Off Stage ~ Putting on the O’Ritz

Off Stage ~ Putting on the O’Ritz
John O’Brien, Jr.

This is my 33rd year with Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival​. My dad started the festival, but I started, doing the parking! After college I graduated to doing the food, then onward, and some say, upward, from there. I have been Deputy Director for near on 2 decades. In many ways, it gets easier each year, though we add more and more. In others …


Last year we made many significant changes, but the biggest for me, especially evident this year, was the development of our Creative Team. Separate from our board of directors, they are charged with brainstorming; developing and implementing new things to attract new people and more people. They have so far exceeded expectations that I just sit back and say Thank you – to God and to them.

Some of the load is lifted, freeing me up take on other challenges. Bi Monthly meetings led to monthly meetings led to 2 weekends of massive painting of our Irish Village storefronts that lead to Temple Bar. The 2nd was the 17th – 19th, the weekend before The Fest. 15 people, including new artists, joined us and their craft is amazing. The Village leading to Temple Bar has doubled this year; God willing, next year too.

We decide to do PR in house this year, as no one knows our festival, or cares as much, as we do. T’was a good decision, as the crowds and response attest. Tuesday appearances on New Day Cleveland, The Morning Show, Spotlight on 5, Willis & Snyder – who were both live and also recorded an interview that ran several times all week; and Nolan, Malone & Kulick (4 and 0 Baybee) were fun and effective; Gary Dee from Ch 3 came out live and did interviews and the weather from The Fest for several hours; The New Barleycorn​ appeared Live on shows both Saturday and Sunday morning of The Fest too. Huge Thanks to all our media and vendor partners and all our many friends, performers and supporters for doing what was required, then doing even more. We are finally making headway in seeing those supporters share The Fest on Social Media; maximizing the power that sharing offers to spread the word of The Fest to audiences and potential attendees.

During The Fest, I usually take 6 consecutive days vaca from the Sheriff’s Dept., starting on the Tuesday before. After all the media appearances Tuesday morning, we race out to the grounds and start on building easels as we direct the unloading of the trucks to their correct building, hoping to move things less often. “When the sun goes down o’er Cleveland town, the colors last for hours oh! The lights come on, the night’s a song, and the streets all turn to gold”. Home late, I print things we need for the week, I then took a break to proof the 1st draft of the August issue of the Ohio Irish American News​. 28 pages of bliss.

Wednesday was set up day, and went really well. Our all-volunteer workforce came ready to roll. I am a firm believer you have to attack hard work. The analysis, best practices stuff has already been done, now, it’s time to attack. Lifelong volunteers move about without needing direction, and the buildings went up –we have to do a time lapse of that someday – t’would be very cool.

We were way ahead, despite less volunteers this year. I shifted the auld brain to do another proof Wednesday night as the OhIAN began to take shape. Late, I then fell into the Hot tub and drifted for hours – ok, 15 minutes.

After a quick meeting at the Entertainer’s hotel, we then wrapped up most of the setup on Thursday, near on 6pm. It was quite peaceful amidst the madness as we sat back and chatted with Whiskey Tasting Coordinators Ann Powers-Calvey​ and Sheila Farkas, who also volunteered to distribute Volunteer T-Shirts as volunteers came out to the grounds to get them (and the super duper secret of what color they are this year, is revealed).

I only lost one thing last weekend (besides lots of sweat, lots of skin and a little blood etc… ) – it was by far the most valuable and the most damaging; one completely smashed hearing aid. I always put them in a case in my pocket when I get up in the morning, post shower wet ears and hearing aids do not do well together. A heavy box being leveraged hit my thigh and crushed the delicate little $2,000 window to music and voices. Somehow the right aid, resting right next to the left one in the case, wasn’t even scratched; so there’s that! Later that weekend, my cooler disappeared too. Don’t worry, it was empty, but Dad found it today.

