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4 Days of Great Music, Theatre & Storytelling on 6 Stages

Frank BradleyInterview with Festival Chairman Frank Bradley

– Daniel P. Smith for Sun-Times Media

Over the last 30+ years, there’s a scene Frank Bradley’s enjoyed more than a few times at Irish Fest, the annual celebration of Irish culture and friendship at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest.

“When it’s a beautiful evening and the place is packed, I’ve been able to stand back on the stage and look out to see thousands having a good time and know I played a part in bringing that enjoyment to life,” said Bradley, one of the founders and principal leaders of the spring time ritual that enters its 34th year in 2020.

For Bradley, who dedicates dozens of volunteer hours to Irish Fest each year, a smooth-running family festival sparking smiles and memories is all the reminder he needs to assure that his physical, mental, and emotional labor has been worth the commitment.

“I’m just thrilled to see a big group of people having a good time,” he said.

Prior to the first Irish Fest in 1987, leadership at the Irish American Heritage Center on Chicago’s Northwest Side and Gaelic Park decided to combine their efforts to produce an Irish cultural festival in downtown Chicago.

After a brief three-year run in the mid-1980s at Olive Park near Navy Pier, the distinct organizations thought it better to create their own festivals to maximize the celebratory mood. Gaelic Park would host its Irish Fest in the spring, while the Irish-American Heritage Center would run its event later in the summer. The South Side contingent tabbed Bradley as Irish Fest’s first chairman.

“They figured I could do it and I suppose I thought I could pull it off, too,” said Bradley, a homebuilder and father of four. “But I was blessed with a board that supported me and so many were full of energy, power, and only saw one direction for our event.”

Gaelic Park hosted its first four-day Irish Fest on the facility’s football fields, mixing two stages of live entertainment with food, drink and carnival rides.

“We got maybe 5,000 or 6,000 people and were delighted,” Bradley said. “We looked at this as just the beginning of a learning process.”

Fest spreads its wings

Confident in the demand for a South Side Irish festival, Bradley and Gaelic Park leadership charged ahead in future years.

Not long after the inaugural Irish Fest, Gaelic Park purchased an adjacent seven-acre parcel to serve as the festival’s grounds. In 1998, after years of bussing festival attendees from scattered off-site parking lots, Gaelic Park purchased another adjacent 25 acres to hold guest parking. These purchases, Bradley said, provided Irish Fest the space and amenities it needed to craft an efficient, enjoyable festival for patrons.

Over the festival’s 33 years, Irish Fest has added more stages with headline acts, expanded its budget, and witnessed a 10-fold increase in attendance.

“We expanded as we saw a need and as the demand grew,” Bradley said. “We built a monster even if we didn’t realize it.”

And Bradley’s been there every step of the way in virtually every role — booking bands, placing tables and chairs, directing traffic, and handling a variety of event troubleshooting projects.

“I’ve done just about everything but bartend,” Bradley said, though he’s quick to send praise to a volunteer army that approaches 500. “The volunteers and the committee leaders, they’re the real backbone of the festival.”

Now, tucked into his role as the unofficial patriarch of Irish Fest, the 65-year-old Bradley stands eager to reflect on what drives the annual festival’s success and its push into a 25th year.

“Everybody likes to be a little Irish and Irish Fest offers that opportunity to celebrate in a safe, friendly environment for a great value,” he said. “And it’s no secret as well that the Irish like to have a good time.”

While acknowledging that much of the festival’s success lies in the hands of Mother Nature, organizers have taken steps to ensure a good time despite the elements. Tents now enclose stages and seating, and tarmacs and walkways throughout the festival are now covered.

“We’ve learned our lessons over the years,” said John Devitt, president of Gaelic Park. “We’ve done our best to weather-proof the fest and to make it as enjoyable to everyone as possible.”

Preparing for the massive undertaking is a monumental task, and one that couldn’t be done without the tireless and dedicated commitment of scores of volunteers. The Irish Fest also serves as a major fundraiser for Gaelic Park.

Thanks to ALL who make it possible!!!!!!!!!

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