Even if you aren’t Irish, there’s something for everyone who makes the trip to the Peoria riverfront during Erin Feis. This year’s event, which takes place August 22 to 24, is sponsored by the St. Patrick Society of Peoria and the Peoria Park District and includes features such as Irish bands, dance troupes, storytellers, and other performers in on-going entertainment throughout the weekend. And what would a festival be without food? Erin Feis hosts an Irish Market Place, food vendors, and the Irish Tea Tent. Also included in the weekend are children’s activities and a Sunday Mass, with Bishop Daniel Jenky as celebrant.
St. Patrick Society member and event co-chair John Martin said all you need to know about Erin Feis is revealed in its name. "’Erin’ is, of course, Gaelic for Ireland. The word ’Feis’ means meeting or assembly in Gaelic. Originally, Ard Feis was a political meeting of the various chieftains to draft legislation and resolve disputes. After the business of the day, it was time for some leisure activities. Traditionally, there would be field games and tests of skill between clans, as well as contests in music, singing, dancing, verse, and storytelling. The Peoria Erin Feis is filled with many of the same events as in older days: sports competition, music, song, dance, art, and religion."
Erin Feis is a result of the formation of the St. Patrick Society of Peoria more than 20 years ago. "Five lonely Irishmen in a local Peoria pub founded the St. Patrick Society in 1980," Martin said. "Their mission was to promote and celebrate the Irish heritage in the area by having a St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17. The following year, it was decided a fundraiser was needed to cover the cost of the parade, and the Society’s board of directors came up with the idea of Erin Feis. They invited various families to create an event where they could get together, dance, listen to music, tell stories, play games, and enjoy good food and drink."
Bill Roeder, Erin Feis co-chair and Peoria Park District representative, explained how the Park District became involved in the event. "Seven or eight years ago, the Park District looked at what was happening on the riverfront and decided to develop more family activities. We approached the German American Central Society to create Oktoberfest. The two organizations had great success developing a signature event. The next year we approached the St. Patrick Society about brining Erin Feis to the riverfront and creating another signature event. We’re proud of this event and how it’s grown. Our partnership with the Society has been mutually beneficial, and we applaud all their efforts in helping us make Erin Feis a first-class event."
Indeed, growth has happened at a breakneck pace in the last few years. "Erin Feis was a Sunday afternoon event for the first 17 years," Martin said. "The Society cooked all the food, got a flat bed truck, one or two local bands, the local Irish dance school, a few games for the kids, and one vendor of Irish goods. On average, it attracted about 1,500 people. Today, Erin Feis begins at 6 p.m. on Friday and ends at 7 p.m. on Sunday-three days long. Four major food vendors and at least seven snack food vendors provide a variety of Irish cuisine. There are two large stages at which 17 bands play-one of them from Ireland-and six additional bands play at our Irish Pub. The Dance Stage offers Irish dance groups from all over the state, and Irish and Ceili dance lessons are offered."
But Martin said that’s just the tip of the iceberg. "The Cultural Tent features speakers whose topics range from Celtic astrology to Gaelic language lessons. At the Performing Art Stage, you can listen to and learn about the instruments of Ireland-the harp, fiddle, Bodhron (Celtic drum), Uillean Pipes, and the tin whistle. The traditional Irish game of hurling and other Celtic sports activities are held in the sports field. The Wee Ones Area has a variety of games, activities, and fun things to do. Merchandise vendors from all over the country now come to Peoria to sell their Irish goods in a large tent."
Martin said the Peoria Erin Feis schedule is loosely based on real Irish festivals. "Traditional Feis’ have three phases: The Gathering, The Day, and The Scattering. The Gathering (Friday) celebrates the arrival of folks from all corners of the land. Our Friday has become a special evening for volunteers, sponsors, vendors, entertainers, and guests to get re-acquainted. The Day was traditionally devoted to the celebration of local saints, clan marriages, births, sporting events, and folk rituals. Our Saturday is a family day, a day to enjoy Irish music, cultural, and sporting events. The Scattering celebrated the parting. On Sunday evening, entertainers who have performed at Erin Feis 2003 are invited to come together on the South Stage at 6 p.m. for a special farewell performance."
Music figures prominently into Erin Feis, and Martin said the organizers have always tried to gather a group of diverse Irish entertainers-both stylistically and geographically. "We want Peorians to see what’s available locally, something they can see on a weekend trip, and something they may not otherwise have the opportunity to hear. It’s important to us that we promote local talent such as the Bogside Zukes, Roundstone Buskers, Celtricity, Exorna, and Bloomsday. We also have entertainers from Chicago, Madison, and around the Midwest who play in the Peoria area regularly. Nationally known entertainers like Cathy Ryan, Liz Carroll, the Prodigals, The Kells, and The Elders are regularly featured at Erin Feis. Last year we were lucky when Jig the Rig, an accomplished band directly from Ireland, agreed to play at our Feis. This opened the door for us, as other Irish bands are now aware of Peoria’s Erin Feis."
