New look for Irish Fest at Gaelic Park
By Jim Hook For Sun-Times Media
Frank Bradley, seen here in the Carraig Pub at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest, has been the chairman of Irish Fest for more than 25 years. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
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Change is good. At least that’s what organizers of the annual Gaelic Park Irish Fest are saying.
Sign of the times
They’ve made a couple of alterations to this year’s event, which runs May 25-28 at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest. Probably the most obvious change to this year’s festival is the relocation of a large outdoor stage inside the grounds of Gaelic Park to make room for at least six additional carnival rides.
“It was time for a change,” said Frank Bradley, who has served as chairman all 26 years the festival has been held.
“One of the things we wanted to do was to increase the carnival space. We wanted a new look. This is, after all, a family festival, and we are always looking at ways of improving it for everyone,” he said. “And, let’s be honest, kids love carnival rides.”
Bradley said “designer street signs” are new this year to help direct visitors to various locations throughout the festival. Rather than directing visitors to towns like (they do) in Ireland, these signs will assist visitors to various stages and tents.
“This is the Chicago Gaelic Park Irish Fest, and we try to make things as authentic as possible,” he said. “We try to make the festival bigger and better every year. That’s why we look at making changes.”
While acknowledging that much of the festival’s success lies in the hands of Mother Nature, organizers have taken steps to ensure a good time despite the elements. Tents now enclose stages and seating, and tarmacs and walkways throughout the festival are now covered.
“We’ve learned our lessons over the years,” said John Devitt, president of Gaelic Park. “We’ve done our best to weather-proof the fest and to make it as enjoyable to everyone as possible.”
Now in its 26th year, the annual festival is one of the year’s first Irish fests and one of the more popular in the Midwest.
Preparing for the massive undertaking is a monumental task, and one that couldn’t be done without the tireless and dedicated commitment of scores of volunteers.
Bradley said there are 300 volunteers who work hard to ensure the festival’s success. “We start in September in booking bands and other musical acts and contract with vendors,” he said. “It’s at that time when we also begin thinking about any logistical changes to the actual layout of the fest. Preparation for the event is a nine-month process.”
Volunteers perform such tasks as tending bar, selling admission tickets and coordinating parking.
“Our volunteers are truly committed and we are so fortunate to have them with us year after year,” Bradley said.
The Irish Fest also serves as a major fundraiser for Gaelic Park.
Annual rite of passage
Devitt said the goal of all the festival organizers is to “make the event a total family experience.”
“We try each year to spice things up for visitors and give them a variety of experiences all the while realizing that we are in a tough economy,” he said. “We’re certainly sensitive to the economic times and try our best to make things affordable for everyone. We try to provide value for our guests.
“We live in a society accustomed to change,” Devitt said. “If we don’t change things around, things get stale. We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves.”
He said the Irish Fest has become something of a “rite of passage” for generations of fest-goers, who return annually for a “fun, friendly and safe experience.”
Devitt said the Irish Fest has become a “meeting place for people who maybe see each other only once a year.”
“They choose to meet at Irish Fest,” he said. “There are a number of places throughout the Chicagoland area to meet up with friends and family, but many people come here and share the experience together.”
Bradley said one his favorite parts of the festival is “seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids.”
“The festival is an opportunity to have fun for a few hours with friends and family,” he said. “They get to enjoy Irish music and Irish food while hanging out and just relaxing,” he said. “And the whole time, we’re spreading the Irish culture to future generations.”