Irish festival needed no special luck for success

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With thousands strolling through the grounds of Belmont Racetrack in the sultry August air Saturday, munching on funnel cakes and inspecting a mind-boggling array of Irish merchandise, the south Boston-based punk band Dropkick Murphys had one thing to say to their rough and tumble fans.

“This is a family festival,” singer Al Barr told the overexcited teenagers in the audience when they began to fight, stopping the popular band’s show to make his point. “There are too many old people and kids around to be fighting.”

While Barr, who also apologized for cursing during his public service announcement, may have unintentionally upset the seniors in the crowd, the punk rock singer highlighted the theme of the eighth annual New York Irish Festival in Elmont, L.I.

“That’s the whole purpose,” said Eamonn Coghlan, a famed Irish runner who helped organize the festival. “The original name was the New York Irish Family Festival — we may have dropped the word family but it’s still very much a family affair.”

Created by College Point resident Steve Duggan, who estimated the three-day festival drew between 20,000 and 30,000 people to the paddock area of the racetrack, the New York Irish Festival had a little bit of everything for those celebrating their Irish heritage.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the way things turned out considering the showers Friday, and it was so hot,” Duggan said. “Overall I think it was a tremendous success.”

Dozens of vendors sold everything from shirts and hats to Irish jewelry and household items bedecked with shamrocks and claddaghs.

“It’s getting better every year,” said Roma O’Donnell, a former Douglaston resident who has worked the festival for several years and sold a variety of merchandise including sun catchers, jewelry and shamrock scarves.

Frank McGourty from just outside of Boston may have had the toughest job of all the vendors. Without cover from the sun, McGourty sold Fitzgerald’s Traditional Irish Turf, a peat fuel source made from the bog lands of Ireland, and not only displayed the aromatic blocks in plastic wrap but for further effect burned some in a stand alone fireplace.

Food vendors sold traditional Irish fare such as Shepherd’s Pie and Bangers and Mash as well as hot dogs and hamburgers. Water, soda and — of course beer— was available for the thirsty.

In addition to a non-stop solid array of musical acts ranging from traditional to punk, the New York Irish Festival also had children’s rides, the seventh annual Eamonn Coghlan Classic 5K Run, the New York City Feis (pronounced “fesh”), which featured 1,200 dancing children and an antique car show.

“It’s unbelievable. I usually come to Belmont to lose my money on the horses, but this is the first time they’ve ever given me something,” said Middle Village resident Tommy Smyth, an acclaimed broadcaster who received a gift as the festival’s Guest of Honor Sunday. “It’s magnificent to see so many Irish people here and the sound system is unbelievable. To come up Hempstead Turnpike and hear Irish music is great.”

Smyth, a native of Ireland who calls soccer games for ESPN and is the voice of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade for WNBC-TV, has known Duggan when the two still lived in Ireland.

“Steve Duggan is always trying to make something happen. At home it was on the football field and at the dog track,” Smyth said. “Here he’s trying to do something nice for the Irish people with this festival.”

Astoria resident Brendan Fay, who organized Queens’ first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1999 and was attending his first New York Irish Festival, praised Duggan and the festival.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” said Fay as Dropkick Murphys dispensed their hard-driving brand of punk. “To go from Patsy Cline [music] and then to come over here and see people listening to the Murphys, it’s really terrific.”

Fay, who marveled at the people of all ages in the crowd, said he would like to bring some of the festivals energy into the borough’s inclusive St. Patrick’s Day parade.

For most who attended, and battled three days of oppressive heat and humidity as well as threatening thunderstorms, the heart of the festival was the strong musical lineup.

Of all the varied musical acts on the bill, it was the New York Police Department Pipers who earned the biggest reaction from the crowd with cheers and a standing ovation.

The NYPD Pipe Band, which was lead by a color guard carrying the American and Irish flags, was also present when Emcee Tony Jackson, a New Hyde Park resident, asked for a moment of silence in memory of Sept. 11 victims.

The headliners of the festival were the Saw Doctors, a hugely popular rock band from County Galway who closed out the festival Friday and Saturday nights.

The band, which entered to the theme of the television show “Bonanza”, played several tracks from their most recent CD, “Villains?” in addition to well-known sing alongs such as “N17”, “I Useta Lover” and “Hay Wrap,” which closed out both sets and included a tease of the Ramones classic, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

Inspired by the Dropkick Murphys, several fans took to stage diving Saturday night, which seemed to surprise the band and inspired nervous laughter each time someone leapt on stage. And after a couple guys jumped on stage, Saw Doctors bassist Pearse Doherty got more than he bargained for when he joked about having women come up on the stage instead.

The result was a barrage of young female fans, who formed a kickline near Doherty during the song “Joyce Country Ceili Band” and sent the easy-going Saw Doctors into barrels of laughter.

With thousands of flag-waving fans stuffed in front of the stage and setting up a mosh pit, Dropkick Murphy’s entered to the melodic “Foggy Dew,” by the Chieftains and proceeded to rip through a set that included their unique versions of the traditional Irish song, “The Wild Rover,” and The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.”

Those who went to all three days of the festival were also treated to The McCabes, a lively Irish rock/bluegrass group that is managed by Duggan and occupies the weekly Saturday night slot at Paddy Reilly’s.

Headed by singer/son­gwriter/gu­itarist Sean McCabe, the band drew in listeners with fun rock songs like “Sheila,” about a former girlfriend of McCabe’s, and the tune “Have a Guinness Every Day.”

But it was the dueling arts of Violinist Mazz Swift and guitarist Darryl Conlon, who also played the mandolin, that set The McCabes apart and served as an intriguing, uplifting element in the band’s performances.

Black 47 and The Prodigals, two other bands famous for their Paddy Reilly gigs, performed Saturday and Sunday. Other acts included Highland Rovers, Eileen Ivers, Shilelagh Law, Sister Mary Beatta Gerrity and Finbar Fury, who also performed all three days.

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