Wisconsin August 11, 2018
Wisconsin Is Home To The World’s Largest Irish Festival and You Don’t Want to Miss It
Every summer on the third weekend of August, the Milwaukee Lakefront transforms into a mini Emerald Isle. This year, it takes place on August 16-19. Since 1981, the largest celebration of Irish culture and music in the world has called Wisconsin home. The fest covers four days and features more than 100 bands on 17 different stages. The festival is so big and important that numerous high-level officials from Ireland have visited, including the president. Every year, dozens of bands, artists, authors and craftspeople cross the ocean to share a bit of their homeland with the people of Wisconsin for a weekend. It’s impossible to have a bad time at Milwaukee Irish Fest – everyone is kind and welcoming and in a brilliant mood. You’ll find it impossible to stand still while listening to the lively music. It’s the perfect way to begin to wrap up summer in Wisconsin.
Milwaukee is known for its ethnic festivals that take place on the Summerfest Grounds, and everyone has their favorite. For me, none of them compete with Irish Fest. It's a weekend to look forward to all summer long. Though the festival is popular, loving and experiencing it also feels a bit like being in on a secret. It's this spectacular, internationally-known event and it takes place right in our own backyard.
One of the coolest things about Irish Fest is how popular and well-known it is. People will come from all across the country to experience it. Milwaukee Irish Fest has something of legendary status in Ireland. If you're looking for it, you'll find signs of the festival all across the country. When I was in the Burren at a remote artists' retreat, they sold their wares in actual thatched-roof cottages, and one of the crafters had an Irish Fest bumper sticker on his van.
The biggest draw, of course, is the music. You'll find popular international acts like Gaelic Storm and Red Hot Chili Pipers, but what makes Irish Fest so incredible is the breadth of musical acts they bring in every year. From harpists on a small stage on the south end to small groups that jam like they're at the local pub, you'll be sure to find your new favorite artist this weekend. One of the best hidden gems of the festival is their featured showcase each year, where they highlight the musical style of one small area, be it a county in Ireland, Nova Scotia or traditional American Bluegrass, which shares so much overall with Irish music.
Irish Fest would be amazing if all they did was produce their killer music lineup every year, but part of what makes this festival so good is how they feature Irish culture beyond the music. You'll find plays being performed, authors reading and signing their books, poetry, and more. In addition, there's a genealogy tent, an Irish language workshop, a Celtic kitchen, among many other treasures. Irish Fest is also home to a vast musical archive that works to preserve so much of this traditional art form, and they create a fascinating display in the Cultural Village every year.
It wouldn't be an Irish festival without Irish dancing, and you'll find tons of it across the grounds all weekend. There are at least seven different Irish dance companies in Milwaukee, as well as a small handful of Scottish dance schools. These groups will all have their own performances as well as joining various music acts on stage.
There are eight breeds of dog from Ireland, and the Celtic Canines display along the Lakefront is a popular spot during the festival. Meet and learn about Irish Wolfhounds, Irish Terriers, Irish Red Setters, Irish Red and White Setters, Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers, Irish Water Spaniels, and Kerry Blue Terriers.
One of the most popular Irish Fest draws is the shopping. From bright green shirts and intricate Celtic jewelry and really everything else in between, you'll want to make sure you have your wallet with you to purchase gorgeous pieces from vendors from around the world. In the cultural area, you'll find artisans brought in directly from Ireland to sell their hand-made wares.
Games of hurling are played on the ground just north of the North Entrance and you can see smaller demonstrations of the traditional Irish sport in the same area as the Currach races and Tug of War. Hurling is an ancient game with ancient Gaelic origins that's been played for more than 4,000 years. The small wooden stick is called a hurley and the ball is called a sliotar. Milwaukee has one of the largest hurling clubs in the US.
If you're looking for a break from the music (or for your pocketbook), head to the south end of the grounds to check out the Tug of War competition and to watch the Currach boat races that take place on the inlet. A Currach is a type of Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which canvas is stretched. The construction and design of the Currach are unique to the west coasts of Ireland. The North America Currach Association's National Regatta is held at Irish Fest every year.
No matter what your favorite part of Irish Fest is, you're bound to have a spectacular time meeting people from around the county and the world who share an affinity for all things green, white and orange.
We should warn you, though, that you won't find any Guinness at this very big Irish festival. Unfortunately Milwaukee is, after all, a Miller town, and Miller does not hold the import rights to Guinness. But never fear - local breweries make beer especially for this festival and Jameson Irish Whiskey has a large presence, from a tasting room to ice cream, so you definitely won't find yourself missing that black brew.
Milwaukee Irish Fest takes place at the Henry Maier Festival Park on Milwaukee’s Lakefront at 200 N Harbor Dr, Milwaukee, WI 53202.
General admission tickets for Saturday and Sunday are $20. Friday tickets are $10 and Thursday night tickets are $5. A four-day pass is available for $38. The festival runs from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday, from 4 p.m. to midnight on Friday, from noon to midnight on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday.
Looking for more amazing Wisconsin summer festivals?
Here’s a list of weird and wacky fests you’ll want to check out. Some may have happened already this summer, but you can just mark your calendar for next year!