Austin Celtic Festival

According to its website, this weekend’s Austin Celtic Festival “goes beyond gimmicks to highlight traditions and achievements in a way that reminds audiences of the extraordinary craftsmanship and study that made places like Ireland & Scotland leaders in folk music and dance.” Festival Director Donnelle McKaskle gives us the inside scoop on the festivities.

What is the event’s core mandate?
It can shift slightly from year to year depending on the stages of our growth and the mindset of our community. For instance, some years we have had to focus on education and defining for the public at large what Celtic culture is and what it entails. The last couple of years have been about ownership. Taking ownership of our culture and trying to compete with profiteers who duplicate our programming in an effort to capitalize on our culture’s current popularity without actually learning anything about the history of our people. Looking ahead, I believe the future will focus more and more on a mandate of preservation.

How has it grown over the years?
It has grown from a small one stage festival to a four stage festival with numerous additional programming elements including Highland Games, workshops, and much more. Attendance has risen each year. We have literally grown 10 fold in terms of attendance.

Who attends the gathering?
We have an extremely wide demographic. Partly, because the University of Texas is here in Austin and as one of the largest college campuses in the country, it gathers students from all over the world with different roots and ideologies. In general, the Celtic culture attracts many fans from all walks of life and all ages. We have people from varying religious, political and social backgrounds, but the trend we have always had at the Austin Celtic Festival is that most attendees tend to come as a family group. The largest demographic that comes to the ACF is families. We are very proud to attract that demographic.

What can they expect to experience this year?
A great mix, as always, of music both familiar (as we welcome back our annual fan favorites) and the new (as we excitedly greet musical acts new to ACF). There will be plenty of opportunity to not only watch but participate in the festival whether it is taking a beginner’s music class or a dance lesson. There will be living history performances from an early Celtic tribal village to Viking battle demonstrations. There will be animals from Celtic dog breeds to Clydesdales and sheepherding demos from Texas’ most decorated sheepdogs. A park full of merchandise vendors for early Christmas shopping will be on hand as well as plenty of food vendors. They can also expect an opportunity to sample or indulge in various Scottish and Irish beers and whiskeys. But, above all, wherever they go, whatever they are doing, they will hear the sounds of Celtic music being played by some of the most honored musicians in the business.

Why is it an important event for the Celtic community there?
It’s one of the only times during the year when we can showcase some of our local Celtic artists to a very large crowd. It is also a chance for area musicians to workshop with industry leaders. It is critical for them to be able to interact with these musicians, to be able to talk with them and engage with them about Celtic music. Although Texas has a very vibrant Celtic community, we do not have the large Celtic populations like NYC, Boston, Milwaukee, etc. ACF creates a musical immersion for them that does not occur naturally for us. It is also the only time during the year when all the elements of our community can come together in one weekend to raise awareness of their particular mission whether it is teaching Scottish country dance or the teaching Irish language.

Why is it an important event for the non-Celtic community there?
Austin has a lot of venues and music festivals, but there are few that you can take your grandparents to or your six year old and still have a great time yourself. The Celts have a long history of hospitality and our event is very welcoming for anyone interested in the Celts or wanting to find out what this great culture is all about. It is important for the non-Celtic community to understand the place that Irish and Scottish immigrants had and still have in the formation of our city and the state of Texas.

What are the plans for the event in the years ahead?
I feel like we have a solid program that we put together every year. We want to hold steady with what has become a winning formula. Maintaining that will be a challenge, I believe, in the future years. Staying the course and not falling victim to growing beyond our means. However, we want to continue to bring in new and fresh programming so that we do not become stagnant. We want to continue to expand our educational programming as well. We have a relatively small staff so every year we ask how we can work smarter not harder, as they say. I know that among festivals it is dogma to chant “bigger and bigger every year” but for us we want to grow “better and better every year.”

Is enough being done to preserve and promote Celtic culture?
No, not at all. There are organizations and festivals that are doing an amazing job of it, to be sure. But, I believe we are going to be headed toward a critical mass in the next decade. A whole generation of performers is aging and quickly being lost to us along with their wealth of knowledge and tutelage. When we lose someone, for instance, like Ronnie Drew, Tommy Makem or more recently Barney McKenna, it is if an entire library has burned down. It’s an immense loss. We need to be sure the next generation is stepping up to take their place. I believe there is a multitude of young performers talented enough. They just need a chance to hear it and fall in love with it. That is where a great festival can make all the difference in the world to preservation.

What can we be doing better?
There are several things in my humble opinion. First, as community organizers we must not rely on authorities. We must become authorities. That means reading the latest works from and about the Celts, listening to the music on a regular basis to find out who are the emerging and influential music-makers. We should be learning Welsh, Manx, Gaelic or Scots Gaelic or at least be supporting the campaigns to keep these languages alive. We cannot stop our educational efforts at the Jacobite Rebellion or the Irish Famine. We have to recognize the modern histories of our Celtic nations. The warrior poet is an astounding Celtic figure, but so were the Aberdeen mason and the Irish stockyard worker. We have to institute forms of quality assurance. Traditional Irish, Scottish and Welsh music has survived centuries because it has been the product of extraordinarily talented, gifted musicians who got that way from advanced study and learning from masters. It should not be left in the hand of contrived girl or boy bands that rely on costuming, faux castle backdrops and fog machines to stir the crowd.
Last, we have to be guardians. We hold a sacred trust. We have to be the first to step forward when we see abuses or maligning of our culture. I am not talking about pious rhetoric every time someone tells a joke or makes a silly gaff. I mean, if your town is having a St. Patrick’s Day Parade with a Lady Leprechaun wet tee shirt contest, you should make a call. If the TV news stories for your event resemble beer commercials, you need to intervene. If your local Scottish society puts on a fair that looks like something on a Walker’s Shortbread tin, send them an email about adding some new programming that might add a dash of modern Scotland. Again, never address them angrily but offer to give them some education about our culture or a chance to dialogue about new ideas. It is a very challenging effort, and preservation may not be the best word because we cannot drop this beautiful creature that is our culture down in to a piece of amber or keep her locked in a sterilized room. It is a living organism that is ever changing, adapting and being revealed. We know we are doing are best when she is a healthy, robust and fierce beauty.