Great American Irish Festival

This coming weekend, the Herkimer County Fairgrounds in Frankfort, New York, will host the annual Great American Irish Festival. One of the gathering’s core volunteers, Mary Bassett, tells us what’s in store!

What is your own ethnicity / heritage?
My maternal grandmother, Rose Egan from County Offaly, emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s.  She married my grandfather, John Ryder, whose parents, Patrick and Mary Traynor Ryder, emigrated from Dublin in the mid-1800s.  This is my mother’s family.  My paternal grandparents all emigrated from Italy (this is very typical of us who live in this area).

When and why did you get involved with this event?
The Great American Irish Festival in the middle of New York State was created 10 years ago to celebrate the rich Irish heritage so many of us share in the Mohawk Valley.  Many Irish emigrants  found work from the New York City area westward while the Erie Canal and railway system was built, and factories, roadways, business and industry flourished.

What are the rewards of being involved?
The rewards are too numerous to mention, beginning with the fantastic lineup of music and remarkable musicians we bring in, the most amazing music.  The staff and volunteers  who work at the Great American Irish Festival, and our guests, are a happy, fun-loving group of people who share a great passion and understanding of our ancestors in a most fulfilling and binding manner.

Why is it an important event for the community there?
The Great American Irish Festival is an important community event on many levels.  First, it draws in visitors from the entire country, which benefits this entire region which, like many areas in the Northeast, struggle as the “rust belt” economically.  We encourage everyone in the community to attend, stressing you do not have to be Irish per se to enjoy good music, good fun, a variety of activities for all ages, in a healthy and safe environment.  We also would like to demonstrate our culture is one of honor and pride and dismiss the notion of the drunken Irishmen depicted many times at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations throughout the USA with the disrespectful depiction of leprechauns, etc.

What can attendees expect this year?
Attendees can expect an incredible line-up of music whether it be a solo artist, or a traditional group of fame (The High Kings) or a rockin’ Celtic (Enter the Haggis, The Elders) music group.  Our music is the best to offer and continuous play from the opening of the festival till closing in  three venues, and we rotate groups from year to year to keep it fresh and interesting for all.  Our attendees can plan on receiving the most inviting welcome, and utmost help and assistance if needed.  Our attendees can expect the highest level of cleanliness in a contained area of thousands of people.  We also have a large variety of food vendors, two beer tents in which the beer is poured fresh and cold upon order (not sitting in the sun on a table), we have a wine tent with seven varieties to chose from, we have shelter from sun and rain, and we have many, many vendors offering a wide array of Celtic goods.  We have a teen zone, a children’s zone, and special events throughout the weekend too numerous to mention including a 5K run, bagpipe competition, a Mass, rugby team competitions, so many activities but will be happy to be more specific if you would like.

How else are you involved with the Celtic community there?
The Great American Irish Festival management and volunteers have a presence all year in the area including the organization and management of the main St. Patrick’s Day Parade, various expos and a variety of events throughout the year in which we have a table and presence for informational purposes. The proceeds of the Great American Irish Festival ticket sales, etc., are designated for the construction and building of an Irish Cultural Center in downtown Utica on the site of St. Patrick’s Church, used as the emigration hub in the 1800’s which was demolished decades ago.  Our goal is have a Center which includes artifacts, a true Irish Pub, and meeting rooms for our Celtic community, , a nice building reflecting a true historical nature  hosting several accommodations inclusive for the entire community in which we live.

Are we doing enough to preserve and promote Celtic culture generally?
In my opinion, we are making strides in promoting the Celtic presence in the area in a positive manner, which includes historical, cultural, myth and legend, and education whenever the possibility presents itself. Visiting the homeland promotes the understanding of our roots, but when not possible, it is crucial to know the history of our roots and ancestors.

What can we be doing better?
Education, education, education, and dismissing the negative stereotypical images once associated with all things Irish and Celtic.

What does the future look like for the event?
Very bright!