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Stepping into Butte’s annual Irish festival

An Rí Rá gears up for its 17th season

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The An Rí Rá Montana Irish Festival is gearing up for another showcase this weekend in Butte, and organizers say the event will draw crowds from the Mining City, to be sure, but also festival-goers from across Montana and out of state.

That’s according to festival organizers Frank Walsh and Brendan McDonough, who said this weekend will mark the 17th run of the annual festival.

Stepping into Butte's annual Irish festival

Irish step dancer Kevin Doyle shows off some classic dance moves at the Lexington Gardens in Uptown Butte. Doyle, a recent recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts national heritage fellowship award in Irish step dance, says he learned his moves from his mother who immigrated from Ireland in 1930 to Providence, Rhode Island. "My mom used to say roll back that rug and let's not let that music go to waste," says Doyle. He will host a Gaelic-style dance workshop for the An Rí Rá Montana Irish Festival on Friday beginning at noon at St. Mary's Church in Butte.

Running Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the event will get festival-goers tapping their toes with lively Irish music and dance while also getting them out in the sun with a nail-biting game of road bowling.

The music lineup for the event will bring performers from both near and far.

Included in that lineup is Padraig Allen & The McLean Avenue Band, Ken O'Malley, Dublin Gulch and The Whileaways — a band from Ireland that draws from Irish roots music, which Walsh described as “a little different” from the ballads most Americans associate with Irish music.

“It’s almost like Americana for the United States, but it’s traditional Irish music,” said Walsh.

Also performing over the weekend will be Irish step dancer Kevin Doyle, Butte and Helena’s Tiernan Irish Dancers, the Anaconda Aisling Academy of Irish Dance, and dancers from Chicago’s Trinity Irish Dance Company.

McDonough and Walsh said Trinity Irish Dance performs all over the world and its dancers have won numerous awards. Normally, the two said, An Rí Rá features students from the company’s academy, but this year marks the first time the festival will host professionals from the dance company.

The founder of the company Mark Howard, along with its associate director Chelsea Hoy, will give a presentation on the founding of the company and its evolution at 10 a.m. Friday at the Covellite Theatre, 15 W. Broadway St.

Also presenting a lecture Friday will be Tom Sweeney, who will discuss the history of Irish ballads at noon at the Covellite Theatre. Hailing from Ireland, Sweeney will perform during the festival with Brian Doherty and Kevin Evans from Nova Scotia.

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“They do all of the traditional ballads,” said McDonough, adding that the three “are incredible together on stage.”

Some might be surprised to know that An Rí Rá got its start not in Butte, the oft-called most Irish city in America, but Missoula.

It ran in Missoula for about three years, Walsh and McDonough said, until a group of volunteers from Butte took the festival over and brought it to the Mining City, where it has celebrated Irish culture ever since.

Irish Festival 2018

Addison Crawford, 7, right, Grace Lyden, 7, center, and Trabee Carpenter, 7, await their turn on stage during the 2018 An Ri Ra Irish Festival at the Original Mine in Uptown Butte.

For the most part, the two said, the same core group of volunteers that got together all those years ago continue to maintain the festival — an aspect that both organizers say they find fulfilling.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, and it’s my favorite weekend of the entire year,” said McDonough.

Even years when the festival was hampered by bad weather, he continued, organizers have been able to “pull something really magical together.”

“We’ve always found a way to keep the ball rolling and keep it on track,” he said.

As for Walsh, he encouraged anyone looking for something to do over the weekend to attend the festival.

“You don’t have to be Irish to have a good time,” he said.

“But it helps,” he added.

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