Irish eyes smiling are enough for fest founder

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Frank Bradley sits in the Carraig Pub part of Gaelic Park where the annual Irish Fest is held at in Oak Forest. Frank has been the chairman of Irish Fest for the entire 25yr. run of the event. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Over the last 25 years, there’s a scene Frank Bradley’s enjoyed more than a few times at Irish Fest, the annual celebration of Irish culture and friendship at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest.

“When it’s a beautiful evening and the place is packed, I’ve been able to stand back on the stage and look out to see thousands having a good time and know I played a part in bringing that enjoyment to life,” said Bradley, one of the founders and principal leaders of the spring time ritual that enters its 25th year in 2011.

For Bradley, who dedicates dozens of volunteer hours to Irish Fest each year, a smooth-running family festival sparking smiles and memories is all the reminder he needs to assure that his physical, mental, and emotional labor has been worth the commitment.

“I’m just thrilled to see a big group of people having a good time,” he said.

Prior to the first Irish Fest in 1987, leadership at the Irish American Heritage Center on Chicago’s Northwest Side and Gaelic Park decided to combine their efforts to produce an Irish cultural festival in downtown Chicago.

After a brief three-year run in the mid-1980s at Olive Park near Navy Pier, the distinct organizations thought it better to create their own festivals to maximize the celebratory mood. Gaelic Park would host its Irish Fest in the spring, while the Irish-American Heritage Center would run its event later in the summer. The South Side contingent tabbed Bradley as Irish Fest’s first chairman.

“They figured I could do it and I suppose I thought I could pull it off, too,” said Bradley, a homebuilder and father of four. “But I was blessed with a board that supported me and so many were full of energy, power, and only saw one direction for our event.”

Gaelic Park hosted its first four-day Irish Fest on the facility’s football fields, mixing two stages of live entertainment with food, drink and carnival rides.

“We got maybe 5,000 or 6,000 people and were delighted,” Bradley said. “We looked at this as just the beginning of a learning process.”

Fest spreads its wings

Confident in the demand for a South Side Irish festival, Bradley and Gaelic Park leadership charged ahead in future years.

Not long after the inaugural Irish Fest, Gaelic Park purchased an adjacent seven-acre parcel to serve as the festival’s grounds. In 1998, after years of bussing festival attendees from scattered off-site parking lots, Gaelic Park purchased another adjacent 25 acres to hold guest parking. These purchases, Bradley said, provided Irish Fest the space and amenities it needed to craft an efficient, enjoyable festival for patrons.

Over the festival’s 25 years, Irish Fest has added more stages with headline acts, expanded its budget, and witnessed a 10-fold increase in attendance.

“We expanded as we saw a need and as the demand grew,” Bradley said. “We built a monster even if we didn’t realize it.”

And Bradley’s been there every step of the way in virtually every role — booking bands, placing tables and chairs, directing traffic, and handling a variety of event troubleshooting projects.

“I’ve done just about everything but bartend,” Bradley said, though he’s quick to send praise to a volunteer army that approaches 500. “The volunteers and the committee leaders, they’re the real backbone of the festival.”

Now, tucked into his role as the unofficial patriarch of Irish Fest, the 65-year-old Bradley stands eager to reflect on what drives the annual festival’s success and its push into a 25th year.

“Everybody likes to be a little Irish and Irish Fest offers that opportunity to celebrate in a safe, friendly environment for a great value,” he said. “And it’s no secret as well that the Irish like to have a good time.”