Having grown up in the Milwaukee area, I can sometimes take for granted things like the music and cultural festivals we have available to us every summer at the Summerfest grounds. Summerfest itself is a bit newer to me, but I’ve come to appreciate it (in spite of the overwhelming crowds, difficult parking and high density of alcohol). I saw a few bands I love there this summer and was so impressed — not just by the beauty of those particular concerts but by how cool it is to have this beauty so accessible to us. For a reasonably priced general admission ticket, I could stroll between stages where multiple high-quality bands were playing the fruit of years of labor. In spite of the stress of crowds, it is moving to share that experience with so many other people who are also seeking that beauty.
The festival I grew up with and have always loved is Irish Fest. As the oldest of six kids, I grew up with the very specific roster of events that are reasonably achievable with a big family. Irish Fest, while still quite an operation to pull off when we were young, made the cut. On Sunday morning of the festival, you can bring some nonperishable food items to donate as the cost of your admission for the day and attend Catholic Mass in the largest venue on the grounds. From there, we would bounce around to all the variations of Irish music and dancing on the different stages, always including the Ceili dance lessons and the various stops designed for children. Though, with young children, we would usually peter out — exhausted and sweaty — around mid-afternoon, it was a beloved part of my childhood and is an event I still look forward to every year. It was one of many Irish things that formed me as a child — singing Irish music, taking Irish dance lessons, etc. — and all of those in combination had a profound impact on me. Although I did not actually make it to Ireland itself until about a year and a half ago, I already felt (if somewhat inexplicably) that the shape of my heart is Irish. Actually being in Ireland only deepened that feeling.
There is something so specific and so beautiful about Irish music — I think it has something to do with how inextricably it weaves together both joy and sorrow. Much of what I did in Ireland was to walk around in beautiful places (like the shores of Galway Bay) and listen to the Irish music that had been with me my whole life, in the country that it actually came from. Although it was not unexpected, it was wild and beautiful to experience feeling at home in a country I had never been to before. I made contact with a part of my story that I had not known and saw the country that had formed my ancestors and therefore also formed me. Growing up in modern America, the cultures of our heritage can feel distant and somewhat irrelevant, especially if, like me, you are many generations removed from those who first came here. My experience both in Ireland and (more unexpectedly) in Germany, was tiny and brief but so striking. I felt a deep connection to these places I had never been to before and realized experientially how much these cultures have shaped who I am.
Based on my brief experience, I would certainly recommend visiting the actual countries of your origin. In the meantime, it is beautiful to also have a taste of some of these cultures available to us on the lakefront in Milwaukee every summer. Encountering these rich cultures can give us at least some small sense of the larger story that has formed us.
Encountering these cultures can also make modern American culture feel, to me at least, a little bland and unrooted. America is young and enormous, and while it can feel quite lacking in culture when held up to other older ones, I think Summerfest is a touchpoint with something fundamental about our culture. Just like in every culture, music makes up some central piece of our shared way of living. American culture can sometimes feel like it is all angry politics, social media, and mental health problems with maybe some fireworks thrown in. But countless crowds flock to Summerfest every year to encounter something beautiful. It is not the folk songs of our ancestors, but it is authentic art that is the fruit of the same essential human experience.
Now, more than ever, people are thirsting for authenticity. I find that in a particular way in Irish music and culture. I think we can all find it in the cultures that shaped our stories back through the centuries. Whether it’s Ireland, like it is for me, or some other combination of countries, I hope you get to experience the unique coming home of encountering a culture that you came from. By coming to know our own roots — understanding our stories — maybe we will not only feel more rooted and grounded individually, but also be able to build a more vibrant modern culture in America.