by Carolyn Kaberline
TOPEKA — The day may have been cloudy and cool, but that didn’t stop the celebration. In fact, the sounds and sights of Irish Fest were everywhere March 12 — from the Mater Dei School drumline’s rendition of “Rock On” and “Boom Boom” to the delighted squeals of children as they picked up candy thrown by parade participants. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration had something for everyone.
And, of course, there was plenty of green to be seen.
Now in its fifth year, the first Irish Fest was born “a little bit out of necessity” said Brandon Eakes, this year’s Irish Fest chairman.
“A few friends from Mater Dei Parish had attended [Topeka’s St. Patrick Day] parade together in 2011 and, after a failed attempt to get a table at one of the local eateries, left downtown to seek other options, as did many of the other parade-goers,” said Eakes.
“Over a pint, we discussed the opportunity to create an event that would encourage people to stay downtown after the parade,” he said. “We also saw this as an opportunity to close the gap between two former parishes (Assumption and Holy Name) that had recently merged to become one. This would be our first event that was original to our new parish.”
Although 2012 marked the 33rd anniversary of the St. Patrick Day parade, there was no actual Irish Fest up to then.
“A women’s group at the former Assumption Parish had long held an Irish stew dinner in the basement of the church after Mass, which had historically been held near midday or just before the start of the parade,” said Eakes.
“Initially, our desire was to utilize the former school playground adjacent to the church to offer a safe and family- friendly environment where patrons could enjoy a traditional St. Patrick’s Day libation and possibly a quick bite to eat,” he continued. “One thing led to another, and we soon realized we had a hit on our hands.”
And what a hit it has become. This year, Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast even proclaimed Eighth Street between Kansas Avenue and Harrison Street — the site of most of the day’s festivities — be renamed St. Patrick’s Square in honor of Irish Fest this year.
The day’s activities began with Mass at 7:30 a.m. followed by an Irish sing-along in the church. Next came a 5K fun run and a one-mile walk. Added to the day’s activities in 2013, this run has developed into one of the largest in the city, with some 575 entrants in this year’s event.
Other activities for the day included a carnival for kids, an opportunity to taste several Irish whiskeys and a chance to sample some Irish foods.
With the addition of a second stage this year, attendees could also listen to the Kansas Territorial Pipes and Drums, as well as the traditional Irish music of Fraoch, the contemporary Irish music of the Kelihans, and The Donkey Show, which presented “bluegrass with an Irish twist.”
The Driscoll School of Irish Dancers also entertained the crowd with traditional Irish dance steps.
“Members of our Irish Fest committee attend various festivals each year, including the Kansas City Irish Fest in September, and we also check out bands that perform at various venues here in Topeka,” said Mary Tritsch. “If we think people who attend Irish Fest will enjoy their music, we work to get them here.”
In addition to the events sponsored by Mater Dei, the Great Topeka Bed Race, a fundraiser for Housing and Credit Counseling, Inc., takes place as part of Irish Fest activities.
“We like to think that all the activities that take place downtown on St. Patrick’s Day or the designated celebration day are part of one big Irish Fest that encourages people to come downtown, have fun and celebrate together,” said Tritsch.
Of course, no celebration of St. Patrick’s Day would be complete without the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Led by Mater Dei pastor Father John Pilcher, flanked by fourth-degree Knights of Columbus Jack Figgs and Doug Martinek, the parade included floats sponsored by families, businesses and several nonprofit organizations.
With proceeds from the Irish Fest benefiting Mater Dei Parish and those from the 5K fun run benefiting the school, the annual event has become an important fundraiser for both.
“The Irish Fest Fun Run has become an important source of funding for our school, and we use the proceeds to make our academic programs even stronger,” said Andrea Hillebert, Mater Dei School principal.
“For our parish, Irish Fest is an important fundraiser that allows us to meet our mission in downtown Topeka,” she added. “It is also a wonderful opportunity to invite the whole city to this community event.”