NORTH WILDWOOD — The Irish Fall Festival is not just about drinking.
Sure, there was plenty of alcohol being consumed Saturday during the second day of the 21st edition of the festival, but there were also bagpipe demonstrations, Irish dancing, music and other events to celebrate heritage from the Emerald Isle.
Judy McLaughlin acknowledged that “most people are in the bars,” but she still had 40 people show up Saturday morning to learn Irish dancing here at the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Hall. McLaughlin said one is never too old to learn an Irish jig.
“I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia listening to the music, but I learned the dancing in my 40s,” McLaughlin said.
She taught different dancing types, including ceili and set dancing.
“With set dancing, you dance and make noise with the music. It was forbidden years ago by the church in Ireland,” McLaughlin said.
The festival also included an exhibition of six bagpipe bands at the Eighth Street Field on Saturday morning, amateur boxing, a golf outing and a five-mile run.
While beer vendors sold plenty of Guinness and Smithwick’s, another Irish beer, many festivalgoers will be attending today’s 10:30 Mass at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church. How many festivals have a church service?
Not many, but this one is put on by the nonprofit Ancient Order of Hibernians of Cape May County, a group dedicated to uniting Irish Catholic men “with friendship, unity and Catholic charity.”
Dan Bosak, the vice president of the AOH of Cape May County, said the order was originally created to protect the Catholic religion. The festival raises thousands of dollars for Catholic causes.
“It’s our biggest fundraiser. Everything we do at AOH goes to charity,” said Bosak.
A few years ago, the festival became a bit too commercial, but the word is out now that every vendor must have a link to Irish heritage.
“We try to police it and maintain it as best we can. It must have something associated with Irish and nothing derogatory,” Bosak said.
That means a better class of T-shirts that can usually be found on the Wildwood Boardwalk. This is policed among the vendors. About as risque as they get are shirts that proclaimed: “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” “You Had Me At ‘Bar,’” and “Drink Like A Champion.”
Vendors sold Irish potatoes, hand rolled and fresh daily, Irish mustard, Irish oats to make Irish porridge, green hair wigs, clover leaf earmuffs, green bead necklaces, Jameson towels, and Guinness flip flops.
Most beer drinkers bypassed the $3 Coors and plucked down an extra buck to drink Guinness or Smithwick’s, which beer vendor Pete Maxwell of the local Elk’s Club said is pronounced “Smitiks.”
Drinking is allowed on the street until 9 p.m., after which the local bars get “very long lines” to get in, noted local City Council President Patrick Rosenello, who has watched the event get more popular and more Irish each year. Few at the festival on Saturday were not wearing green.
“About 10 years ago, the AOH made a consensus decision to make it an Irish cultural festival. All vendors need to tie to the Irish culture. It’s all Irish music and Irish dancers,” Rosenello said.
That’s just fine for the Mist of Ireland Dancers of Atlantic County. They do Irish dances at the Tracy Lee Dance Academy in Ventnor and performed for a large crowd on Saturday.
“They do this for fun and they have competitions,” said Brenda Birtch, of Galloway Township, as she watched her daughter Cori, 15, perform.
Bosak said the four-day festival that ends today has had big crowds and if the weather holds it could draw as many as 250,000 people.
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