The Galway Oyster Festival Street Parade includes a Mardi Gras-style masquerade. // © 2014 Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival
While St. Patrick’s Day celebrations draw hordes of travelers to Ireland each March, the island hosts a slew of other festivals that keep the party going long after the St. Paddy’s parades die down and the green beer runs out.
“There is a festival in Ireland just about every weekend,” said Fiona Dunne, Tourism Ireland’s promotions manager for the U.S. “It is literally a country of festivals.”
Whether clients are looking to experience food, music, theater, literature, comedy, street performances or horse racing, Ireland has a festival to meet their needs. The country also hosts a variety of niche festivals, such as the Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival and the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival.
“Ireland’s festivals tend to be wonderfully casual in that people who come from abroad get to not just view the festivals, but participate in them,” said Bernard McMullan, publicity and communications executive at Tourism Ireland. “Festivals that allow a consumer to get close to the community and close to the people are the ones they really enjoy.”
For travelers planning to dodge the St. Patrick’s Day crowd, here are some of the top festivals to check out.
Cat Laughs Comedy Festival
May 29-June 2
Created in 1995 as an outlet for Ireland’s comic talent, the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival now attracts more than 30,000 visitors to the charming medieval city of Kilkenny. The festival offers a packed lineup of Irish and international talent, including world-famous stars and break-through acts. This year, the festival welcomes back comedians Dara O Briain, Tommy Tiernan, Des Bishop and Ardal O’Hanlon, who will all perform at the 20th Festival Birthday Party on May 29 to kick off the events.
Galway Arts Festival
Last year, the Galway Arts Festival attracted more than 160,000 visitors from Ireland and abroad with its 160 performances and exhibitions. This year’s festival hopes to match that turnout with the world premiere of the play “Chapatti,” performances by indie rock bands The Coronas and The National and other offerings in music, comedy, literature and art. The most memorable part of the festival, for many, is the amazing street spectacles — including the Royal de Luxe and the annual Macnas Festival Parade.
Kilkenny Arts Festival
The Kilkenny Arts Festival brings together more than 500 artists from 21 countries in one of Ireland’s largest interdisciplinary arts festivals, and more than 28,000 visitors flock to the city each year to enjoy the shows. The festival was founded by a group of classical music enthusiasts 40 years ago but has since expanded to include events in theater, film, dance, literature, visual arts, street performance, children’s entertainment and, of course, music. Despite its broadened scope, the festival continues to deliver some of the world’s best classical music performances.
One of Ireland’s quirkier festivals, Puck Fair revolves around an unusual main event: the coronation of a wild mountain goat. Continuing a 400-year-old tradition, the citizens of Killorglin in County Kerry hold this three-day festival — complete with street performances, fireworks displays, puppet shows, circus workshops, music and dance — which begins when the lucky goat is paraded through town and a local schoolgirl chosen to be “Queen Puck” crowns him “King Puck” for the duration of the festival.
All-Ireland Music Festival
As the world’s largest festival of traditional Irish music, the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann (All-Ireland Music Festival) showcases the best music the country has to offer. The festival will take place in Sligo this year, and the lineup includes concerts from Ireland’s leading musicians and new artists, a full schedule of pub sessions held throughout the week, competitions and family events.
Dublin Theater Festival
Sept. 25-Oct. 12
Now in its 55th year, the Dublin Theater Festival showcases the best of Irish theater and brings some of the world’s finest performers to Dublin. The festival offers a multitude of plays to choose from — performed by celebrated theater companies and newcomers alike from Ireland and abroad — as well as music, dance, family events, talks, public discussions, works-in-progress showcases and artist development programs. In the past, the festival has hosted performances by such theater greats as Vanessa Redgrave, Fiona Shaw and James Cromwell.
Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival
Perhaps the most prominent food festival in Ireland, the Galway International Oyster & Seafood Festival features the “Seafood Trail” of restaurants serving Galway’s freshest oysters and the World Oyster Opening Championship, also known as the Oyster Olympics. Visitors at the festival can enjoy various talks, tasting events, food producer tours and cooking demonstrations, as well as the Mardi Gras-style Festival Masquerade, where masked festival-goers feast their way through the streets.
Guinness Cork Jazz Festival
With more than 1,000 musicians performing 400 sessions at 70 venues, the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival is Ireland’s largest jazz event. Each year, some of the biggest names in jazz — including blues, bebop, Dixieland, electronica, swing and jazz rock musicians — come to the festival to perform their music. Visitors can also get feedback on their vocal skills from top jazz educators at the Singers’ Corner, take free classes at the Jazz Camp and participate in amateur workshops in order to join the Jazz Festival Choir.
To learn more about Irish festivals, Dunne recommends that travel agents attend one of Tourism Ireland’s “Jump Into Ireland” events in the U.S.
“These events really convey the spirit of Irish festivals because we use music, drama, food and entertainment to sell Ireland to travel agents in the U.S. market,” Dunne said. “We’re basically using all of the ingredients of an Irish festival to tell the story of Ireland.”
When it comes to booking trips to festivals, Dunne suggests that agents consider working backward.
“A good way to book an Ireland vacation is for travel agents to find out where the client wants to visit, and then based on that they can layer the itinerary with festivals,” she said. “No matter where you go or when you go, there’s always going to be a festival in Ireland.”