The East Durham Irish Festival takes place in the most ridiculously Irish town this side of Galway. As we drove down Route 145 in Greene County on Memorial Day weekend, we passed a sign declaring we were entering “The Emerald Isle of the Catskills.”
I had traveled with my girlfriend Jody down to Kingston to pick up my friend Mairead McElroy for the occasion (“Mairead pronounced like ‘parade,’” she always had to clarify), who boasts a proud Irish background. Jody is the opposite. She’s from England.
A pint of silver tequila burned a hole in my pocket as we drove. I’m aware this isn’t the most Irish liquor available, but I had my concerns about brown booze.
“I can’t drink Whiskey anymore,” I said. “It makes me fall asleep.”
“I can’t drink Whiskey anymore,” Mairead piped in. “It makes me wanna fight people.”
We passed a cluster of businesses in the center of East Durham, most Irish-themed — The Shamrock House Tap Room, the Ireland Gift Shop, Hogan’s Motel (“NOT just another Motel”) McGrath’s Motel (“Irish Breakfast”) and the Our Lady of Knock Shrine.
The festival was on the grounds of the Irish Cultural and Sports Center off Route 145, where a few hundred people gathered to celebrate a country most of them had never been.
During the height of the George Dubya era, I traveled around Europe, and had to put up with a lot of crap from Europeans, who all seemed to assume I was directly responsible for the invasion of Iraq. You can only say you voted for the other guy so many times.
The only country where I didn’t have to deal with upturned noses was Ireland, where everyone seemed to love Americans. There’s always been a certain connection between the two nations, and of the 14 countries I’ve visited, Ireland is the most like our own.
We were meeting our friends Teresa and Ed at the festival, though Teresa voiced concerns about the location of the event, saying it was “Trumpy.”
“Oh, is that a word we’re using now?” I shot back over the phone. “That’s just how we’re defining things these days?”
She had decided to come along anyway, and waved at us through the chain-link barrier at the festival’s entrance.
Inside the festival, the air was crispy with the scent of things frying: vendors offered fried dough, fried onions, fried fish, fried chicken, fried fries, fried Oreos, fried Snickers bars and of course, fried Twinkies.
I subtly took a belt of tequila as Jody came back with an order of fish n’ chips. The fish was heavily breaded, so the meat comprised maybe 30 percent of the dish, and Jody kept peeling off layers of the crisp breading and giving them to me until I told her to stop.
Feeling the effects of the tequila, my eyes wandered to the various rides the festival offered. Then I saw it: a goddamn bouncy castle.
I love bouncy castles, but I’m rarely allowed to enjoy them because I’m a full-grown adult, and the proprietors of these things don’t want a 175-pound man body body-checking the shit out of four-year-olds on their ride.
Mairead and I walked up to the ride’s operator with a plan.
“Hey!” I said unctuously. “Is this a…child-only castle?”
“Well, I realize why we shouldn’t be on there with kids, because we would just completely take them out, but what if the two of us adults did the next round alone?”
The operator rubbed the stubble of his goatee and peered into the distance from the crate he was squatting on.
“I dunno…I’d have to think about it.”
“Take your time!”
“There was this group of teenagers who tried to get in — I mean, I’m a teenager too, I’m 18 — I told them they couldn’t go on, so they left, then came back and rushed the entrance and I had to shove them out.”
A group of children suddenly stampeded toward the castle and the operator gave us a no. I was very jealous of those children.
The festival was mostly a kind of Celtic bazaar, with vendors selling various wools, flags, family crests, cabbie hats, CDs, silver jewelry, birth stones and other Irish bric-a-brac. Families wandered about the booths and through the tents consuming black Guinnesses and steaming corndogs. Bands played Irish tunes from three different stages, and the music swirled together between tents into a mellow cacophony.
As hard as I looked, I could find nothing with the surname “Hannigan” emblazoned on it. I’ve never met anyone with the name I’m not directly related to, and I’m beginning to think the name was Anglicized oddly on Ellis Island and does not exist outside my extended family. If there ARE any Hannigans out there, feel free to email me to disprove this.
A group of distinctly non-Irish South Asians were giving out free samples of a new energy drink beside one of the music tents. The drinks came in a multitude of high-impact flavors and tasted like soda, which made them OK in my book.
The drinks’ labels gleefully informed me they contained 4,900 percent of the recommended daily value of Vitamin B12, which seemed like overkill, but not enough for me to not purchase one.
“Buy two!” one of the men suggested. “It will make you dance twice as good!” He gestured to the vacant dance floor.
The combination of off-brand tequila and experimental energy drink made me need to pee badly, so I danced over to the trailer-like building housing the bathrooms. The New York Wildlife Rescue Center had a booth set up outside displaying a gaggle of raptors: a Harris Hawk, a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Turkey Vulture, among others. The birds scowled despondently at the line of bathroom-goers. They were all rescue birds and were positioned there to pull on the heartstrings of potential donors waiting to crap, but ended up giving the festival a sort of medieval air, as though the birds were being sold to carry messages between castles.
The Irish Cultural and Spots Center boasts the largest map of Ireland in the world. It’s traced out on the ground of a broad field near the festival, with flags on massive poles announcing all 32 counties of Eire.
I stood in the outline of County Cork — the land my Mother’s family came from, or so I was told. It was generations ago, and to my knowledge, there are no connections between us and the Old Sod. It’s difficult to have an ethnic identity when, like most Irish-Americans, your family’s roots are obscured by so much time. Things like Irish festivals attempt a connection, but there’s so much American in the way you end up with things like booths selling Bloomin’ Onions.
Back at one of the music tents, a little boy tipped over folding chairs to cheers of approval from a random drunk dude while the boy’s father looked on wrathfully. Two couples waltzed lustily around an otherwise empty dance floor as everyone else looked on.
Mairead was staring at the remains of her Bloomin’ Onion in disgust.
“I’m deeply in regret,” she moaned.
It was about time to go. I took a swig of tequila for the road (Jody was DD’ing) and looked back over whatever it was I had experienced — a slice of Ireland, or as close as you could get an ocean away and a century removed.