Bernadette Winters knows a lot about the Savannah’s annual Tara Feis celebration.
She ought to, as she has either chaired or co-chaired the civic board that oversees the day-long salute to traditional Irish heritage, for every one of the sixteen installments since Tara Feis began in 1996.
“I was part of the original group that started it,” she says. “And we’ve been at it a long time!”
“It’s actually sponsored by the city, but they approached us from the start because they wanted the input of people who they hoped would know what our Irish community would like.”
So what does the local Irish community like? Well, according to Winters, they appreciate the publicity and economic boon that comes from the much larger St. Patrick’s Day celebration which centers around Savannah’s almost 200 year old parade, but they’re most appreciative of the public display of Celtic arts, crafts, values and entertainment. That’s where her organization and this family-oriented mini-féte (held at Bay Street’s Emmet Park) comes in.
“Tara Feis is a chance for people to see and hear great live entertainment without having to pay lots of money to do so,” she explains. “Our celebration is non-alcoholic, and it means a lot to large numbers of people to be able to avoid the revelry that many folks associate with the celebration. Families can come enjoy the park, and not have to deal with the craziness that goes on during the other festival. All you buy is your food and drinks. Everything else is totally free.”
It’s this easygoing and all-inclusive spirit which helps to attract a much more diverse range of spectators than the more adult-themed party atmosphere of the following week’s extended street party.
“We have babies and great grandmas out there,” Winters laughs. “We have folks in wheelchairs and on blankets. There’s arts and crafts with an Irish theme. There’s face painting and rides for the little kids. Parents can be outside all day long and their kids will have fun the whole time. It’s a great day for everyone. That’s what it’s all about.”
According to Winters, each year Tara Feis grows in scope and notoriety, and the positive feedback they received from last year’s crowd of approximately 20,000 people (over the course of the day) proves the organizing committee is taking the right approach. She credits locally-based acoustic troubadour Harry O’Donoghue with helping to set the tone of the day through his input on which musical acts to showcase.
“Harry’s a good friend and besides performing himself at the festival, he’s really the main reason we can attract such great, nationally-known talent. He’s in that loop and knows how to approach these artists. Plus, he travels often to Ireland and is always on the lookout for new and different acts to try and bring over here.”
“I’m really excited this year about The MacKenzie Project,” she offers. “I believe that will be phenomenal. About four years ago we booked a group called The Cottars, and Roseanne MacKenzie who leads this new group was only twelve years old then. She’s sixteen now, and one of the foremost Irish fiddlers in the whole country. Plus, Pauline Scanlon —who’s also in this group— is a very famous Irish vocalist.”
Staffing for the event is also strictly volunteer, but owing to her position as the Musical Director of St. Vincent’s Academy, Winters has something of an inside track on finding plenty of helping hands.
“Tara Feis is staffed entirely by student volunteers from St. Vincent’s and Benedictine Military Academy,” says Winters. “Now that we’ve been at this for so long, I’ve actually had some freshmen and sophomore face painters come back and bring their own kids! (laughs)”
Winters says that so far, despite a few light sprinkles that organizers jokingly refer to as “holy water,” Tara Feis has been blessed with beautiful weather each and every year and its never been cancelled due to rain.
“The highest praise I hear for our event is from folks who say they hate now that if they have out-of-town guests visiting, they have to choose whether to come for the parade, or Tara Feis. The parade is wonderful and certainly something to be behold, but this is more a day designed for our own community — to be proud of and deserve.
“For those seeking something a little different, it’s a great day for the Irish and those who like to call themselves Irish for a day!”
The 16th Annual Tara Feis takes place from 11 am to 5 pm Saturday in Emmet Park at the East End of Bay Street. All events are free, open to the public, and sponsored by the City of Savannah’s Department of Cultural Affairs. For more info: call 651-6417 or visit