.
Upon hearing that soporific bit o’ soft rock, though tempted to jump into Lake Michigan, Tom and I headed to a rooftop to drink plastic cups of Jameson and ginger ale and eat some corned beef.
The rooftop provided the best vantage point for relocating the Shay Pride Parade, which was making its way back from the cultural area, where the group made Irish yogurt and performed with a drum corps that musically interpreted James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Again with the Irish lies, beguiling. It was just another visit for Shay with more friends.
See, Shay and his family used to set up a booth selling fine Irish jewelry and wedding bands, traveling the nation to do so. Milwaukee was like a Christmas season packed into a weekend for the business.
As such, Shay usually only got to see bits and pieces of what the fest had to offer, so, after all these years, Sunday was a way for him to enjoy the event as a spectator, albeit one who knew 75.6 percent of those present.
While Shay sought culture, Tom and I bought shirts, Tom for his granddaughter, me – one saying “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is strength, in water there is bacteria,” which the stencil attributes to being a German proverb and which the Internet claims may have been Ben Franklin. My other fashion statement holds an adaptation of a Brendan Behan quip, “I saw a sign that said ‘Drink Canada Dry,” so I got started.”
I also caught up with Mid and East Antrim Alderman Gregg McKeen, there once more to help promote the Gobbins, a Northern Ireland attraction along the Coastal Causeway Route a bit like the Cliffs of Moher but with a new 2-mile path, a good portion of it just 20 feet off the sea.
The attraction originally opened in 1902 but, like most of us, eventually fell into disrepair, and closed in 1954. In recent years, the local government and European investors spent about 10.6 million euros on the project, and you can find out more yourself at thegobbinscliffpath.com
They also film a good deal of Game of Thrones not far from the Gobbins so part of why I want to go is to get another chance at playing Hodor. I kept forgetting my lines during the audition. Hey, watch the show – you’ll get that joke.
Plus, I can pick up some jewelry at Steensons, which has made many pieces for TV’s goriest soap opera at its Glenarm workshop.
As for the aforementioned ashes in my trunk, they aren’t Angela’s. I already told you I had not been to the culture tents.
Nay, they are a blend of my mom, who passed late last November, and my dad who died in mid March. My sister gave the cremains to me after a brief memorial ceremony for them Saturday at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Worth. She put some of my folks in the ground near the gravestones of their respective parents, all of whom are buried not far from each other in the same section, which is not the one holding Mayor Richard J. Daley.
My deacon uncle Dan offered some holy words as my mind wandered, thinking about something I saw online about a biodegradable urn that allegedly turns you into a tree – presumably not an ash tree, unless you were a real borer.
The clouds and humidity were building, so the relatives who gathered in the graveyard headed to my Uncle Tom and Aunt Nancy’s house in Orland Park for a mini family reunion, replete with tons of food from Winston’s. Hey, my sister assumed everybody in the family had my eating habits.
As an Irish writer, I suppose I should go all Eugene O’Neill on you and embellish like a Banshee how theatrical the gathering was, with over imbibing (on Old Style?) leading to drunken poetic soliloquies revealing terrible family secrets.
But the only thing close to something you might see in a play – make that one of those sentimental movies set in Ireland – was a sun shower with a rainbow appearing in the general direction of where the cemetery is located.
Which is to say this was a very pleasant version of how the clan used to get together for the holidays or other occasions, with small talk, joking, catching up, milling about, drinks but nary a drunk, and the only thing missing being the old shirt-tale aunts dipped in perfume, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes.
Nobody played the fool. Nobody felt beholden to be the center of attention. Nobody seemed to hurt anybody’s feelings.
In overheated and Tweeted times like these, everybody being nice was as fine a tribute to the late parents as any.
Either way, I didn’t know what to do with the ashes, so for now I have them in the trunk of my Camry. As long as I don’t make out with somebody at a drive-in I’m fine with taking them along for the ride.
The cremains didn’t make it to Milwaukee, though. Tom drove. Bigger car. Better driver.
Road Ends: that’s on a warning sign concluding a very short street where I frequently park when I visit the Clarkes of West Dundee.
The sign is comic in its obviousness, but maybe some people really do need to be reminded.