FOR A quarter century, the Saturday before the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day parade has always been reserved for Tara Feis.
Whether the Parade is on the following weekend seven days later or on the following Monday just 48 hours later, that schedule hasn’t wavered in 25 years.
Indeed, Tara Feis remains perhaps the Savannah festival most true to its roots.
“We’ve sort of adopted the philosophy that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” laughs longtime Tara Feis chair Bernadette Winters.
The Gaelic words are pronounced “tara fesh,” and the event was expressly designed to take advantage of the City’s strong Irish spirit without the, uh, spirits.
See kids, back in the day our extended St. Patrick’s Day celebration was even more raucous than it is now, especially on River Street, if you can believe that.
For example, there were no wristbands or controlled entry, and immediately following the parade basically everybody in town flooded onto River Street – including cars, which cruised up and down full of partiers and blaring music the rest of the afternoon and into the wee hours.
Tara Feis was founded in that atmosphere, to carve out a niche for families with children to also celebrate Savannah’s signature happening.
“Our history goes back to 1990 when Don Mendonsa was City Manager,” recalls Winters. “Don asked Joe Shearouse, who was director of Leisure Services, to come up with something that was a nice family celebration, that would reflect our Irish heritage as not being all about drinking on River Street.”
The first Tara Feis started out small, on River Street’s Rousakis Plaza. “It wasn’t the greatest,” remembers Winters. “There was still so much going on all around it, and to keep it nonalcoholic we had to keep people out of the area.”
The game-changer happened when the Department of Cultural Affairs-sponsored event was moved up to the Bay Street level, in Emmet Park. Also called the “Irish Green,” Emmet Park sits across Bay from the Old Fort/Trustees Garden area, once a residential area mostly for working class immigrant families.
“The Irish Green was where the old Savannah Irish families that lived in the Old Fort would go and have a picnic or take their children to play,” Winters says. “My parents and grandparents would take us there all the time when we were kids.”
From day one, Winters says, the great local singer/performer Harry O’Donoghue, an Irish native, was in charge of the entertainment at Tara Feis.
“Harry’s been with us since the beginning and he’s still the emcee,” says Winters fondly. “He’s the one I count on to scout out entertainment every year.”
Winters says the goal is always to keep authentic Irish music and culture paramount.
“We didn’t want a country band playing an Irish festival,” she says. “I credit Harry with always getting the best great Irish entertainment.”
Winters says not only is the music authentic, Tara Feis tries to keep sales of merchandise to a minimum to make sure the event stays unique and up to standards.
“We hang on tight to the reins to keep it from becoming just another event,” says Winters. “As we get further and further away from those folks of ours who came over from Ireland, our goal is to appreciate the culture and heritage and keep it alive.”
The only thing sold besides food and non-alcoholic drink at Tara Feis are official event T-shirts, “and our entertainers sell their CDs,” Winters says.
She says organizers have also resisted any attempts to extend Tara Feis into a weekend-long affair.
“It’s always a short but full day, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m.,” she says. “We get folks who just pull up chairs and stay from beginning to end and make a whole day of it.”
Winters says she especially hopes folks will make it out to the stirring opening ceremony, which starts right at 11 a.m.
“Not everybody makes it out that early on a Saturday morning, but it’s really inspiring and really worth it,” she says.
This year, in addition to the usual great lineup of music and dance on two stages, including Harry O’Donoghue himself, and Irish dancing from all the local Irish dancing schools, special musical guests include the Savannah Philharmonic Chorus, Cathy Maguire and Ciaran Sheehan and band, with musical director Gabriel Donohue.
Maguire is an acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter who will be joined by Dublin native Ciaran Sheehan, veteran of Broadway productions of Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.