He said the Dance Stage, more than any other, is an example of Irish determination. "More than 20 years ago, an Irish dance school was started in Peoria. Over the years, Irish dance has steadily grown, and we now have two Irish dance schools in Peoria. Our dance stage is a celebration of that determination and offers a brief glimpse of what could be. There will be two workshops in the morning to help local dancers improve their skills. The two dancers who travel with Rig the Jig will give one of the workshops. Both dancers, from Ireland, have won "All Ireland" dance competitions. Two local dance groups, Murphy’s Irish Dancers and Flynn’s Irish Dancers, will perform in the afternoon. Finally, there will be performances by Irish dance schools from the Chicago area."
New to the Dance Stage Friday night is the Quad Cities Ceili Club, which will demonstrate the traditional Irish dance, The Ceili. "For many centuries, families in Ireland would meet at a road junction or someone’s house. Someone would have a fiddle, and they would dance the Ceili, which is something like our line dance or square dance," Martin said. "You’ll have the opportunity to learn basic steps and then enjoy a Ceili dance outside O’Neill’s Pub."
The Performing Arts Tent is another unique draw, one that’s added a new perspective, according to Martin. "We’ll feature the traditional instruments of Ireland. Sixteen local harpists will demonstrate various harps and individual playing styles in pairs and in groups of six. There will be demonstrations on the Bodhron, the Uillean Pipes, fiddles, flutes, whistles, and Irish Big Strings. The very popular a cappella group Navan returns to perform their repertoire of Gaelic language songs."
Martin said this year the Cultural Tent becomes the Cultural Village, which means they can offer more on the Ireland of today and yesterday. "This area will have presentations on Celtic astrology, several storytellers, and basic Gaelic language skills. Authors from Ireland will give presentations on their latest releases and will be available for book signings. There will be a Uilleann Pipe demonstration and several workshops. The Peoria Genealogical Society will be there, as will the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Friends of Clonmel. Irish food, snacks, and beverages will also be available in this area.
Christianity is one of the major driving forces in Ireland, so as in past years, Bishop Daniel Jenky will once again perform a Sunday Mass. "Since Erin Feis was moved to the riverfront, the Ancient Order of Hibernians has sponsored an Irish Mass. Bishop Jenky has again agreed to celebrate the Mass for "Peace and Justice" at 11 a.m. Sunday. The collection will be distributed to various charities, including the Children’s Fund of Northern Ireland. Sunday admission to the grounds is free with the donation of a canned good. All canned goods will be donated to the Sisters of Charity," Martin said.
All of these attractions have meant increasing numbers of attendees to Peoria’s Erin Feis. Martin expects a large turnout again this year. "The first Erin Feis on the riverfront was a two-day event, and we still had more than 6,000 in attendance-four times larger then our normal ’Sunday only’ crowd. Since that time, the crowds have increased every year. Last year we had about 20,000 people attend the three-day event. Each year we meet visitors from outside the Peoria area. Last year, we were visited by someone who came from New York City to see Rig the Jig. While most travelers come because they’ve heard about our family Feis on the beautiful Illinois River, a few come for other reasons. Last year, we had visitors from the Milwaukee Irish Feis and several other fests who were "scouting" to see what we offer. The Peoria Erin Feis is definitely a rising star."
Attracting crowds of this size-from the Midwest and farther-benefits all of central Illinois, Roeder said. "The Peoria Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau can provide numbers on what happens to the local economy when 20,000 people come to town. We’re sure hotels, restaurants, pubs, gas stations, and many other businesses benefit from all those people. Over the last six years, Erin Feis has developed a reputation as being a fun, safe, and enjoyable event for the whole family. That’s one reason our numbers are steadily growing with people from all over the country. Ask anyone who’s ever been at Erin Feis on Friday or Saturday night-under a full moon, with two stages rockin’, kids playing in the fountain, and all kinds of people laughing and telling stories. They never forget it. That’s the Peoria they’ll remember."
Martin said the best part about putting on Erin Feis every year are the stories from committee members who report complete strangers approaching them to say thanks. "When you walk around the grounds, you can see that people are somehow touched by the event-the music, the dancers, the performers in the culture tent and performing arts tent, the vendors, the children’s area, the sport field, the river. People leave their problems at the gate and bring their families to a mystical place where everyone and everything is Irish. There’s no other event like this in downstate Illinois."
Of course, every year the committee faces challenges, which Martin said they try to improve for the next year. "George Bernard Shaw, a great Irish writer, once wrote, ’You see things, and you say why! But I dream things that never were, and I say why not?’ It’s this principle that allows us to grow and keep Erin Feis alive."
He said there’s no telling how Erin Feis will evolve in the future, but one thing will remain constant: a focus on the culture and heritage of the Irish family. "Learning about one’s heritage is a growing process. There’s so much to learn about the clans, the English conquest, the famine, the many revolts, and Ireland of today. We hope to expose more people in the Midwest to our peaceful family feis on the river. When we moved to the riverfront in 1997, we had to scrape like mad to get 10 bands. This year we have more than 40 bands wanting to play here, including major headliners. In the future, we’ll continue to improve the quality and range of the entertainment, dance, exhibits, merchant’s tent, sport activities, and presentations.
"What does the future hold for the Erin Feis? Put a couple of Irishmen together over their favored drink, let them dream a little, and anything is possible. After all, it only took five Irishmen in a pub and a couple of hours to start the St. Patrick’s Society and organize a parade. The rest is history."
Erin Feis takes place from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., August 22, noon to 11 p.m., August 23, and noon to 7 p.m., August 24. AA!