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Origins of Milwaukee Irish Fest

In the early 1980s, members of Milwaukee's Irish community gathered to discuss opportunities to promote their Gaelic heritage in a city known for its German roots. The idea of a festival, a three-day event to promote Irish culture through music, dance, cultural exhibits, drama and sports, was born. The festival wasn't just an opportunity to feature national Irish acts but also an impetus to showcase local groups that celebrate the rich traditions of Irish music.

Ed Ward came up with the Irish Fest concept while attending the 1980 Festa Italiana, Milwaukee's celebration of Italian culture on the Summerfest grounds. Knowing this new festival would need the support of the Milwaukee Irish community, he approached the Shamrock Club of Wisconsin and the Neville-Dunn American Legion Post 489 for their support. An organizational meeting at Mr. Guinness on Greenfield Avenue was held shortly after and attracted around twenty people interested in volunteering.

A number of meetings were held between August and November of 1980 that brought together the people who became the volunteer backbone of Milwaukee Irish Fest. This dedicated team included:

  • Lorraine Murphy
  • Mary Otto
  • Jane Anderson
  • Jeremiah Hagerty
  • Patrick Murphy
  • Dan Steininger
  • Bill Drew, Bill O'Donnell, Jim Brennan, and Jim McCann (Fund Development Committee)
  • Chuck Ward
  • Jerry McCloskey
  • Tom Cannon
  • Mary Cannon
  • Marty Hintz
  • Jackie Kane
  • Bernice Reilly (the Voice of Irish Fest)
  • Derry Hegarty
  • Danny and Helen O'Donoghue

Entertainment Vision

The Milwaukee Irish Fest team decided in its earliest stages to book acts that would appeal to multiple audiences, not just from a singular genre. Although folk and ballad groups like the Irish Rovers were popular in Milwaukee at the time, the festival also wanted to bring in performers that their Irish American parents knew and loved like Carmel Quinn and Dennis Day. Ed and his brother Chuck had already welcomed Irish traditional musicians to Milwaukee such as De Danann and Kevin Burke's duo with Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, and both brothers were interested in introducing more of these musicians to area audiences. They were also keen to book Mick Moloney's Green Fields of America, the first group to bring together Irish song, instrumental tunes, and dance traditions. 

The 1981 entertainment lineup included acts from all these genres: folk, traditional, Irish American singers, even bluegrass. This philosophy of booking diverse entertainment continues to this day.


More Than Music

Milwaukee Irish Fest's organizers established its purpose to educate both Irish and Irish Americans in Milwaukee as well as the non-Irish about Irish culture and traditions. The first festival included various cultural and educational elements, and this continues to be a cornerstone of every festival.

Cultural Exhibit

The 1981 cultural exhibit featured early Irish art treasures dating from around 500 BC.

Children’s Area

Focusing on fun for the whole family, the first Children’s Area included contests, musical instrument making, games, and entertainers.

Traditional Irish Music Workshops

A National Endowment for the Arts grant secured by Mary Cannon allowed Irish Fest to feature various Irish music workshops featuring the renowned musicians appearing at the festival. This educational focus continues today during the fest at our Hedge School as well as the week-long Milwaukee Irish Fest Summer School held before the festival weekend every year since 1987.

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