If I told you the Milwaukee Irish Fest had its origins in the Chapelle de St. Martin de Saysseul, a chapel built in the small French village of Chasse, would you believe me? Well, it's true. This example of fifteenth century architecture, now known as the St. Joan of Arc Chapel, was disassembled and rebuilt on a Long Island estate by Gertrude Hill Gavin, daughter of railroad magnate James J. Hill. In 1964, the chapel was disassembled again and moved to Marquette University where it now rests in the heart of MU's campus.
Fast forward to 1975 when law school roommate Bernie McCartan and I started playing at the chapel for the Sunday morning folk mass. The celebrant was Fr. T. Michael McNulty S.J. Knowing of our interest in folk music and sharing an Irish heritage, Fr. Mike gave us (loaned) a Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem songbook after Mass one Sunday. Coming from an Irish American family that "had music" I was aware that the Clancy's and Tommy Makem were the most popular Irishmen in America at the time. So as Bernie and I practiced for the Sunday liturgy we also started singing Irish tunes from the songbook. “The Black Velvet Band,” “The Moonshiner,” and “The Wild Colonial Boy” became routine additions to our practices.
This led us to place an ad in the Shamrock Club's monthly newsletter looking for any local musicians who would like to form an Irish folk group with us. A positive response came from another Shamrock Club member and local fiddle player John G. Maher. And thus the seeds of the soon to be Irish folk band Blarney had been planted.
Fr. Mike later left MU and went out east. Years later he returned to Milwaukee and I invited him to Irish Fest to meet Tommy Makem. It was wonderful to recount the story with Tommy and have Fr. Mike meet him and get some photos with him. And I don't think we ever returned that songbook to him. C'est La Vie.
Learn more about the history and significance of the St. Joan of Arc Chapel by visiting Marquette University.