Sure, George Washington used to trot up to Alexandria now and then to sling back a pint at Gadsby’s, and the young Robert E. Lee pranced down Oronoco Street in his knickerbockers, but did these iconic Alexandrians ever do anything for their city to compare with John Fitzgerald?
Pat Troy wants to know why this native of County Wicklow who emigrated to Alexandria has been left “down there at the bottom of the pile,” of the city’s historical figures. So when he talked about the Ballyshaners’ upcoming Irish Festival on Aug. 5, he stressed first and foremost that it will also mark “John Fitzgerald Day.”
Before reeling off the activities at the festival, Troy insisted on reeling off Fitzgerald’s accomplishments: he was George Washington’s aide-de-camp. He built St. Mary’s Catholic Church. He founded the city’s first bank and the first library. He was keeper of Alexandria’s port, as well as its mayor.
Fitzgerald was clearly a man of distinction, but if you’re wondering how one should celebrate his illustrious legacy this John Fitzgerald Day, it’s simple: drink a Guinness in the sunshine. And listen to some good music while you’re at it. The Ballyshaners will make it easy for you.
ON SATURDAY, Aug. 5, the 25th Annual Irish Festival will be held at Waterfront Park (which, by the way, Troy hopes to change to “John Fitzgerald Park”). The festival was created as the main fundraiser for the Ballyshaners’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Mike Tiddy, president of the Ballyshaners, said it typically attracts 10,000 to 15,000 people. He said the Ballyshaners is a non-profit group “whose main mission is to promote and preserve Irish heritage in the Northern Virginia area.”
Because the festival is free, the Ballyshaners rely on festival-goers to thoroughly celebrate John Fitzgerald Day in order to raise funds for the parade. “We sell the beer,” Troy explained.
Vendors will also sell crafts and food like lamb stew and corned beef sandwiches.
“You’ll see some crafts that you won’t see anywhere else,” said Sean Gallagher, the Ballyshaner who organized the vendors. For instance, personalized “Highland Bears” with clan tartans. “That’s something you won’t just run into on the street,” Gallagher said.
For people looking for something less fuzzy, there will be hand-designed Celtic jewelry and the opportunity to have Scottish and Irish names etched into glass and surrounded by their heraldic symbol.
BUT THE MAIN draw will be the music. 14 performers will take the stage throughout the day including the Boyle Irish Dancers, Double Down, the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums, Lieutenant Col. Down Division A.O.H. and the Flying Cows of Ventry. “[The children] love the Irish dancing schools,” said Troy. “All the dancers get up there and they’re pounding and banging the stage.”
Gallagher described the Irish balladeers and musicians playing, “squeezeboxes and guitars and mandolins and banjos and fiddles and that sort of thing.” He said his favorite part of the festival “is probably the music and the fact that you’re right there on the river. There’s always a nice breeze.”
For Tiddy, atmosphere is everything. “Everybody’s usually in a great mood and enjoying the music and enjoying the fun. It’s fun to just sit back and watch the crowd enjoying themselves.”