Pride, ale flow at Irish Festival

Yesterday's events included a contest for freckled kids

November 13, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

The overcast, rainy skies could have been imported from the Old Country, right along with the taps of Guinness, Harp and Killian's.

But the atmosphere inside the Baltimore Irish Festival at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium yesterday radiated plenty of Irish cheer despite the blustery winds that buffeted people walking in.

A world of greens, whites and oranges surrounded those who entered Exhibition Hall. Booths beckoned, filled with shamrock-patterned glass and T-shirts bursting with Celtic pride. People in myriad shades of green milled about with plates of corned beef sandwiches and champ - Irish mashed potatoes - pushing strollers and toting glasses of ale. Vendors hawked jewelry, kilts and signs that read "If you're lucky enough to be Irish, you're lucky enough."

And on two stages set up on opposite sides of the hall, one jig and song after another delighted audiences.

"Mary Mack's father's makin' Mary Mack marry me," sang artist Joe Dowling, as he strummed an Irish version of the bouzouki, bathed in green light.

As instructed, his listeners supplied the next line: "My father's makin' me marry Mary Mack."

Organized by the Irish Charities of Maryland and driven by volunteers, the three-day event has taken place for more than 30 years, spokesman Harry Bosk said. This year, it featured a Gaelic football demonstration, as well as the return of the Men in Kilts 5K race.

There were also the red-hair and freckles contests.

Nine-year-old Jack O'Connell of Perry Hall was defending a title of sorts: He had won a freckles contest at a Chicago festival the year before.

"Do you like your red hair?" judge Mel Cantrell asked Jack, one of a handful of red-haired or freckled children who participated.

"Yeah," Jack said. He moved on to the next judge.

"Do you like having freckles?" she asked.

"Yeah," Jack said.

A few seconds later, he could breathe easy: He remained undefeated. He won the freckles competition while Cate Dymowski, 7, won for her red hair. Each received a gift certificate to Chuck E. Cheese's.

"It wasn't hard," Jack said afterward. "All I needed was some sun."

This was the festival's first time at the fairgrounds, away from its usual city digs, the 5th Regiment Armory, and its traditional September weekend, organizers said. A different, city-based Irish festival was held in Canton in September.

The change of date and venue appeared to have no adverse impact on turnout. Organizers estimated that at least 25,000 attended the event, more than twice the number at the festival last year.

Bosk said that the fairgrounds' parking and proximity to interstate highways probably helped draw more people. With Christmas approaching, people also were gift-shopping.

"I've never seen so many Irish in my life," Cantrell said.

Mike Riley, chairman of the Irish Charities of Maryland's board, said he hadn't heard any complaints about the event - which was a first for him.

Riley said he hopes to hold next year's festival in the fairgrounds' Cow Palace, to allow for an even bigger set-up. It will probably take place in November again, Riley said.

Many who watched the jigs or sampled what the booths offered seemed pleased with the changes.

"I think it's great they're having it here," said Shelly Hampton, 43, of Woodberry, who attended with her mother, Evelyn Ege, 60.

At a clothing booth, Joe and Eileen May of Rodgers Forge were scoping out a shamrock-patterned dress set for their 3-month-old daughter, Bridget. Although the festival seemed a bit smaller than it was in its armory days, they said, they were enjoying the music and dancing.

The couple found Eileen's engagement ring - a traditional Irish ring with a heart, crown and hands that represent love, loyalty and friendship - at the festival a few years ago.

Eileen May said she thought her father, who hails from Dublin, would approve of the event.

"He would like it - the Guinness and the food," she said.

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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