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Latest Pittsburgh Irish Festival green with upgrades

Mary Pickels
Socks in the Frying Pan perform at the 2016 Pittsburgh Irish Festival in West Homestead. The trio of traditional Irish Musicians are based in Co. Clare in the West of Ireland.
Pittsburgh’s Susan Borowski of Steel Clover gives an impromptu musical lesson during the 2018 Pittsburgh Irish Festival.
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The Screaming Orphans, an all-sister band from County Donegal, Ireland, return to the Pittsburgh Irish Festival this year.

Most Pittsburghers claim Irish heritage at least twice a year — on St. Patrick’s Day and during the annual Pittsburgh Irish Festival.

Dig out your tartans and work on that brogue. The popular Irish Festival returns Sept. 6-8 with a new location, the Lots at Sandcastle, and some new events and activities sure to have everyone dancing a jig.

The 29th annual festival is moving to higher ground, says Mairin Petrone, executive director, after flooding at the former site.

The new location is more wheelchair accessible and offers more parking, she says.

“We are putting in more tents, so there is more shade, more cover. We wanted to eliminate weather as a factor,” Petrone says.

Along with a mission of promoting Irish culture, the nonprofit has expanded into a year-round resource for education and cultural programs through creation of its Irish Education Outreach Program.

“The Irish community is so great in Pittsburgh,” Petrone says.

She easily cites the Gaelic Arts Society of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Hurling Club.

Along with a new site come some new features, from entertainment to edibles.

Axes and clubs

The festival is again partnering with Ace Axe Throwing from Homestead. Visitors over 16 and wearing closed-toe shoes (self-explanatory) can try their hand at the popular sport.

“Axes were a weapon used by Celtic natives and also as a tool,” Petrone says.

Visitors to the Emerald Isle may have playing at Royal County Down Golf Club, one of the country’s oldest, on their “must” list. Those sticking closer to home this summer can try out the festival’s new custom built mini-golf course.

“People go to Ireland just to golf. We thought, ‘Lets bring some of that to Pittsburgh.’ We are going to try to Irish it up a bit,” Petrone says.

The 9-hole course is designed by Twisted Arrangements and each hole will remind one of a wee bit of Ireland.

Other ‘newbies’

“We are bringing in a children’s bouncy house for the first time,” Petrone says.

The house’s shape will be in the form of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, Nessie.

“We have long considered Scotland to be our Celtic cousin,” Petrone says.

Cultural cuisine cottage

The focus of the cultural cottage changes each year, Petrone says. This year’s emphasis is on the importance of food in Ireland.

“We are using Pittsburgh’s ‘foodie’ reputation. We will be talking about how recipes and dishes have evolved,” she says.

Topics visitors can learn about include the Great Potato Famine and Belleek Parian china, the basis of this year’s display, through literature available at the cottage.

“We actually feel like the food of Ireland is one of its best-kept secrets,” Petrone says.

Many traditional Irish dishes are served at the festival. While many similar traditional ingredients are used, the chefs now preparing them use world influences and present dishes with a modern artistic style, Petrone notes.

No one will go hungry or thirsty with menus including Irish stew, corned beef and cabbage, shepherd’s pie, and pubs offering Guinness, Harp, Smithwick’s, Magners Irish Cider and more.

Tasty Irish gifts and snacks include Guinness chocolate and fudge, Keogh’s potato chips, Mileeven honey with Jameson, soda bread and scone mixes, Butlers candy bars and an Irish cuppa tea or coffee.

Irish lessons

The festival’s popular Hedge School enlightens visitors on the culture’s history, legends, music, language, dance and sports.

Its name comes from the country’s infamous Penal Laws, bans placed on educating Irish natives about their history, traditions and culture.

“Education was done in secret, behind hedges,” Petrone says.

Visitors will learn about the famine that drove the Irish out of their homeland, ultimately leading to a large population in the United States and in Pittsburgh, she adds.

Song, dance and more

Musicians bringing their own instruments gain free admission and can join in on festival sessions, sitting in with other musicians much like they did in Ireland, gathering in homes and pubs to share their songs.

Those who are curious can visit the interactive experience Steel Clover will provide, allowing both adults and children to try their hand at playing a musical instrument during open mic sessions.

Four performance areas will offer continuous entertainment from adult and children’s dance ensembles.

Writers including Ben Anderson and Patricia Hopper Patteson will be among those in the “Irish Authors’ Corner,” presenting on stage and offering autographed books for sale.

Visitors also can discover their Irish family tree in the genealogy pavilion, enjoy the Irish dog area and shop at the Irish Marketplace.

“Each (dog) breed has a story. It’s definitely one of the most popular sites at the festival,” Petrone says.

Guests 21 and over can enjoy beverage tasting with admission, including professionally curated tastings conducted by a whiskey master, protector of the peat or mead maker.

The annual Irish Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Sept. 8 on the Celtic spirit stage, performed by priests from Duquesne University.

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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