Dueling Irish fests lay claim to city title

Some see red over festival

September 04, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

For more than 30 years, area Irish knew that to get their Celtic on, there was just one place to go: Baltimore's Irish Festival.

But this year it's an embarrassment of riches and quite possibly a dollop of confusion as two fests laying claim to the title of Baltimore's official celebration set up shop within two months.

There's the Baltimore Irish Festival. And there's the Irish Festival in Baltimore City.

One is established but no longer happening in the city proper. The other is smack on the waterfront, but with no history.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions about Baltimore's Irish festivals incorrectly identified who gave the following quotes:
"I just don't get it. Baltimore City stops at Gittings Road to the north. Where's the other festival? Timonium. It's as simple as that."
"Why don't they call theirs the Maryland State Fair Irish Festival? I don't understand that."
Those comments were made by Deputy Mayor Dominick Murray.
The Sun regrets the errors.

One boasts the Web address www.irishfestival.com. The other claims www.baltimoreirish fest.com. Both sites feature one particular Irish mayor rocking out, green guitar in hand, with his namesake band.

So which is which? What's what? And why are some folks in such a snit over the situation that they're flinging accusations and Irish literary quotes through cyberspace at one another?

"I don't know what the impetus is for either side but it will certainly confuse people," says Darby Simmons, a past president of Baltimore's St. Patrick's Day parade. He adds with a laugh: "I'll go to both though."

How did Baltimore wind up with two celebrations?

The organizers of Baltimore's longtime Irish festival, Irish Charities of Maryland, decided that for reasons of space and economics they were moving to the Maryland State Fairgrounds, a few miles beyond the city's northernmost limits. They kept the Baltimore Irish Festival name but gave up the traditional September weekend, settling for a November date.

Meanwhile in Baltimore, where officials such as Mayor Martin O'Malley take their Irish festival bragging rights seriously, they weren't about to go without. So Deputy Mayor Dominick Murray, a Celtic musician in his own right, launched the Irish Festival in Baltimore City, which will be in Canton this month.

When the dust cleared, the original festival had lost its place to the new one as the official Irish event for the city's well-advertised Showcase of Nations. And the new shindig replaced the original as the place to spot the now-elusive mayoral music vehicle O'Malley's March.

Harry Bosk, who did the original festival's public relations, is left scratching his head. Having another celebration that comes first with nearly the same name and premise isn't helpful. He's taken to sending out festival e-mail with the subject line "the other Irish Festival."

"It's going to make my job harder," he says. "That's for sure."

Tom Scott, an Irish Charities board member, says insisting on a new city festival when the original lives on seems silly and, considering O'Malley's run for governor, rather political.

Leo Welsh, state president of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, agrees that the creation of a second festival is "interesting."

"I don't think there's a need for it," he says. "I think it's prior to the election and politics has a lot to do with it."

Some have noted how frequent O'Malley contributors are also helping to foot the bill for the city festival: Thomas Builders, Brown Sheehan law firm and First Mariner Bank.

"In my mind there is still only one Irish festival - it's the only festival supported by all the various Irish organizations in the state," Scott says. "I'm going to call the other one the city's Irish festival for the city."

O'Malley's spokesman Rick Abbruzzese shrugs off the accusations.

"I just don't get it. Baltimore City stops at Gittings Road to the north. Where's the other festival? Timonium. It's as simple as that," he says with no small amount of exasperation. "They left this city with a hole to fill, and I'm trying to fill it."

And if there's so much angst over the names being similar, he adds, "Why don't they call theirs the Maryland State Fair Irish Festival? I don't understand that."

Despite all this, Murray and Mike Riley, chairman of the original festival, hasten to expound on the festivals' peaceful coexistence. Wishes for each other's success pour from their lips like Guinness on tap.

The old festival can even have a booth at the Canton event to promote itself, Murray points out.

Scott thinks the festival heads are mistaken. Irish are annoyed over this, he says, "But most people aren't going to do this publicly."

Except David W. Keelan. The former chairman of Baltimore's St. Patrick's Day parade, who's running as a Republican for Howard County Central Committee, penned an essay targeting the new festival and posted it on his blog.

"The original festival and the parade constantly go back to the same people for money," Keelan wrote. "Now we have a third event competing with the real Irish for the same money. I suspect it will hurt the [original] festival."

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