Born from a love for Muskegon, the Michigan Irish Music Festival lands in the national spotlight

Diana Ladio performs with The Elders at the Michigan Irish Music Festival in Muskegon.

When an all-volunteer group launched the Michigan Irish Music Festival in 1999, the event was, of course, meant to be a celebration of Irish music and culture–but it also aimed to empower Muskegon and draw people to the city.

Nineteen years later, the event has gone on to do just that–and more. Held at Heritage Landing this past Thursday, Sept. 13 through Sunday, Sept. 16, the Michigan Irish Music Festival has become a nationally recognized name, drawing musical acts from around the globe, more than doubling its attendance numbers over the past decade, packing area hotels, and sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations serving Muskegon.

“The fact that we’re in this for the love of our community is the core of why we’re doing this,” said Michigan Irish Music Festival President Chris Zahrt, one of the festival’s three founding members. “We want to make our community a better place.”

A nonprofit organization that is made up entirely of volunteers, the festival drew more than 35,000 people to Muskegon’s waterfront for a whirlwind weekend of music, food, and cultural programming this year. The celebration has continued to gain in popularity, with its growth mirrored in ever-increasing attendance numbers (which have skyrocketed from about 14,000 attendees in 2009) and volunteers and patrons traveling from as far away as Florida, New York and North Carolina for an event that sells out Muskegon’s hotels. Its volunteer support too has swelled: the first-ever festival began with about 100 volunteers and it now has approximately 1,400 volunteers doing everything from organizing the entire weekend to filling patrons’ glasses with beer and whiskey.

“When we first started, we had a pub stage and a main stage, and a few food vendors,” said Zahrt, whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland. “We now have seven stages, three of which are heavy in cultural programming, including dance, people doing presentations on Irish heritage–whether it be learning how to speak Irish, genealogical research or talking about W.B. Yeats. The cultural component has had extensive growth over the years.”

And then, of course, there’s the music. This year, 24 musical acts entertained the crowds with everything from traditional Irish folk tunes to Celtic rock.

“Many of our bands have come back to us time and again, and, in addition to regional bands, there are bands from Ireland, Nova Scotia and Scotland,” Zahrt said. “We’re really revered on the festival circuit. They love the fact that the music we present is such high caliber.”

Dan Fedoryka of Scythian performs for a jubilant crowd Saturday night.

Dan Fedoryka, one of the founders of the Washington D.C.-based Scythian, a headliner in the U.S. Celtic festival circuit whose high-energy folk music inspired a frenzy of dancing, singing, and raising glasses among Saturday night’s crowd of tightly-packed fans, had deep praise for the festival.

“Michigan Irish Fest is a special festival for us,” Fedoryka said. “It was one of the first festivals that ever gave us a shot, and I think that speaks of the reputation the festival has in finding bands that are cutting edge.”

“Our first time was 11 years ago, and we’ve enjoyed watching the festival grow,” he continued. “The atmosphere is perfect for whatever you’re in the mood for. This year I loved sitting down and watching legends like Moya Brennan and John Doyle, having tea and scones while watching sailboats on the lake, sipping on a whiskey at the Snug while looking at the sunset, or rocking out to a crowd that came ready to have a blast.”

Fedoryka too lauded those donating their time to the festival.

“This year in particular I got to spend a lot of time with the volunteers,” he said. “I was struck by the fact that they weren’t just volunteers: they were hosts, and I felt very welcomed. We play festivals all year long, and I have to say there is something special going on in the tented musical paradise that is the Michigan Irish Festival.”

Martin Portko participates in the Highland Games’ stone throw.

For Martin Portko, a member of the Michigan Highlanders who helps to organize the festival’s Highland Games, during which male and female competitors take part in stone throwing, hammer tossing, sheaf, and the caber toss, the Muskegon events “is one of the best [festivals] I’ve been to.”

“Muskegon’s one of the only festivals where I hang out after I’m done throwing because it’s fun; there’s so much energy there,” said Portko, who lives in Sparta, Michigan.

The athlete noted that he’s particularly looking forward to next year’s festival, in part because the Michigan Highlanders will be offering a youth event for the first time. Those interested will be able to find out about registering on the group’s website and Facebook page.

Once the Highland Games wrapped up, Portko ended up nabbing first prize in something that involved more facial hair and less stone throwing–the Celtic Beard Bout, a competition held by the Muskegon-based Lumbertown Beard Barons.

“It’s a blast to get up there and have a room full of people screaming for you,” said Josh Mead, who co-founded the Lumbertown Beard Barons with Jimmy Griswold in 2012.

Josh Mead, left, interviews John Bowler as he competes in the Celtic Beard Bout.

Throughout its nearly two decades of existence, board members and organizers have emphasized the event’s role in strengthening Muskegon–both in terms of partnering with local businesses and providing financial contributions to area charities, Festival Marketing Director Laura Holmes noted.

“We’re very focused on getting local businesses involved–not only as sponsors; with Pigeon Hill, for example, they brewed the stout we served,” Holmes said. “They brewed over 80 barrels of MI Irish Stout for the festival. We were thrilled.”

Plus, Holmes emphasized, businesses throughout the downtown area benefit from the festival, from the hotel rooms selling out entirely to restaurants serving up meals for those who stayed in Muskegon throughout the weekend.

“In terms of economic impact, there’s multiple layers going on,” Holmes said. “There are people coming in and staying at hotels. If you can get them to stay overnight, that helps everyone in Muskegon.”

Since 2008, when the festival first started tracking these statistics, more than $266,000 and 21,000 pounds of food have been given to several local organizations, including Kids’ Food Basket, Catholic Charities, the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry, and the Salvation Army.

“We’re a charity that’s being charitable,” Holmes said.

[Click on any of the images below to start the photo slideshow.]

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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