Discovering the Australian Celtic Festival
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I attended the Australian Celtic Festival for the first time.
Despite having lived in and around Glen Innes since 1995, I’d somehow managed to miss its flagship festival event until I was in my early 30s and no longer living in the area.
Held each year in May, the festival transforms my otherwise sleepy corner of the New England into a bustling hub of Celtic pride. Kilts and knobbly knees are on prominent display, bagpipes become the soundtrack for a few days, and the town’s impressive Standing Stones Monument is transformed into a festival of sights, sounds, and smells.
With media pass in hand and an empty SD card, I woke up on that chilly autumn morning and made the trek in from Ben Lomond to Glen Innes to see what the festival had to offer.
About the Australian Celtic Festival
An annual event celebrating the region’s Celtic roots, the Australian Celtic Festival takes place each autumn in Glen Innes and celebrates a different Celtic region each year.
This year’s festival celebrates the Isle of Man (and all things Manx), while last year saw the Welsh being celebrated most prominently.
The four day festival is highlighted by two days of food, music, and celebration at the Australian Standing Stones Monument overlooking the town, but it’s a town-wide celebration featuring musical performances, parades, demonstrations, craft classes, history lectures, and a whole lot more.
361 days a year, Glen Innes is just a country town with a Celtic name.
Four days out of that year, though, it goes full Celtic and embraces it in all of its tartan glory. It’s actually pretty magnificent.
By far the highlight of the Australian Celtic Festival for me is the sheer variety of entertainment that it brings to the town.
While Glen Innes occasionally gets ‘big’ Australian acts like Thirsty Merc to swing by our local race course or Services Club for a gig, it’s fair to say that there’s not a whole lot of variety in the entertainment scene for most of the year.
The Celtic Festival changes that, bringing in dance troupes, pipe bands, folk music acts, and historical re-enactment enthusiasts to lend some frivolity to proceedings.
Highlights on my visit were the honest song-smithing of Clodagh, the ethereal harp and singing of Siobhan Owen, and the never dull sword fights and melees put on by the New England Medieval Society (NEMAS) lads.
Each year’s programme is packed to the gills with performances though, and the real challenge is figuring out which of the pavilions to be in at any given time (and making sure you’re at them early enough to get a seat).
A big part of any culture is its food, and I find discovering local cuisine to be one of the best ways to soak in a culture. Whether I’m taking a Thai cooking class or going on a Singapore food crawl, I love to immerse myself in the tastes of a country or culture.
My first criticism of the Australian Celtic Festival, at least in 2015, was the near complete lack of Welsh cuisine on offer. While there were plenty of food trucks selling everything from pizza to ice cream to an Aussie sausage sizzle, there was a sad lack of Welsh food to be consumed.
I know absolutely nothing about Manx cuisine, but I imagine it’s going to be harder to find vendors of than Welsh was. Perhaps the food is best in years when they’re celebrating more mainstream Celtic cultures like Scotland?
The Australian Celtic Festival is also a site for competition, and there are a number of competitions that attract competitors from across the country to perform in front of the crowds.
These competitions include the Australian Celtic Dance Championships, a Strong Man competition, and the Celtic Country Yard Dog Competition.
While I wasn’t lucky enough to catch any of these last year, I’m hoping to see some of the feats of strength at the strong man competition this year.
Wherever there is a festival, there is obviously going to be an opportunity to sell your wares. The Australian Celtic Festival is no different.
From local craft-work to tartan to books to CDs from the performers, there are myriad stalls looking to catch your eye as you wander the concourse and take in the sights.
Not being much of a shopper myself (unless it’s beer or video games), I didn’t partake. Much of the merchandise on sale tends to be targeted at the older visitors, and I know my folks have bought themselves a thing or two in the past.
Of course, the biggest part of the festival is its celebration of Celtic culture, and people from all across the country come to get in touch with their ancestry or just soak in a culture that helped shape early Australia.
Whether your idea of experiencing this is wandering the NEMAS camp to see how we once lived or roaming the rows of clan tents where you can learn more about your extended family, the festival does a great job of embracing not just the culture it’s celebrating that year – but Celtic culture as a whole.
For me, it was best exemplified by the feeling I got when I stood in the chill afternoon air in the shadows of the Standing Stones and listened to the massed pipe bands from across eastern Australia play a series of hauntingly beautiful tunes.
The crowd’s quiet approached a reverence reserved for holy occasions, but isn’t there just as much spirituality in communing with one’s heritage and ancestors as there is in communing with a sometimes uncaring God?
Australian Celtic Festival 2017
The 2016 Australian Celtic Festival is just around the corner, with festivities going from the 4th – 7th of May. This year, the festival will be honouring Ireland.
My visit to the 2015 Australian Celtic Festival was arranged by the Australian Celtic Council.