‘I feel at home in Muskegon’: Musicians laud Michigan Irish Music Festival as it celebrates 20th anniversary

The High Kings perform at the Michigan Irish Music Festival.

When Aoife Scott woke up Monday morning in Muskegon, she and her bandmates expected they’d be heading to Chicago—after all, their flight back home to Ireland was Tuesday.

Instead, Scott, a folk artist who performed at the Michigan Irish Music Festival, changed her course.

“I said, ‘We have to stay in Muskegon one more day and spend time on the shoreline,’” Scott said in an interview Monday afternoon, just after the four-day Irish music festival drew tens of thousands of people to Heritage Landing in downtown Muskegon.

“I feel at home at this festival; I feel at home in Muskegon,” Scott continued. “It makes me feel very calm to be here. Everyone’s so lovey and so full of love.”

It’s that idea—one of feeling at home—that seemed to manifest itself throughout the festival. The Irish music extravaganza celebrated its 20th year this past weekend, and its origins story is rooted in drawing tourists to the city during the off season. While it has certainly done that—the festival packs area hotels and has more than doubled its audience size over the past decade—its story known by performers is one of finding a home away from home. Of finding a family. Of four days when you can dance and laugh and sing and, momentarily, press pause on life’s troubles.

Aoife Scott performs at the Michigan Irish Music Festival.

“It seems trivial to say it’s a family event,” said John Kennedy, of Kennedy’s Kitchena South Bend-based band that has played at the Michigan Irish Music Festival for 17 years. “That’s not trivial. It’s a really big deal.”

It’s a really big deal for reasons that can be difficult to explain. Or perhaps overwhelming. How do you begin to say why your family is important to you? It’s an answer, Kennedy explained, that is found in love, in support, in others understanding what it means to be a musician, to know what it is to travel around the country—and world—to follow your passion.

It’s an answer found in the role music has played for Irish immigrants in the United States, the way it’s connected people to a home they left and to which they may never return. The way it’s connected people to family never again seen, how it gives voice to living in a perpetual state of missing people and places. The way it makes you laugh and cry—and laugh again. The way it can save your life.

“Folk music was a way for immigrants to connect to home,” Scott said. “It was a way of communicating their sadness. Most of my songs are about Ireland or leaving Ireland. We sing about the sadness of people leaving, of them being so far away and never coming home. I think that’s a huge part of our culture.”

These stories—ones of leaving home, of making your way across an ocean, of learning what it means to build a new life in a foreign land—fill the Michigan Irish Music Festival each year. They remind us, all of us, of that human story of searching and suffering and aching and joy and love. 

“My grandparents came over in 1927 from Ireland—they’re from Donegal, and they grew up in Irish immigrant neighborhoods in Philadelphia,” Kennedy said. “We grew up with stories of how important the music and the dancing was to their growing up.”

John Kennedy of Kennedy’s Kitchen performs at the Michigan Irish Music Festival.

“The Irish have a different relationship with music,” Kennedy continued. “Music is participatory; music is not something you just listen to and admire. You’re listening in an active way. I learned this as a kid: there’s a sacredness to song.”

At the festival, it’s not just the musicians weaving these narratives of home: the event includes everything from Irish storytelling to history lectures, a limerick contest,  an introduction to speaking Gaelic, and much more.

But the thread that connects it all, of course, is the music that fills Heritage Landing and this year drew a little more than 35,000 people to Muskegon for the festival. A record 26 musical acts—everything from traditional Irish folk to Celtic rock—performed at the 20th annual event, which ran from Thursday, Sept. 12 through Sunday, Sept. 15.

“They were always really ambitious with this festival: they weren’t just going to put on a little festival,” Kennedy said. “They wanted the best musicians playing this music on planet earth here in Muskegon. It’s our favorite festival, flat out. I tell people this is the best Irish festival on planet earth.”

An Irish Wolfhound plants a kiss on one of his adoring fans during the festival’s Celtic Canines.

Throughout the event, the musicians lauded the festival’s volunteers—the event is entirely volunteer-run and has about 1,600 volunteers dedicating their time to it.

“The Michigan Irish Music Festival is amazing because of all the volunteers that work on it,” Scott said. “It’s a musician’s festival; it’s so easy on all of us. The people who volunteer at this festival, who come to this festival, are so full of love and so willing to be part of your journey with you.”

A festival’s roots

Born 20 years ago, the Michigan Irish Music Festival came about because community leaders wanted to boost tourism to Muskegon—a city whose shores were once filled with industry but which has since undergone extensive environmental cleanup and is now drawing visitors from throughout the region, and country, to the city perched along two massive bodies of water: Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan.

“The county administrator, Frank Bednarek, wanted something to use Heritage Landing, and his main objective was to put heads and beds in hotels,” said Michigan Irish Music Festival President Chris Zahrt, one of the festival’s founding members. “We wanted to bring the Irish culture, heritage and music to our community, but we also wanted to bring people to our community.”

