Fiddler Maura Dwyer of the John Byrne Band … surprise!
It was the Philadelphia Fleadh that almost didn’t happen.
Last Friday, Pennypack Park in the Northeast—the site of Philly’s huge festival of music, dance and culture, scheduled for the very next day—was a waterlogged mess. The Pennypack Creek, which winds through the park, had overflowed its banks after a week’s worth of heavy rain.
C.J. Mills is a partner, with Frank Daly, in American Paddy’s Productions, which put on the festival. It was the second. Mills summed up the situation in a nutshell: “There was mud and water everywhere.
”At that point, Mills and Daly knew they had their work cut out for them.
“If this festival had been one day earlier,” said Daly, “I don’t know if we could have pulled it off.”
For one thing, he said, the stage surrounding the main stage—right on the banks of the Pennypack—was a sea of shoe-sucking mud. It’s hard to dance in mud.
City workers with heavy equipment—along with Mills, Daly, family and Fleadh volunteers—labored all day Friday in the muck, trying to get the park ready for the hundreds of visitors expected to flood into the festival, so to speak, on Saturday.
Through it all, Daly and Mills kept the faith.
“We put in a request about six months ago,” Mills said. “We had no doubt that it was going to be sunny and 73. Weather insurance is expensive, so we prayed a lot.”
All that praying worked. Saturday dawned sunny and clear, and you’d never have guessed that there’d ever been a problem. And the second Philadelphia Fleadh went on right on schedule. (Massive amount of photos, below.)
Walking down the winding path into the park, you could hear the music pounding out of the Ed Kelly Amphitheatre all day—The Mahones, The John Byrne Band, The Birmingham Six, Burning Bridget Cleary, The Shantys, and we could go on—14 bands in all, compared to nine last year.
And there were plenty of people strolling, and in some cases dancing, down that path. Daly and Mills weren’t sure precisely how many, but early afternoon they were certain that the second Fleadh was turning out to be a bigger draw than the first. “Attendance is definitely higher than last year at this time,” said Daly. “Last year, we had 3,000, and we think we’re going to do more this year. And we’re running on schedule—which is a shock.”
A new feature this year probably boosted attendance this year, Mills said. A Feis—an Irish dance competition hosted by the Celtic Flame School of Irish Dance—drew about 120 dancers, but also a host of family, friends and fans. Kids, mostly girls of all ages in curls and sparkly dresses, took to the stage in a sunlit meadow surrounded by tall trees. So much nicer than a musty hall somewhere.
More bands played in their very own sunlit meadow just across a wooden bridge from the Feis. No amphitheater in this case, just a stage, but that meadow was filled with folks in lawn chairs—and more than a few up on their feet, dancing away.
Traditional musicians churned out their own brand of Irish music in an overheated tent, but no one seemed to mind the temperature.
Ten vendors peddled their T-shirts, hats, jewelry, kilts, glassware, gifts and more throughout the grounds, and if you wanted great food or, say, a cold brew—no problem. There was plenty to go around.
The whole show ended with an 8 p.m. show featuring lead fiddler Mills’ and lead singer Daly’s own band, Jamison.
Getting a good cross-section of the Irish community in on the act was a priority this year, says Mills.
“You have the Philadelphia Ceili Group, you have punk rock,” he said. “Every aspect of Philly Irish, we tried to hit it. We wanted to get all of those groups in here today, including parts of the Philly Irish-American world that I’m not a part of.”
It was a lot to manage, but the whole operation went off with clockwork efficiency. Calls over their walkie-talkies kept them running, but Daly and Mills actually seemed relaxed.
“We have a ton of volunteers. By the second year, it’s become a machine, already wound up,” said Daly. We learned everything last year. We felt then like we were making something out of nothing. We learned every part of it—dealing with bands, dealing with volunteers, dealing with public relations. Other people saw what we did, and they wanted to jump at it this year.00
“This is bigger than C.J. and me now. This year, other people are running us.”