You shouldn’t sleep on this March festival, and here’s why.
One of Elsie Crow’s children would pick her up from the Westport Nursing Home to drive her and her wheelchair into Church Hill where Elsie would peel potatoes and cut vegetables with other volunteers at the Church Hill Irish Festival.
“She was really church-oriented,” said her son, Bill Crow. “She just loved St. Patrick’s to death.”
A longtime parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on 213 N. 25th Street, Elsie volunteered for the Irish Festival when it began in 1985 as a fundraising event for church she loved. Even when confined to a wheelchair for the last seven years of her life, she was there peeling and cooking thousands of potatoes for Irish Festival attendees. This year, organizers of the 29th annual Irish Festival will dedicate the event to Elsie, who died last July.
But Elsie is just one of the countless people that’ve made the Irish Festival into what it is. Much of what it is is what it’s not. It’s not filled with green plastic hats, green beer, leprechauns, and other St. Paddy’s kitsch. It’s a city-wide festival with a community flare, said event organizer Stokes McCune.
“It’s either all members of the parish, or friends and family members of the parish, or neighbors from Church Hill” who volunteer to put on the festival, McCune said. “To me, that’s the beauty of it.”
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St. Patrick’s Church was in financial straits in the mid 1980s. Its community services, programs, and outreach had nearly exhausted church funds. Parishioners created the Church Hill Irish Festival in 1985 to raise money for the ailing church.
Having now grown to four blocks in size, the first festival was just one block long. “It was a small festival, but it was well-attended,” McCune1 said. With the help of the festival, St. Patrick’s finances rebounded. “The church has been able to pay off all that [old] debt and is good shape.”
McCune took over organizational duties for the festival in the mid 1990s. It’s since expanded its fundraising focus to include several other Church Hill organizations and groups.
In 2006, the festival was designated 501(c)3 status and has since donated over $400,000 to local groups and organizations like St. Baldrick’s Society, Church Hill Crime Watch, St. John’s Church, St. Peter’s Meals Program, and more.
Bill Crow, who graduated from the church’s now defunct high school in 1967, said the people of St. Patrick’s are bound among a strong community. “It’s a fellowship,” Crow said. “They’re…dedicated to each other.”
That dedication has made the Church Hill Irish Festival one of Richmond’s premiere festivals. And also one of the most authentically Irish.
“We have a lot of folks from Ireland come and help us with the festival,” McCure said. Guinness once sent representatives to teach beer servers how to properly pour a pint. The beer maker is one of only a few national and local vendors with the right heritage to participate. “We turn away a lot of vendors that are not Irish or [don’t have a] Celtic background,” McCune said.
As in previous years, attendees to this year’s Church Hill Irish Festival (March 22nd – 23rd) can feast on an Irish lasagna, made of corn beef, cabbage, onions, and more. “People love it,” McCune said. “They stand in line for it.” Poe’s Pub will provide corn beef sliders, and West End pub Rare Olde Times will also sell food. Fish and chips, chicken, hotdogs, hamburgers, and more will also be available. “We have something for everybody,” McCune said.
Malachy McCourt, the brother of Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela’s Ashes, will be in attendance and serve as the Grand Marshall for the festival parade on March 22nd at 10:00 AM. McCourt is appearing on behalf of the McShin Foundation, a Virginia-based recovery resource for alcoholics. McShin has has organized Sober St. Patrick’s Day, a special section at the festival wherein people can socialize without the presence of alcohol, and where McCourt will discuss his own alcoholism recovery.
In addition to the food and beer, music is instrumental to the festival. “Musicians and bands all play for free,” McCune said. “They all do it out of the goodness of their hearts.” Several of those musicians will be harpists competing against one another inside St. Patrick’s on March 22nd at 1:00 PM. Saturday’s lineup also features pipe bands and Irish dance.
The second day of the festival, Sunday the 23rd, begins with the Hill Topper 5k, which benefits various Church Hill organizations. Later performances in the day will also include Irish drums, dance, and pipes. A $5 donation will be collected on each day.
McCune hopes the festival increases its attendance number over last year’s. “We would love to get 25,000 – 30,000 over the weekend,” he said.
Regardless of total attendance, everyone that does come out can expect a good time, says Bill Crow.
“It’s a good, big-time block party,” he said. “People just having fun all over the place.”
The Church Hill Irish Festival runs Saturday, March 22nd to Sunday, March 23rd at Broad and 25th streets.
- He estimates that his wife’s family has been attending St. Patrick’s since the 1860s. ↩
photo courtesy of the Church Hill Irish Festival