JigJam performs at the Michigan Irish Music Festival.

And bring people they have. This year, the festival drew a little more than 35,000 people to Muskegon’s waterfront for the whirlwind weekend of music, food and cultural programming. Over the years, 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 1,600 volunteers doing everything from organizing the entire four-day event to filling patrons’ glasses with beer and whiskey.

“The camaraderie among the volunteers is absolutely wonderful,” said Bill Plough, a volunteer who has been with the festival since its inception and previously served as its site director. “The camaraderie is one of the things I really love about it and what keeps me coming back.”

Throughout its two decades of existence, the festival too has increased its philanthropic support. Since 2008, when it began recording these numbers, the event has donated about $400,000 to local charitable organizations. Festival-goers also provide food donations, which are then distributed to such local organizations as Kids’ Food Basket, Catholic Charities, the Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry, and the Salvation Army.

“We’re extremely proud of what we’ve been able to do for our community,” Zahrt said. “There’s the great music, the great cultural learning, the impact it’s made on our community.”

Michigan Irish Music Festival founding board members Joe Doyle, Chris Zahrt and Tom Schaub.

Tom Schaub, one of the Michigan Irish Music Festival’s founding board members, also emphasized the role the event has played in lifting the community.

“There was a time when things didn’t work out all that well in Muskegon; with the Irish music festival, there’s a new community self-esteem in Muskegon,” he said.

Schaub noted the festival received important support from other Irish music festivals when they first launched—the Milwaukee Irish Fest, for example, was one of the Muskegon event’s first sponsors. Once it was clear Muskegon’s festival was successful, organizers have gone on to provide support to other local events, such as the Muskegon Polish Festival.

“We’re not competitive; when we started, we had help from other local festivals and we’ve gone on to mentor other events,” Schaub said. “We want things that are exciting and positive for Muskegon.”

Crossing an ocean: Musicians make their way to Muskegon

As Scott said, the performers at Michigan Irish Music Festival routinely refer to the event as a “musician’s festival”—a place where they not only enjoy entertaining their fans, but where they get to see the music they too love.

“They pick the best artists coming out of Ireland,” Scott said. “They always have the top artists. You couldn’t ask for a better festival.”

The founding board members said they’ve been thrilled to grow the musical acts over the years.

“There was a point in our evolution that I realized the best players in the world are playing here,” Schaub said.

“We want to stay on the cutting edge of fine Irish and Celtic music,” he continued. “We’ve evolved in our first 20 years, and the plans are being made that we can continue doing that—and not just be important to our community but important to the world of Celtic music. We’ve brought many bands to the United States for the first time.”

The Highland Games are put on by the Michigan Highlanders.
The festival grounds.

As part of their efforts to introduce the Muskegon audience with Irish singers and bands, the festival sponsors what’s known as the Michigan Irish Music Initiative—a contest held in Ireland that’s geared towards college students pursuing traditional Irish music. The winner of that contest—which is overseen by Eamonn de Barra, a musician from Dublin who’s a member of the band Slide and is often referred to as the festival’s “ears on the ground” in Ireland—then goes on to perform at the Michigan Irish Music Festival. De Barra also routinely connects the festival with singers and bands from his home country—for example, he recommended that Scott perform at the event.

The overwhelmingly positive feedback musicians have provided to the festival has certainly been a source of inspiration for the event organizers, said Joe Doyle, one of its founding board members.

“We maintain that high level of quality for the event so that when artists come, they leave Muskegon with this great feeling they’ve been treated right,” Doyle said.

The Moxie Strings perform.
The Mona Shores Fiddlers, a group of high school students in the Mona Shores Orchestra, perform for an exuberant crowd.

And it’s not just that everything from the sound and lighting run smoothly that makes the difference: the entire festival is often an emotional experience for the musicians “because of the friendships and camaraderie,” Schaub noted.

“Backstage, we see lots of emotions,” he said. “I had one artist bawling coming off stage because our audience was so receptive and so huge. Three times yesterday, bands said, ‘This is the best show of our entire tour.’”

For Kennedy, Muskegon is a place of reunion: with his friends who are wrapping up nationwide tours, with his own family members who travel from throughout the country to see Kennedy’s Kitchen perform, with the volunteers. 

“This is where you meet; this is where you see your friends,” Kennedy said while sitting in the outdoors backstage area set up for the musicians. “You have this little village out of time here. Every festival has something like that, especially for the musicians—this feeling you were just here. But what Muskegon has done differently is providing this space just for musicians, a place where you can get away, where they cook food, where they’re providing space where community gets to happen.”

This community, Kennedy said, is one filled with the “breathtaking talent” of people who have dedicated their careers to sharing their lives with all of us through their music.

“What they’re doing at the festival is majestic, and it’s opening a door to another place,” Kennedy said. “It’s magical. Everybody’s happy to be able to be here. There are no egos here. People are just happy to play another day.”

For more photos of the festival, click on the slideshow below.

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

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