In Lexington, Irish eyes to smile for two days

This year's St. Patrick's Day Festival will be twice as long, with more activities, including a Rose of Tralee pageant and a hurling exhibition

Contributing Culture WriterMarch 15, 2012 

  • IF YOU GO

    St. Patrick's Day Festival events

    All events are centered at the CentrePointe block, bordered by Limestone and Main, Upper and Vine streets, unless otherwise noted. All are free unless otherwise noted. Learn more at Lexingtonstpatsparade.org, Lexingtonceltic.org and Bluegrassirishsociety.org.

    Shamrock Shuffle 3K: 8 a.m. March 17. Downtown Lexington (starts on Short St. near Cheapside; finishes on Main St. near Cheapside). $25 registration. Shamrockshuffle3k.com.

    Festival: 1-9 p.m. March 17, noon-6 p.m. March 18.

    Parade: 3 p.m. March 17. Along Main St.

    Mass: Noon March 18, with the Rev. Patrick Fitzsimons.

    Rose of Tralee: 2 p.m. March 18, with crowning at 6 p.m. Lexingtonceltic.org.

Rashers and sausage rolls. Barry's Tea. Galaxy bars and Wine Gums. Ribena. Soda bread.

Americans might not recognize many of these terms, but they are the kind of grocery items that fill a typical customer's basket on an ordinary Saturday morning at Fáilte Irish Import Shop, an Irish-owned store on South Upper Street in Lexington that imports food and retail merchandise from Ireland.

In the 10 years since it opened, Fáilte — which means "welcome" in Irish — has become an unofficial hub of Lexington's Irish community, offering Irish immigrants a taste of home and Irish-Americans a place to connect with their heritage.

This year, shop owner Liza Hendley Betz, a native of Dublin, is expanding that hub by helping to organize the largest celebration of St. Patrick's Day that Lexington has ever seen: The festival is expanding from one day to two.

Betz, who founded the Lexington Celtic Association, teamed with Bluegrass Irish Society president Bill Enright to launch the new festival featuring music, dance, food, sport, children's activities and vendors.

The festival will be Saturday and Sunday in the CentrePointe field — across the street from Fáilte and the popular Irish pub McCarthy's.

The festival coincides with St. Patrick's Day staples — the Shamrock Shuffle, a 3K run early Saturday morning benefiting Habitat for Humanity, and the 33rd St. Patrick's Day Parade on Saturday afternoon — it will include new events that Betz hopes will become popular attractions each year.

Here's a rundown of those new entries.

The Kentucky Rose of Tralee

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,

Yet 'twas not her beauty alone that won me.

Oh no, 'twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning

That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

So goes the 19th-century ballad often credited to William Pembroke Mulchinock, a song that inspired one of the largest and longest-running festivals in Ireland, the Rose of Tralee International Festival.

The summer festival, in a town in western Ireland, draws tourists and contestants from around the world to enjoy street entertainment, a carnival, concerts, theater, a circus, markets, fireworks and a parade. The centerpiece of the festival is the crowning of the Rose of Tralee, a young woman of Irish descent who will travel the world as an ambassador of Irish culture.

Cities with strong Irish communities around the world hold competitions, sending winners to Ireland to represent their region at the festival.

This year, Kentucky will send a Rose for the first time.

"One of the reasons we started it was that there is a strong Irish community here, and we wanted to make it stronger and this is one way of doing that," Betz said. "They have it in Boston and New York, and we thought, why can't Lexington have it?"

The Kentucky Rose of Tralee competition will be Sunday afternoon. WLEX-TV meteorologist Bill Meck will emcee. Judges include Irish singer Mai Hernon, author Tom Wallace, Smiley Pete Publishing editor Robbie Clark and reigning Mrs. Kentucky Elisha Ballard.

The Rose of Tralee is not a traditional beauty pageant; it's a personality competition. The contestants include women 28 or younger who are judged on personality, confidence, communication skills, character and charisma, aptitude, presentation and overall suitability.

"It's all on their personality and how they carry themselves and how well they would represent Kentucky and Ireland," Betz said

The winner of the Kentucky Rose of Tralee will travel to Ireland in May to compete in regional finals. The regional winners will return to Ireland in August to compete for the global title of Rose of Tralee.

"The festival has been going on for 50 years," Betz said, "and it's a really big deal in Ireland. It will change the winner's life to get to travel to Ireland and have this experience. Plus, if she wins, she gets to travel the world for a whole year to represent Irish culture."

Hurling

Another highlight of the festival will be a demonstration of one of the world's oldest field games: hurling.

Immediately after Saturday's parade, or about 4:15 p.m., local hurlers will play a mini-match in the CentrePointe field.

Hurling is an ancient Gaelic sport that involves using a stick called a hurler to hit a ball called a sliotar into the opponent's goal.

Hurling has been played for more than 3,000 years, is a fixture of everyday life in Ireland and is played in Irish communities around the world.

Catholic Mass

March 17 has become an international holiday celebrating Irish culture, but its roots lie in religious history.

The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, is credited with bringing Christianity to the polytheistic Celts. According to legend, he used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Christian trinity.

The Rev. Patrick Fitzsimons, parochial vicar at St. Luke Catholic Church in Nicholasville, will conduct a Mass at noon Sunday in CentrePointe field to commemorate the religious origins of the holiday.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer.

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