Irish Cultural Centre’s 20th annual Irish Fest returns to its roots

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It may no longer be known as ICONS, but with top-flight entertainment, games, and a host of other activities, the Irish Cultural Centre’s annual Irish Festival remains an iconic event, featuring “the best of Irish culture.”

The 20th annual festival begins next Friday evening at 6 p.m., kicking off a three-day Irish extravaganza from September 17 to 19, held at the Irish Cultural Centre’s 46-acre Canton campus on New Boston Drive.

After having rock groups like the Dropkick Murphy’s and the Black Crowes perform at the festival in previous years, Vanessa Leite, the centre’s executive director, and Seamus Mulligan, the festival’s director and chairman, said the event looks to “return to its roots” in 2010, providing a family-friendly atmosphere and a wide range of activities suitable for any age range at an affordable price.

“We found it was very, very successful that way, and then when we decided to bring in much more costly entertainment, I think what we did was we forgot where we were coming from,” Mulligan said.

But don’t confuse returning to their roots as scaling back — Leite and Mulligan said the festival still boasts some impressive musical acts, including The High Kings, who Mulligan called “the preeminent member of Ireland’s next generation in Irish ballad music,” McPeake, the GlenGarry Bhoys, and the Andy Cooney Band.

The Andy Cooney Band will be the featured performer on Friday night, while The High Kings, McPeake, and the GlenGarry Bhoys will take to the Aer Lingus Stage Saturday and Sunday evenings. Popular local Irish bands like Erin’s Melody, the Gobshites, the Andy Healy Band, and Curragh’s Fancy will perform Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

“We were very fortunate to get some very, very high-powered headliners this year and still be able to keep the price affordable,” Mulligan said.

There will also be an Irish arts display tent, a genealogy tent, a children’s tent with various games, shows and crafts, and an Irish Cultural Centre library and authors’ tent with a wide selection of books and authors’ readings. Arthur Cola, Kyle Darcy, and Kevin O’Hara are some of the featured authors expected to make an appearance. Mulligan also said former Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger will be there to tout his book on Boston Irish-American politician James Michael Curley.

New to the festival this year is an Irish films tent, which will screen films all weekend. There will also be Irish step dancing, hayrides, and Irish games like Gaelic football and hurling, making for what Mulligan calls “continuous entertainment.”

A general admission ticket is $15 per day or $35 for a weekend pass, with children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult. On Friday, Canton residents, including town employees and Canton school system employees, will be admitted free of charge (proper identification required).

“We thought this would be our way of giving back to the town as a whole,” Leite said.

With about 15,000 people expected to attend over the course of the three days, Leite sees the festival as one way to create awareness for the Irish Cultural Centre itself.

“I’ve been told one too many times that we are a great hidden gem, and I think that part of having it here at the cultural centre is that we’ve become more discovered with the more people that come through the gate,” she said.

Mulligan credits a group of experienced and capable volunteers for helping to organize this festival. “As far as we’re concerned, we really do have this down to a fine art, so for that reason we feel quite confident,” he said.

Now all they have to worry about is making sure this “great streak of weather” continues for the festival, which is set to take place rain or shine.

“[The festival] is about as good as you’re ever going to get anywhere in the United States,” Mulligan said.

Added Leite, “We just want everyone who comes to leave with a great Irish experience.”

The 20th annual Irish Festival will take place Friday, September 17, from 6 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, September 18, from 11 a.m. to midnight; and Sunday, September 19, from noon to 9 p.m. For a more detailed list of performances, activities, and attractions visit www.irishculture.org.

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