St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival

Celts of all sorts will gather down south this weekend for the annual St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival. Recently we spoke with event organizer Albert Syeles about what attendees can expect.

What is your own ethnicity?
I love this question.  I’m 51% Irish – according to a recent DNA test. My mother was all Irish –O’Donnell. Her family hails from Letterkenny, Donegal. But my father was Hungarian, actually born in Hungary. So where did that 1% come from? Those Celts got around! I grew up in Maryland, andthe traditional Irish songs were sung around the house. That surely helped me develop my deep love of music.

When and why did you get involved with the Festival?
We were founded in 2009 to celebratethe remarkable arts and culture scene of St. Augustine, Florida. Part of that culture is a strong sense of heritage. The Irish pubs in town approached us seeking a nonprofit to start an Irish Festival. We already knew about St. Augustine’sremarkable Celtic roots and ties with Ireland, Scotland and even the Celtic region of Northern Spain, so we thought it would be a great way for us to start.

What are your roles and responsibilities there?
I am President of Romanza St. Augustine. We produce three big annualevents, including the Celtic Festival, the St. Patrick Day Parade and the 10-day-long Romanza Festivale of the Artsas well as other smaller events. My role is to provide vision, leadership, grant-writing, promotion, marketing and advertising.  We have a very strong all-volunteer group of leaders and managers, who fill a number of roles to ensure the successful production of our events.

Why is it an important event for the community?
St. Augustine just celebrated its 450th anniversary as the Nation’s Oldest City –the 800 colonists and soldiers who founded St. Augustine in 1565 (43 years before Jamestown) came from the northern Celtic region of Spain. St. Augustine was founded by Celts. Spanish Celts! The people ofour Sister City, Aviles Spain, and the surrounding regions are of Celtic descent! They still have their own language and share many traditions as well as DNA with the Irish and Scots and celebrate their Celtic roots with the annual “Festival Intercéltico de Avilés”! Here we celebrate also our Celtic roots. Over half the population of St. Augustine can claim at least one Celtic ancestor, according to USA Today. St. Augustine’s has an amazing Celtic history, including many Colonial Spanish and British Governors and historic vicars of Celtic descent like Padre MiguelO’Reilly, plus the Hibernia Regiment and fascinating stories of romance and mystery involving Scottish and Irish colonial soldiers.

Who traditionally attends the Festival?
The St. Augustine Celtic Festival is a family event with something for everyone – Ethnic music, dancing, food, Scottish Highland Games, Clan heritage and entertainment for children. A majority of Festival attendees don their kilts, tams, sashes or green attire to display their Celtic pride. The audience is a true part of the atmosphere of the event. But the music is the primary draw. Really top-notch Celtic bands love playing here, because we treat them well and they get to see, and even perform with, so many of their friends. A lot of folks stay all day and come back the next.

What can they expect this year?
The Festival kicks off on Friday evening with a Whiskey Tasting event. Saturday morning begins with the St. Patrick Day Parade, followed by the opening of the 2-day Celtic Festival.  Eight premier Celtic bands from Ireland, Scotland, Canada and the U.S. perform on the main stage March 12 and 13.  Albannach, Dublin City Ramblers, Emmet Cahill, Emish, The Real McKenzies, Seven Nations, Jig to a Milestone,  Whiskey of the Damned …and there’s even more entertainment on our second stage! Many people come especially for the Scottish Highland Games competitions. Clans from the Celtic Nations are represented, bringing with them their tartans, language and sharing stories of their ancestors. In addition, we offer authentic Celtic food and artisan crafted Celtic merchandise vendors.The shopping is first class, and the food is delicious. Finally, there is a kids’ zone providing a variety of games.

How has the event evolved through the years?
The festival started in 2011 with 1,500 in attendance, and in just six years had grown to 16,000 and moved to the much larger events field, but still in historic Downtown St. Augustine. In 2016, the people of this region voted the Festival “Best Festival in St. Augustine” and Best Concert or Event in the whole Jacksonville region. It is already becoming recognized internationally as “arguably the finest collaboration of Celtic artists assembled in the United States”. The St. AugustineCeltic Festival has 20,000+ Facebook fans, including over 700 from the UK.

Will you remain involved with the event in the years ahead?
We plan to keep the Celtic Festival growing. It’s a big hit, and proceeds help fund Romanza’s other community events. I plan to continue as President as long as they will have me. My wife Pat is the Celtic Festival’s Project Manager, as well as Romanza’s Secretary and Treasurer. We obviously love what we’re doing, so I think we’ll be around for quite a while.

How else are you involved with the Celtic community there?
In addition to the Celtic Festival, we also produce the only St. Patrick Day Parade in Northeast Florida.

Is enough being done to preserve and promote Celtic culture generally?
Our Celtic Festival has brought awareness locally, nationally and internationally to St. Augustine’s Celtic roots. We are delighted to see remarkable growth around our Historic Coast regionin the demand for bagpipers, Irish pubs and the popularity of concerts from touring Celtic bands beyond our own productions.

What can we be doing better?
Music is the heart of culture. Celtic music has been successfully adapting and evolving, while still preserving, to lead the way to a deeper interest in our culture and other Celtic arts, especially among younger audiences.Make it fun and educational at the same time, and Celtic heritage will not only survive, but authentically evolve. And that way it will continue to thrive.