by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAWOOD — When the grand marshal of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Kansas City, Mo., was announced at a recent fundraiser, Curé of Ars, Leawood, parishioner Ian Byrne was more surprised than anyone else.
“They were up at the microphone and they started profiling this person,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Gee, he sounds a lot like me.’
“And then they announced my name, and I was just floored!”
It‘s fitting that this year’s honoree is Byrne, lead vocalist for the Celtic rock band The Elders.
A native of Ireland, Byrne received his American citizenship this year. For many years, he’s been closely linked to two major Irish events in Kansas City — St. Patrick’s Day and the Kansas City Irish Fest.
And those two events are closely linked to each other.
St. Patrick’s Day in Kansas City doesn’t just kick off a day of parades and celebrations. It kicks off a season of preparation for one of the biggest Irish festivals in the nation, held over Labor Day weekend at Crown Center Square in Kansas City, Mo.
Holy Spirit, Overland Park, parishioner Ed Follis, one of the founders of the KC Irish Fest, said it owes its roots to the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“The parade board was very influential in the early days.” he explained. “[Members of the parade board] used the credibility they had established over the years to get sponsors for us.”
Byrne, whose band has played at every KC Irish Fest, fondly remembers the first one in 1999. It was almost a miserable failure.
“It was a monsoon that weekend,” he said.
But torrential rains didn’t deter The Elders from performing. They set up on a small stage inside the Phillips Hotel, the festival headquarters that year.
“We got all the bands together and we all played, and it since has become one of those folklore great evenings of music in Kansas City,” Byrne said.
Since that first rainout, the fest has been a great success, with bigger crowds each year.
“Our festival is built around family,” said Follis. “It has something for every age.”
The festival features two large kids’ areas, an exhibit of Irish history, a Fies (Irish dance competition), and Irish bands that play throughout the three-day weekend.
The Elders traditionally give a concert to end the festival on Sunday night.
Rory O’Connor is the current president of the KC Irish Fest. Originally from Ireland, O’Connor now resides in St. Francis Xavier Parish in Kansas City, Mo. He considers the Sunday morning outdoor Mass the highlight of the festival.
“It’s so popular, a few years ago we ran out of seats,” he said. “And so — leave it to the Irish — we had people sitting on empty kegs.”
The Irish Fest has become so successful that it is now one of the main sponsors of the parade. In the last three years, the KC Irish Fest has also given out $120,000 in cultural grants.
And the festival has a unique way to support local Catholic parishes.
“We provide them the opportunity to man one of our bars to raise money for their school and parish needs,” said O’Connor. “Each one of the six bars is run by a different parish.”
Byrne can attest to the fact that the KC Irish Fest is the best in the nation.
“We play them all,” he said. “And the hospitality and facilities of the KC Irish Fest are the best. It’s just the way things are done here.”
“It’s a tribute to all of the organizers and volunteers who put so much into it all year around,” said O’Connor.
To promote the event, the Irish Fest has a spot along cottage row on the parade route.
“We’ll be launching our new Web site that day and letting the media outlets know we’re almost halfway to the Irish Fest,” said O’Connor. “People can stop by cottage row and get information.”
On your way there, keep an eye out for Byrne leading the parade.
“I’ll march up front and wave to everybody,” he said. “I want it to be a nice sunny day, and I want everyone to come out and have smiling Irish eyes.”
“No foolishness along the sides of the streets,” he added. “Everybody be safe and have a great day!”