Goderich's Celtic Roots Festival delights, enchants audiences
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
This past weekend, Goderich’s Harbour Park was filled with the spirit of the ancients as it played host to the 31st annual Celtic Roots Festival. The three-day celebration featured world class musical performances, an international, outdoor food court, an artisan market, and unique workshops for visitors of all ages. A team of over 200 volunteers worked to make the weekend a smashing success, and thousands of guests came from all over North America and overseas to participate in the experience.
There were many Celtic-themed craft workshops on offer, including a chainmail boot camp, faerie wreath and goddess headdress making, mosaic craft and violin repair. A special children’s craft area allowed young people to get creative with stones, glitter and found objects. The face-painting station was very popular with many of the children in attendance.
Spidermen and Tigers tried their hand at step dances, and Dragons were spotted eating pizza in the shade of a catalpa tree. The artisan market featured intricate chainmail jewelry, woodcut art, quilts, fairy doors, pottery, henna tattoos, photography and other fine art of all kinds.
Diverse culinary offerings kept festival-goers, performers and volunteers energized and restored throughout the weekend. Picnic tables were full of families enjoying hearty handhelds from Goderich’s own V’Sandwiches, and butter chicken poutine from Pabla’s Street Food of India. Pizza was provided by Grassroots Farm, which was on hand with its signature travelling oven. The Turkish treats from Toronto’s Bahaar Bazaar were a real hit with hungry crowds - providing refreshing dips, naan, vegetables and locally-sourced salads. While their hummus proved popular with patrons, the crowd favourite was definitely their muhammura - a delectable pepper dip served with warm naan. The owners of Goderich’s Maple Leaf Motel, Tahseen and Iqbal, teamed up with Khawla from Khawla’s Kitchen to bring Pakistani fusion cuisine to the masses. Their falafel, samosas and chicken rolls paired perfectly with the team’s quick service and flavourful fare. For those in the mood for a sweet treat, Mapleton’s Organic Ice Cream brought a rainbow of frozen favourites and Kintail’s Coastal Coffee provided doughnuts, croissants and other pastries alongside their hot and cold caffeinated beverages.
One of the many standout things about the Celtic Roots Festival is its educational component. In the days leading up to the main event, an intensive college and kids’ camp takes place, giving keen individuals the opportunity to learn and hone skills in music, dance and art from the talented coterie of festival performers who double as teachers for the week. “It’s a way for us to get the next generation involved,” explained Artistic Director Cheryl Prashker. “Every class gets 10 minutes to perform what they’ve learned during the week,” said Prashker. “For the kids, it’s dance, singing and playing instruments. They also did a play. It’s amazing. And they are all proud little kids, I’ll tell you that.” The hands-on and intensive college system is a unique extension of the Celtic tradition of transmitting knowledge directly down from one skilled individual to the next. For thousands of years, Celtic ways were passed down without writing anything down.
Prashker first became involved with the Celtic Roots Festival as a performer with her band RUNA in 2011, which is when she fell in love with the town of Goderich. Years later, when a sudden opportunity to help run the festival revealed itself, she jumped at the chance and never looked back. “I fell in love with everything Goderich, but the event as well, and the college environment. I asked to come back and teach every year.”
Any celebration of Celtic culture needs a strong musical presence, and the dozens of artists gathered in tiny Harbour Park last weekend delivered a truly tremendous exhibition of songs this year. Five separate stages utilizing slightly staggered start times meant that there was always something happening - guests could focus on entire sets at each stage, or let songs blend softly into each other as they wandered the grounds at will. “This is like an oasis in the year,” said Board of Directors member Ian Davies. “It’s something to look forward to all year. You can be with like-minded people, and just have a wonderful experience. It’s the friendliest festival I’ve ever been at.”
The Greeting Stage was home to bands and themed jam sessions throughout the weekend, and was adjacent to not only the entranceway, but also the pop-up pub, much to the delight of those quaffing a beverage. (Here’s to the charming gentlemen tending bar at The Celtic Cross!)
Wild, weird and experimental music emanated from the West Stage, tucked away in a tiny corner of the park, featuring fiddling femmes, Irish jams and strange minglings between members of RUNA, The Consequences, The Murphy Beds and Steáfán and Saskia, just to name a few. The West Stage also stood out for its proximity to Lake Huron - the shifting light of the setting sun was visible over the shoulders of the performers, and the smell of fresh water could be detected on the warm evening breeze.
The Kevin and Regina Dailey Stage (named in honour of longtime friends and volunteers of the festival) featured many great musical acts within a covered area as a respite for those needing a break from the resplendent weather. Mi’kmaq fiddler/singer Morgan Toney invigorated listeners with his one-of-kind interpretation of centuries-old songs, and Scotland’s Heron Valley blew people away with their bagpipe-infused stylings. The Dailey Stage also devoted the entirety of its Friday stage time to performances from the members of the Celtic College and Kid’s Camp so they could showcase their new skills. Scottish fiddle virtuoso Ryan Young played incredible sets throughout the whole weekend, but a stand-out moment for fans occurred on the Dailey Stage when a particularly loud horn blare from the harbour interrupted his playing, sending him off on an infectious giggle fit while attempting to soldier on with his set.
The banner-bedecked Main Stage was populated by an incredible slate of talent throughout the weekend. Friday’s acts included incredible performances from up-and-coming charmers Kinnfolk - this year’s Robinson Emerging Artist recipients. The award is named after event founders and local musical icons Warren and Eleanor Robinson, who remain festival participants to this day. Kinnfolk is comprised of married Appalachian Mountain dwelling duo Josh and Julie Kinn, who spent the festival pleasing those familiar with their music and impressing those who weren’t, and left Sunday night with an even larger fan base than they had when they arrived.
On Saturday night, the Main Stage was graced with the presence of the legendary Loreena McKennitt. A recent inductee to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, McKennitt‘s performance was a rare retrospective of songs from early in her career, focusing on traditional Irish songs. Her one-night-only set helped to draw in the biggest crowd the Celtic Roots Festival has ever seen, and her music was met with the reverence and joy of a collection of people who are well aware that they are part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “It’s been massive!” exclaimed Davies. “She plays live so rarely these days, and people travelled great distances to come and hear her play. Saturday night was probably double what we’ve had on a Saturday ever.”
There was one merch table to rule them all in the centre of the festival - in addition to the expected CDs, records, and t-shirts was an assortment of trees, from red maples to Kentucky coffee trees. It was a fitting addition to the collection of souvenirs - the tree is one of the most important Celtic symbols, representing humanity’s connection to nature. Some Celts even believed that man descended from trees long ago.
Each year since 1993, Huron County artist Linda Wiebe has created a piece of original art celebrating the animism of Celtic culture - 2023’s chosen animal was the frog. In Irish lore, frogs are the friends and helpers of fairy folk, and ancient tribes regarded the frog as a connection between life and death. Frog bones have often been found at Celtic burial grounds. The chosen animal is featured on t-shirts, and retired shirts from years past are resourcefully turned into a colourful recycled bunting to decorate the festival grounds.
This year’s Celtic Roots Festival may have just ended, but there’s no rest for the tireless and dedicated team behind the scenes. “The second this festival ends, we start looking for the talent and the teachers for next year,” said Prashker. Whoever ends up performing next year, it promises to be another enriching experience for music fans of all ages.