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BEST OF | 2012 >>
What's the craic with Irishfest?
Fest founder discusses annual celebration
Sunday, August 04, 2013 2:56 PM
Q. Why don’t you ever borrow a leprechaun money?
A. ‘Cause he’s always short.
So warns Matt Boschka, one of the owners of Dublin Square, which will have one of the three food booths at Irishfest La Crosse.
Laughs and blarney certainly won’t be in short supply when Irishfest La Crosse’s ninth annual celebration of all things Irish takes over the Southside Fest Grounds from Aug. 9-11.
The fun has already begun, with events such as a kilt contest, held July 25 at Dublin Square, and joke contest helping, as Boschka explains, “get the community pumped up and excited about the festival.”
For a look under the Irishfest hood, or kilt, as it were, we did a quick email interview with Pat Stephens, president of Irishfest La Crosse:
Second Supper: There is so much on the schedule, from the Wee Folks events to some very tempting adult beverages, what would you consider the top attraction of Irish Fest?
Pat Stephens: Not sure there is a single "top" attraction. Our job is to have enough going on that you can't take everything in on one day. I know some people come just for the Highland Games, some sit at the harp stage all day, others like to shop the Irish market, and everyone seems to enjoy the array of Irish music.
SS: It seems like you’ve expanded the festival over the last few years. Is that an accurate perception and why do think it has been able to grow so successfully?
PS: There are 70 million Americans that can trace their roots to Ireland and millions more that love celebrating the Irish culture, history and contributions that the Irish have made to this country. Our budget has tripled over the last nine years as we keep adding more things to do. We are about as large as we want to get. We pay the bills, have fun and try to keep everything family friendly.
SS: What was the attendance last year, and how many people do you expect this year?
PS: Over the three days we'll see 7,000 to 8,500 people. About the same as last year.
SS: I’ve not looked at any demographics, but does La Crosse have a strong Irish population, or is this just a great excuse for another fun festival in a city of festivals?
PS: Plenty of Irish in the area. Probably in third place behind the Germans and Norwegians, but the Irish have a reputation for warmth and hospitality, and that is what we try to have our guests experience.
SS: And why in August, rather than, say, March?
PS: Compared to The Cities or Milwaukee, we are obviously a small market. We selected the second week of August because the St. Paul Irish Fair is also the second week of August and the largest Irish festival in the country is in Milwaukee the third weekend in August. It puts us right in the middle. It allows us to pick up, at a fraction of the cost, the best traveling bands on the circuit. About 98 percent of the bands that play in La Crosse are also playing in The Cities or Milwaukee. As the Guinness ad would say, it was brilliant.
SS: What’s your role in the event?
PS: I am credited with being the founder of the festival, and, thus far, after nine years, its only president.
SS: You have a variety of contests – freckles, red hair, green eyes, jokes. Tell us an Irish joke.
PS: I'll save my favorite Irish joke for the open Irish joke contests on Aug. 1st (Sloopy’s) and 8th (Onalaska American Legion) as a warm-up for the fest. Q. What do you call an Irishman that knows how to control his wife? A. A bachelor.
SS: The musical acts seem to cover a wide range of styles, from traditional Irish music on harp and flute to Irish punk rock, and even some “bagrock.” How difficult was it land such a strong, diverse lineup?
PS: For eight years, our entertainment chair, Casey Stephens, has done an excellent job of building relationships with the musical groups. They love La Crosse. When he puts together the schedule we want it to be as diverse as those attending the festival. This way, we have something for everybody. It is true that Gaelic Storm is probably the best known. They continue to do 150+ appearances per year. It keeps their name and talent in front of the general public.
SS: Forgive me for not knowing my Irish music better, but who would you consider the headliners?
PS: As far as the big groups go, Gaelic Storm, Scythian and The Red Hot Chili Pipers would be considered our headliners. We've been fortunate enough to get these groups because they are all playing in either (or both) Milwaukee and The Cities. We sprinkle that with some local and Midwestern talent and our smaller cultural stage has different acts all three days.
SS: The food offerings, too, seem quite tempting. It’s great to see area businesses participating. Any favorites that you would recommend?
PS: A few years ago we settled on three main food vendors knowing with our numbers that they would all do well. They work closely together and you'll notice there is no duplication of menu items. It is mostly menu items that are known as good Irish food or American items with an Irish twist. We also offer an Irish assortment in the Bantry Tea Garden (named after La Crosse's sister city in Bantry, Ireland) of teas, cookies and soda breads.
SS: I’d be remiss, too, if I did not ask about the Highland Games. How popular are the events and how difficult is it for Average Joe to join in?
PS: It is amazing to see how the Highland Games have grown. We are completely filled with contestants within two weeks of seeking applicants. The competition is fierce and we're attracting some of the best known Highland athletes; both male and female contestants. I'm afraid the Average Joe can't join in, they can only watch. But there are a few demonstrations on Friday night so folks can learn the terminology, scoring and history of the games.
SS: Anything we missed, or any general comments to add?
PS: In our ongoing effort to always offer something new and different each year, we've added a theater production of a humorous Irish play called “Flanagan's Wake.” It is an interactive play about an old-fashioned Irish funeral. Our first cornhole tournament, called The Irish Cornhole Sweepstakes, will take place on Saturday. Great prizes and great fun.
Even in this lengthy article, we were unable to touch on all that is Irishfest, including the Mashed Potato and Kilt Run. For a complete schedule of Irishfest-La Crosse events and performances, visit www.irishfestlacrosse.org. And don’t despair. If you have not yet purchased your admission or raffle tickets, you still have time to do so. And as Boschka says, “It’s a blast every year.”
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THE TOP 7 >>
Rejected Best of La Crosse Categories
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2. Middle school football team
3. Rail liquor selection
4. Parking ramp
5. Internet troll
6. Graffiti artist
7. Kwik Trip
1. Pete Best
2. Milwaukee's Best
3. "Best in Show"
4. Best Western
5. Best Coast
6. Best Buy
7. 'My Best Friend's Girl"
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