Richie Reece​, of Brigid’s Brigid’s Cross​ and a partner in The Hooley House – Brooklyn​, invited the entertainers out for a fest kickoff dinner – the meal was fantastic, and the conversation magnifico! We don’t often get to chat with the performers at The Fest as we run from cliff to cliff. A good dinner, loads of laughs and those great convos were the perfect prescription for kicking off The Fest just right. Thank you, thank you, Cara Butler​, Alyth​ McCormack, Jon Pilatske, and especially Richie for welcoming the great folks and taking such good care of us all.

Friday is our polish up day, making sure things work, look good, and are accessible. Beer, pop, food, ice and more roll in, sometimes at the EXACT same time…

WMMS of iHeart Radio sent radio personality Charlie out for Friday’s Happy Hour and the kickoff with Celtic Rockers Carbon Leaf​. Hooley Hour’s Bridget Linton​ and Josh kicked off the Rock Stage Saturday and Sunday too.

Beverage Distributors’ Rita Gaertner​ was amazing – such a dynamo and not only sees the big picture, she can see opportunities within it too. She and Greg added so much to this festival, I decided I am going to clone her. New Craft beers this year featured Guinness Blonde, Smithwick’s​ Pale and Millersburg Vienna Lager –and were a great success! Yes, I quality tested them all …

Friday crowds were big, vibrant and pulsing with energy and fun that is everything you want, and everything we work so hard to generate. No amount of money will buy it, only quality highlights within will earn it.

Tis tradition to have a nice cigar with friends at the end of each day. Kevin McDonough, our food coordinator, knew of my ritual and brought me a bodacious one to wrap up Friday with. Best laid plans … didn’t allow Saturday or Sunday, but man, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of doing that.

Despite it being the first day, all the fires and firsts, I was still able to leave the grounds not too long after half midnight. My body was holding up well, tho moving slower; the broken auld back, however, had much griping and burning to bother me life. Since this was the first time I was able to see our performers up close this year, I easily muted it with hugs, conversation and a few songs and tunes till 3, before that nagging little voice chirping, Go To Bed, finally won out.

Saturday was like Friday, but way WAY bigger. By now most of you have heard about the Foam Glow race going on in and around the racetrack Saturday night. We had no choice, but the organizers of it were professional, courteous and very flexible. We made the best of it. We couldn’t use from the grass by the back Pavilion, back, all weekend. Since we could only set up the tent once; we had to squeeze: the Harp, food court, and Miller stages from the grass to the midway, got a bear hug.

I was worried especially about the soft voice of Frances Black​ being drowned out, but she more than held her own. There is a load of power in that woman, both musically and in accomplishment that directly makes the world a better place, for her being here. I sat down with Ronan Tynan​ on the same subject, and his response was vintage Tynan, classy, powerful and not to be messed with: “Don’t worry about it; this is OUR party, I will take care of it”. One of the great Gentleman in this business – awesome.

The most significant fallout, and the thing that I am most sick about, was that we had to close all Eastland Road parking on Saturday to Irish Fest patrons. This caused inconvenience and lost patrons throughout the day, but massive exit problems at the end of the night. We exhausted our choices, but still, I am sorry for all that people had to go through. Progressive Field, The Q, The Browns and I suppose Blossom and other large venues all deal with long wait times to get out, but it was first of this degree for us. We will fix it.

At 9:30 or so, we opened the gates to Foam Glow runners and many came thru. A young girl asked me for garbage bags to save her car seats from ruin, and I was able to locate some for her. She then told me I was a blessing. Under a mandate to provide the best experience we can for our guests, it caught me by surprise. I was not able to answer her before she headed off to her car, but as the weekend continued, that song humming in my head and moved the Irish mist from my eyes; it became very symbolic to me: how many blessings I found, or I should say, that found me, throughout the coordination and development of the festival all this year. They came front and center, encouraged; it was oh so apropos.

I got off-site around 1am, but 3am came so quickly! Joanie Madden​ is one of my all-time favorite people. Joanie is the driving force and founder of Cherish the Ladies​, celebrating their 30th year together, and has been a mentor to me over 3 decades as I try to find ways to add value to our festival. She has played all over the world, seen and given so much, and like me, cares little for glamor over substance. All those closest to me share a trait of direct and honest communication – we are not big on lots of words, passive-aggressive communication or games – we share because we care, not to get a pat on the back. On Saturday Joanie and I had a brief chat, heavily punctuated with laughter and a pepsi or three, but Sunday we had a mighty good conversation, she gave me strength.

