Event Review: Church Hill Irish Festival – March 21-22, 2015

The Church Hill Irish Festival just wrapped up its 30th year in Richmond, Virginia and is holding its own in a city that seems to have a food or cultural festival for every week of the year.  Usually held the weekend after Saint Patrick’s Day, it has grown from a small fundraiser for the local Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church, to a four city block affair that attracts about 15,000 folks over the course of a weekend, closes down traffic in the area for two days and raises money for a variety of local and national charities.

The Saint his own self.
The Saint his own self.

Each day of the festival starts with (as I was assured by one of the marshals) the world’s shortest parade. Proceeding for only two city blocks, it nevertheless encompasses appearances by a number of local heritage groups, several pipe and drum bands, police and firefighter societies, and a variety of local Irish and Celtic dance troops representing both traditional Highland dancing and more modern Riverdance-type styles. And of course, Saint Patrick himself will make an appearance, accompanied by a (chocolate) coin-tossing leprechaun. All stop and perform in the intersection of East Broad and 25th Street, so my advice is to arrive early and either find a space in one of the crosswalks or go up into the corner of the Saint John’s churchyard for a birds-eye view of the proceedings.

There are a number of vendor booths selling both local handicrafts and traditional Celtic goods. If you are looking for that perfect piece of Irish jewelry or need an accessory for that kilt you picked up along the way, this is a great opportunity to find it.

The food choices seem to expand annually.  This year found everything from homemade yeast donuts made on site by a local Mennonite family, to lamb sliders with pickled onions from Rare Olde Times pub. There’s carnival food and kettle corn for the kids, and the ladies of Saint Patrick’s will naturally be on hand selling baked goods. There was even a raw oyster stand. My personal preference is the handheld savory pies from The Proper Pie Co. who have taken advantage of their location right there on East Broad Street to set up a stand right outside their shop to sell a limited selection of their wares on the festival days, but there is something for every taste somewhere on site.

And of course, it wouldn’t be an Irish anything without a good variety of beer.  Loveland distributing sets up trucks at three locations on site. In addition to the usual Guiness, Harp’s, and Smithwick’s, this year also saw the addition of cider for the non-beer inclined.  The stands are run entirely by volunteers and all tips go to Saint Patrick’s Church. There are also other options, including wine and hot Irish Coffee (a necessity some years as mid-March weather in Virginia is notoriously unpredictable, I have been there when it was sunny and 75º F and when it was 40º F and pouring rain).

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Baldrick’s Babes!

Three stages are set up, two primarily for live music and one that is mostly for dance exhibitions.  Bands range from traditional Irish pub music to modern rock ensembles.  Most that I heard this year were pretty darn good, and certainly knew how to keep the crowd engaged. The main stage also hosts the festival’s annual Saint Baldrick’s Foundation head shaving event. This year over $75,000 was raised for children’s cancer research at this location alone. It’s good fun for a good cause.

This is definitely a family-friendly event. While there is alcohol served, I’ve never seen the crowd get rough or rowdy and there are a lot of folks who bring their kids back every year. There is a section of park set aside for children’s activities. This mostly consists of a set of multiple bouncers. Unlimited admission to the bouncer park can be had by way of a wristband, which was $10 this year.

If you bring kids, I advise arriving early, when the crowds are thinner, just to keep things more enjoyable for them as lines are short and there are fewer worries about losing track of them amongst the crowd.  This also lets them see the parade, which is definitely a highlight from a kid point of view.  Generally, I’d advise arriving before the parade at 10, then leave after the Saint Baldrick’s shave (usually about 2-3 PM) as this is when the foot traffic really becomes too heavy to move through comfortably. I’d say the same applies if you are there to browse the vendors, as it’s much easier to get into booths and see things during the morning hours. Street parking fills quickly, and is at a premium by 9:30 or so, but there is also a free shuttle that runs from a lot at 17th and Broad. The festival is located on far East Broad Street at the top of Church Hill, the recommended donation for admission is $5.

Overall this remains one of my favorite festivals in RVA, and I will definitely be back again next year!

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