By MaryRose Denton

Ever desired to learn how to play a penny whistle? Do you enjoy tapping your toes to a reel and a jig? Or maybe diving into the lore of Ireland through storytelling suits your fancy? All of these, plus more, can be found each October at a unique festival in Bellingham, Washington, celebrating traditional Irish culture through its music, dance, language and overall appreciation of the arts.

Bellingham Irish Festival photo by Michael Lusk.
Bellingham Irish Festival photo by Michael Lusk

For three days in early October, the downtown corridor of Bellingham, WA bursts at its seams with everything Irish, but this is not St Patrick’s Day, it’s the annual Bellingham Irish Festival.

A Hub for Everything Irish

Whether you have Ireland flowing through your veins, like me, or just enjoy experiencing a rich cultural feast, mark your calendar and find your way into downtown Bellingham. A five-block radius in the downtown corridor is the hub for workshops as well as music and live performances. Everything is in easy walking distance so bring a good pair of shoes and maybe an overcoat, for the shows must go on, rain or shine.

The festival itself is considered “a la carte” by its founder and director Cayley Miranda Schmid.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Cayley as she explained, “there is no ticket to the festival, so people can try out workshops on their own. Everything is individually priced with many events being free and open to everyone.”

Irish Jam at the Bellingham Irish Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Photo by Richard Schmitz

As our wee chat continued regarding “everything Irish” she took me through the inspiration as well as inception of this very unique festival. “It began in 2013 as a much smaller Ceilidhe Camp, offering primarily music and dance workshops,” she explained. It grew from there, and in 2015 expanded to the public, literally exploding into local venues with musical events and shows. Each year its breadth widens, offering more workshops of interest such as “Beginning Gaelic Speaking” as well as bringing more traditional focused bands from out of town, thus reaching across a larger demographic.

Musical events and jam sessions throughout downtown

Cayley integrates the local community and businesses into the festival. Businesses such as the Firefly Lounge, Honey Moon Mead & Cider, and Kombucha Town’s Culture Café host various sessions along with musical guests.

This year the Pickford Film Center is airing a special movie showing followed by an Irish Dancing preview performed by the NW Irish Dancers.

Cayley eyes a future goal for the festival, “to see it become bigger and bigger each year with more workshops, and big, out of town names.” She added, “I would love to involve more local businesses, enfolding them into the spirit of the festival and truly make it a community event”. Cayley herself plays fiddle and is a member of the instrumental band, Giants Causeway.

Irish Jam at the Bellingham Irish Festival. Photo by Richard Schmitz.
Photo by Richard Schmitz

Another headliner band at the festival is Gallowglass. I recently met Jan Peters, guitarist, lead vocalist, and harmonica player, before an evening gig. As I listened to Jan, I discovered some history to this five-person collaboration comprised of himself, David Lofgren, Zach Buauman, Margaret Inez Driscoll, and Mishon Kirkland. They play traditional as well as contemporary Irish music with an American Folk tune thrown in occasionally. The name Gallowglass generally means” mercenaries” yet another definition and reason the band members chose the name was because it also refers to “a foreigner absorbed with Irish culture”. A title fitting to this hardworking group.

Gallowglass. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Gallowglass. Photo by Richard Schmitz

Jan shared with me the birth of Gallowglass, “was during an after party on St. Patrick’s Day 5 years ago, we just really grooved.” Instant kismet was felt and one of the best Irish bands in the NW was formed. Jan puts it this way in describing the magic they create, “We are an increasingly focused band, all of us have a shared intent in developing the material.” He explained,” Contemporary Irish music, like what is at the festival, can include a lot of things, including how a musician might time a phrase or ornament a phrase. The collaboration becomes about who we are as Gallowglass.”

In addition to the line-up of bands, dancing, and workshops during the festival there are also open Sessions where anyone can pull up a chair, pull out their fiddle, guitar, mandolin, penny whistle, drum or pipes and play a tune or two. Sessions are always open, welcoming collaboration from players of all levels.

Irish Jam Session. Photo by Richard Schmitz
Photo by Richard Schmitz

To partake as a player or a spectator in the weekend long events, check out BellinghamIrishFestival.com for a full schedule.

Get your jig on and see you in Bellingham!

MaryRose Denton

MaryRose Denton is a freelance writer, traveler, licensed massage therapist, yoga teacher, lifelong vegetarian, and most importantly a mother. She enjoys the mash up of these that life brings and writes about them with insight, humour, and wit. A native to the Pacific NW, MaryRose lived for a short duration in Canada before returning home to this richly beautiful area. She has traveled overseas, exploring and visiting friends in their native homes allowing herself a deeper and richer understanding of human nature. MaryRose writes the stories of the people and places she visits, hoping to expand her readers’ interest and touch their hearts. She is a current member of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance. Her stories can be found at maryrosedentonwriter.com or follow her on Instagram and FB, @maryrosedenton.
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