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The Birth of Milwaukee Irish Fest

What originated as the seed of an idea for an event to celebrate and promote Irish heritage, CelticMKE has emerged into a thriving organization that celebrates the music, culture and history of Ireland during its four-day festival as well as with several outreach initiatives throughout the year.

In the early 1980's, members of Milwaukee's Irish community gathered to discuss opportunities to promote their Gaelic heritage in a city known for its German roots. The idea of a festival, a three-day event (initially) to promote Irish culture through music, dance, cultural exhibits, drama and sports, was born. The festival wasn't just an opportunity to feature national and international Irish acts, but also an impetus to showcase local groups that celebrate the rich traditions of Irish music.

Under the direction of Ed Ward, the first Milwaukee Irish Fest premiered in 1981 on a shoestring budget. Volunteers spent months planning the event, incorporating an extensive lineup of musical entertainment and cultural programming. Based on the event's success and overwhelming interest by those in attendance, Milwaukee Irish Fest has come to be known as the world's largest celebration of Irish music and Celtic culture, with an average attendance of 100,000. The success of the festival also depends on more than 4,000 dedicated volunteers.

Mission Statement

To Promote and Celebrate All Aspects of Irish, Irish American and Celtic Cultures, and to Instill in Current and Future Generations an Appreciation of Their Heritage.

A Different Kind of Summer School
Based on the continued interest in the festival, Irish Fest established a summer school program. The Milwaukee Irish Fest Summer School, which provides a week of courses prior to the festival for adults and children, offers a showcase of workshops in Irish dance and music, crafts, lectures, Gaelic language instruction and a historical overview of the Irish heritage. The school continues to draw hundreds of individuals from all over the world to teach and participate in this annual favorite during the week leading up to the festival.

The CelticMKE Center and Ward Irish Music Archives
Led by the year-round opportunities of running the world's largest Irish festival, Irish Fest hired a full-time executive director and opened its first office in 1992. As the festival continued to grow in popularity, so did the continued demands for additional office and workspace. In 1998, the festival opened the doors to the CelticMKE Center to provide a year-round facility dedicated to Irish-related activities, including concerts, rehearsals and Gaelic language lessons. The Irish Fest School of Music began in 2002, offering lessons in traditional Irish instruments and song at the Irish Fest Center.

In addition, the Center houses the Ward Irish Music Archives, a collection of more than 50,000 materials relating to Irish and Irish American music. It also houses North America's largest collection of Irish sheet music. Named after the late father of the festival's founder, Ed Ward, the mission of theWard Irish Music Archives is to promote, preserve and celebrate Irish music in all forms.

The Irish Fest Foundation
In early 1994, we established the Milwaukee Irish Fest Foundation to support the organization's philanthropic efforts. Financed by a portion of the festival revenues, the Irish Fest Foundation provides grants to organizations to promote the development of community service, excellence in Irish music and drama, and to support the special needs of the Irish community in the United States and Ireland. Since its inception, the Irish Fest Foundation has provided more than $600,000 to civic, cultural and educational organizations. From attending internationally acclaimed workshops to furthering education in Irish history and other cultural activities, the foundation continues to promote Irish heritage in the local community and abroad.

A Dynamic Cultural Experience
Each year, Milwaukee Irish Fest presents new themes, performers, cultural exhibits and special events at its annual festival.

Through the continued popularity of the festival, Irish Fest has even developed its own entertainment group. The Irish Fest Choir is a group of more than 25 young adults performing traditional Irish and Irish American songs. The group has performed with the Omagh Community Youth Choir in both the United States and Ireland. The groups have embraced this collaboration, and Irish Fest has welcomed the Omagh Choir as part of the 2001, 2003, 2008 and 2015 festivals.

Known as a family friendly festival, it has been said that Irish Fest truly is a taste of Ireland. In addition to promoting and preserving Irish heritage, the organization also regards itself as a community contributor through several outreach efforts. The festival has developed an award-winning recycling program encouraging festival guests and vendors to maintain the beauty of Milwaukee's lakefront. These efforts have earned the festival the right to be named "The Green Festival."

While the festival only lasts four days each year, the commitment to promote and preserve Irish culture throughout the year has earned Milwaukee Irish Fest national and worldwide acclaim.

CelticMKE | 1532 Wauwatosa Avenue | Milwaukee, WI 53213-2623 | Phone: (414) 476-3378 | Email:

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