The six-hour drive on Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities has become an annual road trip for Mark Minor, although it doesn’t seem that long when his favorite tunes are playing — especially when they can also be found at each end of the tour like bookends. They incorporate music he sings himself with a song circle, and his cousin chimes in once picked up near the Wisconsin border.
That break from the action has been fashioned into a yearly pilgrimage to meet up with Jeanie Conant, and its never been a Gopher vs. Badger thing. Each year he takes in the multi-day Irish music festivals in each city, a whirlwind since they happen only a week apart. And it was a trip from Milwaukee to see his cousin in Hudson, Wisc., that got the ball rolling. After 17 years, he would hear and see the Twin Cities version of the festival. Again.
The Milwaukee Irish Fest — of which a photo of Minor and a buddy taking in one of their bands just happens to be on the cover — was founded by two brothers in a prominent Milwaukee Irish family, Ed and Chuck Wood, more than 35 years ago. The event grew into the world’s largest Irish festival, lasting four days, boasting 30 music stages and dozens of food and gift stands on a shore of Lake Michigan fairgrounds. There are plenty of Irish sports, too, both on the water and off, and also team tug-of-war. When he lived in St. Paul, Minor had watched their fest grow from a one-day event at the St. Paul Armory near the Capitol, to a three-day affair at the University of St. Thomas, to an even bigger extravaganza at Harriet Island, having a lot of the same activities as in Milwaukee, and also plenty of Irish merchandise. Admission has always been free.
The Chuck Wood Celtic Song Circle was founded by Minor and his friends in summer, 2010, and incorporates Celtic music, as well as that of Ireland, Scotland and even Wales, Cornwall from the predominantly Celtic western Britain, Cape Breton in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Irish communities in the United States. The members also sang in-concert in the Milwaukee Irish Fest Song Circle. “We felt it would be fun to branch out into singing the songs of the ‘other’ Celtic nations in addition to the usual Irish and Scottish bill of fare, such as Loch Lamond and Whiskey in the Jar.” That latter song was even covered by the metal outfit Metallica.
Then Chuck Wood and his family, friends of Minor and his group, lost their mentor to cancer last November. This caused the song circle to rename themselves after Wood following an unanimous vote.
“Over the years that I’ve attended the Minnesota Irish Fair, I’ve listened to and met many fine musicians and singers,” Minor said. They include both traditional and American Irish music. “Since I’ve been going there with Jeanie, we have greatly enjoyed Gaelic Storm, The Screaming Orphans, The High Kings, Eileen Ivers and Katie McMahon. Joan Diver and the Screaming Orphans and Katie McMahon, who was the principal female singer with Riverdance, are friends of mine, as are the High Kings.” One of them, Finbarr Clancy,is a cousin of Minor’s and Jeanie’s.
“I introduced myself to Finbarr after one of their shows that (2010) fest, and I told him about my genealogical discovery revealing our being cousins through one of his Clancy aunts having married a Butler of the Butler family of County Tipperary where the Clancys also hail from,” Minor said. Finbarr replied, “Well, you know what? I’m married to a Butler woman!” That is his wife Grainne. “We hit it off right away and (Finbarr and I) have been close friends ever since. We get together at every Irish Fest that they are booked for, and we had a grand visit a few years ago at the Minnesota Irish Fair with cousin Jeanie joining us.”
Gaelic Storm play a mix of Irish folk favorites and songs they’ve written themselves, “all with a robust pace and wonderful rhythm,” Minor said, adding The Screaming Orphans perform in similar fashion, singing good and loud, hence their name. Eileen Ivers is another Riverdance alumnus, a fiddler who plays her signature blue violin with gusto. Katie McMahon, who accompanies herself on the harp, has an operatic quality to her voice and beautiful Irish lilt. As for The High Kings, they give great energy to many of their songs, which include the traditional Irish and some American numbers, and even a pop song, The Boys Are Back In Town, perhaps best known for the rendition by a rock band made up of Irish men, Thin Lizzy. “Fine musicians all, they also sing in beautiful harmony. “Jeanie and I love hearing them in concert, and this is one of the reasons we always return to the Minnesota Irish Fair! And a bonus for me, most of the folks come to perform at our Milwaukee Irish Fest, held just a week after the Minnesota Bash. What fortuitous timing!”
“My fondest memories of the Minnesota Irish Fair are the incredible national and international performers who I met and became friends with, which include The High Kings and Katie McMahon. We’ve become tight; for a period of about 15 year’s I didn’t attend the Irish Fair, as I had moved home to Milwaukee in late 2001, I was out of touch with some of them,” Minor said. “But when I came up to visit Jeanie and went with her to Irish Fair in 2015, we saw that Katie was scheduled to perform on the main stage.” After a half-hour walk to get to the platform, she saw the now newcomers approaching and yelled out a hello. “We hadn’t had any contact whatsoever in those years, and picked up right where we left off with our friendship, as if it were only a few days or weeks since we were last together,” Minor said. “She recognized me immediately and warmly greeted me! I have become gray of hair and white of moustache in the interim years and she still knew my face right away. Katie, by the way, still looks stunning, as much so as the day we met at that earlier Irish Fair those 14 years prior! We had a lovely visit after her concert in which Jeanie and I enjoyed her charm and our conversation about Irish music and the Irish Fair,” Minor said.
“I introduced Jeanie to Katie and they connected and became fast friends. We look for each other every year now, as we make it a practice of attending the Irish Fair every year when I come for a visit.”
She’s not the only one who has made an annual ritual. “A couple of years ago I treated Seamus Kennedy, a splendid guitarist, singer, raconteur and humorist from Belfast, Northern Ireland now living with his family in Annapolis, Md., to a beer after one of his shows at our Irish Fest. We talked a lot about Irish music as well, also the U.S. Naval Academy which also calls Annapolis home,” Minor said. He has a local friend who gets them tickets to the Navy Midshipmen’s football home games. “Seamus is a good friend and drinking companion, and a whale of an entertainer,” Minor added.