I love the taste of a McDonald breakfast, but for obvious reasons, never eat it, outside of festival weekend. Stumble from hotel bed to Breakfast every day for their Bacon Egg n Cheese Bagel Value Meal w Large coffee is a lift and a pleasure as I gather thoughts and strength for the day. 51 weeks to the next McD’s! It’s another hug I guess.

The biggest hug of all is Sunday, for we always start off The Fest with Mass. Our whole festival family gathers on a bleacher; stays together, prays together and seeks the peace of God, amidst the pain and the fashion. Sunday was an amazing day, full of music, family and a deep love of our heritage, our faith and each other, brought Live and in full green, white and orange tinted color.

I always resolve to” see more music next year”, but that is not my focus, so usually part of a song or two is all I can get. All four bands new to us this year got tremendous response. Ashley Ashley M. Davis​, Runa​, Frances Black and ENNIS (Maureen & Karen)​ were fantastic additions and loved by everyone that heard them; gorgeous voices and notes; humor and dance where ever they roamed.

We close at 10:30p.m. on Sundays; I left soon after midnight. The after’s party was amazing and so memorable. Have you ever tried Kansas Whiskey? Oh man!

Julie Fitzgerald​ and Michael Holland went OFF on a dance rift behind the bar (the only place with a hard floor), the singing was beautiful, Cormac de Barra​ on Harp is the most mesmerizing thing to watch. I told folks that they are the reason people come to the fest, first for the music, but then, because of them and the friendships and goodwill they build. Better ambassadors could not be found. You are the reason, so I want to thank you for making this our most successful festival ever. Then I toasted that Kansas Whiskey! (again).

I arose Monday sore and happy; sad it was over; dreading the cleanup. We must be off the grounds by 5pm on Monday. 9 days to set up, 6 HOURS to take down, as we organized, counted, packed, taped, rolled and wrapped everything carefully, to lessen the work come next year. The cleanup went well and I was able to be at the storage as things came in, so I could put them away right (i.e. once), and spare my Pop having to muscle things when we reset for next year. The last box was stacked at 3:30.

Dropping off of loaned equipment and such took another hourish, but a shower never felt so good when we were done. Mindy kidnapped me for dinner at The Hooley House – Westlake​, where I had started the weekend on Thursday, and ended the fest (sorta), on Monday. The AC and the company were most welcome.

Home, couch and hot tub.

I have learned to take the Tuesday after The Fest off too – the wall of pain won’t really hit till Wednesday, but Tuesday gives me a chance to find my garage and living room again, sort what is there and apologize with tlc to the neglected lawn, flowers and hammock that can fill free time pre and post fest. I have also learned, while still going, to get it done. Yet, my heart ached for the music.

About 6 weeks before The Fest, our Fest Temple Bar performances Coordinator Maureen Conway Reich​ was gathering a group to go see the Galway band, We Banjo 3, at the fantastic Music Box Supper Club​, on the Tuesday after The Fest. But I bugged off, not too sure how the Rheumatoid and broken back would be after the holy havoc that is The Fest. I felt relatively ok, so I joined Kati Gryn​, Maureen, Amanda Murphy​, Jim Kilbane​ Shannon Corcoran, Erin Homan​, Erin, Kevin Mccluskey​, Rasa Palunas Chambers​. Marilyn Madigan​, Dave Neige​, Beth, Roger S. Weist​ and opening band The Portersharks​ at Music Box. So glad I did. We Banjo 3 has loads of personality, LOADS of talent among the foursome -2 sets of Howley and Enda Scahill​ Fergal Scahill​ brothers, so I am glad I bucked up and went, they are just flat out fantastic.

Wednesday was back to work at the Sheriff’s Department. Hard to come down from such a high, yet I must – for it is only 257 days till The 34th Annual Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival.

Please share your story with me; thank you for allowing me to share mine with you.
Follow me, where I go:

Please tag away too!