September 11, 2015

Festival celebrates 20 years of Irish blessings of faith, family, fun

Participants in the Indy Irish Fest hold hands during the praying of the “Our Father” at the Sunday Mass, a tradition that begins the last day of the festival which is on Sept. 17-20 this year at Military Park in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Participants in the Indy Irish Fest hold hands during the praying of the “Our Father” at the Sunday Mass, a tradition that begins the last day of the festival which is on Sept. 17-20 this year at Military Park in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Mary Coffey laughs as she describes the way she ended up being in charge of what she considers “the largest parish picnic” in Indianapolis.

“You know how they ask for volunteers, and everyone else takes a step back?” she says with a laugh.

Actually, you could trace Coffey’s role as the chairperson of the 20th annual Indy Irish Fest to two major influences that marked her childhood in the home of her parents, Michael and Genevieve Coffey.

“I loved to hear the stories of the ‘kitchen parties’ at my dad’s house when he was growing up—how the relatives came over and brought their musical instruments, and how they sang and danced into the wee hours.”

Then there was the role that the Catholic faith played in her life—and still does.

“It was ingrained in the way we were educated. It was a daily thing in our house. Prayers at meals. Prayers before going to bed. Our faith brings us together in celebrations. It brings people into the world and sends them off.

“It all makes for a very good conversation when people talk about their lives and they mention they’re Catholic, especially Irish Catholic.”

All those elements—family, music, dancing, celebration, memories, stories and faith—will flow together when the Indy Irish Fest is held on Sept. 17-20 at Military Park in Indianapolis.

Coffey has been a volunteer for all 20 Indy Irish Fests, including serving as co-chairperson or chairperson for the past 15 years. Brian Cunningham has also matched that streak in a different way, being the only musical performer who has played at every Irish festival in Indianapolis.

“I’m proud of my heritage, just like someone would be from Germany or Japan or any place else,” says Cunningham, who moved from Ireland to the United States—and Indianapolis—in 1977. “America is a place where each culture should share its heritage and be proud of it, too.”

Cunningham is proud that everyone in his family has been involved in the Irish Fest through the years.

“My wife Audrey is master of ceremonies on the main stage. My son Chris plays in the band with me,” says Cunningham who leads the group, The Irish Airs. “And my daughter Kathleen danced down there many times.”

For Cunningham, the feeling of family includes the musicians from around Indianapolis, the country and Ireland who perform at the Irish Fest. And the connection extends to the people who enjoy the performances and the overall festival.

“The festival is a more authentic portrayal of Irish culture than St. Patrick’s Day,” he says. “There’s just a whole cultural feel to it, from the food to the Gaelic games to the music and dancing. It’s great to see people from other backgrounds come and join us, too. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

So is Coffey, who notes that the year-round effort to prepare for the festival is done by an all-volunteer staff.

“It’s just heartwarming that so many people are involved in the event,” she says.

“I love it when we throw a party and people come and have a great time, especially when it’s centered around the Irish culture. We get so much positive feedback, especially from families. We like to think of it as the largest parish picnic in the city because so many families come early and stay late.”

One of the most defining memories for Coffey happened in 2003, shortly after then-Indiana governor Frank O’Bannon died in mid-September at the time of the festival. His lieutenant governor, Joseph Kernan, subsequently became the state’s leader.

“The very first public appearance of Joe Kernan as governor was at our Mass on Sunday morning,” Coffey notes.

This year, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin will celebrate Mass at the festival at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 20. The archbishop is the grandson of Irish immigrants and the oldest of 13 children whose parents provided a firm foundation of faith and family.

“Having him here will make it a wonderful celebration of all things Irish and all things Catholic,” Coffey says. “It will make our 20th festival all the more memorable.”

Coffey pauses, smiles and adds, “And I expect him to enjoy himself, too.”

(For more information about the Indy Irish Fest, visit the website,

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