"We want to see where the traditions have gone" 

While people all over the world have long known of Savannah’s highly publicized St. Patrick’s Day celebration, our town boasts another outstanding festival paying tribute to Irish culture and heritage.

True, it hasn’t been around nearly as long, but – unlike the current incarnation of that sometimes chaotic mid-March féte, this newer festival focuses solely on the art, music, food and products of Ireland itself. Billed under the no-nonsense moniker The Savannah Irish Festival, it’s been going strong for 13 years, the last few centered around the facilities of the Savannah Civic Center.

For those unaware of its existence, or confused over its scope, it’s worth noting that this relatively unpretentious production provides a far greater amount of traditional and contemporary Irish entertainment (and education) than the official, City-funded Tara Feis which kicks off the St. Pat’s Festival. That afternoon event, which is always held on the Saturday before the holiday, is free to the public – but considering the extremely low price of admission to this privately sponsored event, that’s hardly a concern.

In fact, when asked to come up with a pitch aimed at folks who may have little interest in Irish culture, Festival Chairman Jimmy Buttimer boils it down to simple value.

“I tell you the truth,” he says with the kind of grin in his voice that come with knowing you speak the truth, “it's the best deal in town. You'll see top-notch performers in an intimate setting as well as on the big main stage. They're very accessible to meet and get autographs from. Also, we have so many great vendors – most of whom come from across the country and some all the way from Ireland, just for this event. You’ll get to see and hear things over these two days that you’d likely never find anywhere else in town.”

And he’s correct. For a few bucks more than an standard-price movie ticket, adults can spend an entire day roaming from stage to stage and from booth to booth. They’ll get up close and personal with many of the top names in the American Celtic music community, and get to sample plenty of Irish delicacies made fresh by local Irish societies, such as The Friendly Sons,The Emerald Society, and The Ancient Order of Hibernians,

Whether it’s Shepherd’s Pie, fish and chips, Irish sausage, or a variety of traditional snacks and desserts, they’re all available on site. There’s also beer on tap as well, but according to Buttimer, that’s hardly the focus of his group’s function.

He says it’s that devotion to producing a quality event geared to all ages is one of the main reasons they have no trouble bringing some of the country’s best musical groups back year after year.

“The feedback we get from the performers is that they ‘re happy to return. For one thing, they love Savannah, and we can’t take credit for that (laughs), but they also like the fact that this isn’t a for-profit festival. It’s put on by local people, and we’re not hustling anything,” he says.

“You see, a lot of the Irish festivals in America are put on by bar owners or beer distributors. They don’t spend much money on arts and crafts or for children’s entertainment. Our is family-oriented. On top of that, we’ve been told that we have much more friendly environment.”

Over the course of the festival’s history, the event has been held at a couple of different locations, but it’s called the Civic Center home for the past four years. Buttimer says moving the event there has proven to be a very wise choice – even though it was initially made out of necessity.

“The last 2 years that we used the National Guard Armory out on Eisenhower, we had really super weather, and people just showed up in droves. We had probably 12,000 people there, which was our best attendance ever. But there were some changes at the company that helped with tour staging, and the very same year was when 9/11 took place. The armory notified us that they might need the facility in case they were deployed. We couldn’t take a chance on having to cancel at the last minute. So we went ahead and moved to the Civic Center.”

Buttimer acknowledges that the festival’s first few years at their present location were marred by confusion and difficulty over reserving the facility’s parking lot – but he says all that has been worked out now, and it’s nothing but smooth sailing from here on out.

“Marty Johnson is the director of the Civic Center, and she’s been just great to work with. She has helped us with the scheduling, and now we have the lot for the whole weekend,” Buttimer says.

“Since we’ve been dealing with the Civic Center, we’ve been able to cut the number of volunteers we need in half. Their staff handles most of the money and ticket issues, as well as a lot of the setting up and breaking down.”

Those who attend will have a number of options as far as how they take in the overall experience.

“People can eat their food while they watch the acts on the main stage,” he explains. “Then we’ll have close to 25 vendors behind them selling everything from linen to crystal, to CDs and original art. We also have a 5,000 square foot area that we partition off for a Children’s Stage. There will be all sorts of activities and shows going on there constantly, like puppet shows, games and face painting. “There are 2 other stages, in another part of the building – a cultural stage with seating for 40, and a pub stage with seating for about 80. We try to get all the artists to do 1 set on the main stage and 1 set on the smaller stage, and the music runs continuously the whole time.”

Buttimer says that holding this event several weeks before the St. Pat’s craziness works out terrifically in a number of ways.

“That month had kind of been a dead zone as far as tourism goes, and it helps us to get better quality acts, who are normally booked up solid throughout the month of March.”

The music Buttimer books for The Savannah Irish Festival cuts across many lines, and is not strictly traditionally Celtic in nature.

“The McKrells are fantastic. They’ve been here twice before. Gabriel Donahue and Joanie Madden put on an amazing show. That woman is in a class of her own. And, I particularly like Pat Maloney. He’s a modern songwriter who reminds me a lot of Bob Dylan and John Prine.”

In fact, many of the acts incorporate a variety of styles into their repertoire – something which music fans love, but which is often frowned upon at similar events in other parts of the country.

Buttimer is thrilled that our local Irish community is not nearly as didactic.

“The Irish community here is a lot less chauvinistic when it comes to the whole identity thing. I mean, The McKrells are a roots-rock band. They’ve played Carnegie Hall! They open for Travis Tritt and sell out 1,000-seat theatres everywhere they go.

“We're American and from the South. We want to see where the traditions have gone, not just where they’ve been. It’s like, for God's sake, man -- listen to the music! Okay, so they don’t sing the notes in the exact, historical fashion that you’re used to – but listen to what they’re doing! It’s tremendous,” says Buttimer.

“Savannah has a long tradition of tolerance. That’s our hallmark. We’ll be discussing that unique history in one of the talks at the festival. Long ago, so many of the Irish Catholic communities up North set themselves apart from everyone else, from the cradle to the grave. We didn’t do that here. Those divisions don’t exist.”

Sat., 11 am - 8:30 pm + Sun., 12 noon - 6 pm, Savannah Civic Center. Adult admission is $11.50 per day or $20 for a 2-day pass. Children 15 and under receive free admission with a paid adult.


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Jim Reed

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