‘It’s not all beards and kilts’: How the 2023 National Celtic Folk Festival has something for everyone

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‘It’s not all beards and kilts’: How the 2023 National Celtic Folk Festival has something for everyone

National Celtic Festival 2022. Credit: David Harris
Performers - Bush Gothic, Photo by Adam Purcell - Melbourne Ceili Camera, National Celtic Festival 2022, 10 June 2022.
Credit: Suzanne Balding
Photo by Adam Purcell - Melbourne Ceili Camera, [Festival Venue] - National Celtic Festival 2022, 12 June 2022.
Performers - Tolka, Photo by Adam Purcell - Melbourne Ceili Camera, Village Tavern - National Celtic Festival 2022, 11 June 2022.
National Celtic Festival 2017. Credit: David Harris
Credit: Suzanne Balding
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Three men walk into a pub. One is Irish, one is Scottish and one is Welsh. There is no punchline; they’re all just visiting Portarlington for the National Celtic Folk Festival.

From June 9 to 12, the National Celtic Folk Festival (NCFF) will be returning in full swing, bringing the best in Celtic culture to the shores of the Bellarine Peninsula. Across the long weekend, the diverse festival offering will be herding the traditions, talents and triumphs of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Breton, Galician and Asturian cultures.

Following a two-year Covid hiatus, the National Celtic Folk Festival reemerged last year in a condensed format, promoting our international relations and strong Celtic heritage rooted in the region. 

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Festival Director Una McAlinden explains, “Our event last year was a smaller version which was really successful and gave us renewed energy to know that people love the festival and they’re gonna come after the COVID years. So this year we’re pretty pumped about bringing it back in a full state. The successor built this sort of energy and momentum and fired everybody up again. I think we all needed to do something again after two years of cancelled events.”

With the emotional weight of ceased flying and disconnect from loved ones, the 2022 edition of the National Celtic Folk Festival took on a different meaning for the crowd, with the festival offering them an unexpected sense of belonging.

“You could just see how important it was for people to reconnect and to engage in their culture and the arts. We had a lot of people who hadn’t been able to go home, like to Ireland, and were missing families. So there was quite a lot of emotion last year and I was surprised,” says McAlinden.

A place of gathering, community, connections and celebrations, the National Celtic Folk Festival is set to hit a double-decade milestone next year. In their 19th celebration, they will be honing in on their well-rounded programming, dynamic talent bill and exciting performance offering to continue the meeting of lands.

“It is important to celebrate our heritage and culture and do it in a contemporary context as well. We diversify and trust that the arts program on offer will inspire and connect to our audiences and that our contemporary program has broad appeal. People are surprised by all that the festival offers and the diversity across genres to represent a modern take on Celtic and Folk culture,” says McAlinden.

Within that programming is a focal point of live folk and Celtic music with renewed and strengthened international input, varying from contemporary artist performances to jam sessions and the more traditional pipe and drum bands. Leading the first artist announcement are Scottish duo Rachel Hair and Ron Jappy, Irish songwriter Daoirí Farrell and Irish folk trio Sorcha Costello, Conor Connolly and Padraig Ó Dubhghaill, joined by Melbourne’s Zeon, New Zealand act Polytropos, The Jolly Tinkers, Charm of Finches, and local Wadawurrung duo, Faerfolke.

“We are honouring the commitment we made to artists three or four years ago, in bringing them to Australia. So we’ve got some internationals who have been waiting since before COVID when we booked them, so we’re finally bringing them back including Irish songwriter Daoirí Farrell. There’s a whole heap of Irish artists who are award-winning artists who’ve been waiting to come out to our festival ”

It’s not all Lord of the Dance fiddle and flute music. Celtic culture, heritage and music traditions have informed several modern bands and artists. Look at the styling of Dropkick Murphys with their modern rock take on Irish influence, The Corrs who climbed the commercial charts with their pop-rock Irish-rooted sounds or The Cranberries with the signature yodel of the wonderous frontwoman, Dolores O’Riordan. On a local level, Geelong’s own The Go Set are a perfect example of the melting pots of music with their combined traditional sounds of bagpipes, mandolin and banjos, with contemporary rock music. They too will be joining this iteration of The National Celtic Folk Festival. 

“There are punk and metal bands that say “we have Irish heritage and this is what we do with it”. Somebody might play bluegrass and they’ll say “our bluegrass tunes come from Celtic kings”. So if it is a really good fit we can bring new acts and something different for the audience. Each year we introduce new artists and will bring back some of the festival favourites – it’s about celebrating and showcasing arts and culture,” comments McAlinden.

In addition, the music program migrates with the workshop program, offering a range of fun and educational songwriting and professional development sessions for beginner and emerging musicians of all ages and capabilities.

The festival further boasts a diverse program of activities for patrons across over ten ticketed venues including theatre performances, Celtic martial arts, ceilis, dancing, markets, delicious food and drink, and around 60 workshops across these different mediums for their three days. There will also be the 2022 addition of the Heavy Games and, new in 2023, the ancient Gaelic Irish sport of hurling. 

The Heavy Games, also known as the South Pacific Highland Games Championship, will see female and male athletes from Australia and New Zealand compete to be the best in each class in traditional highland games heavy events. With the strength of one thousand Scotts, the athletes will compete in the heavy stone throw, the sheaf toss and fan-favourite the caber toss.

“Last year we introduced the Heavy Games with different competitions such as Caber Tossing and this year we’ve been talking to the Geelong Gaelic Games Association and the hurling group, and they’re celebrating 150 years of the rules of hurling, which actually began in Geelong. So it’s a new addition to our program and we will have a big celebration for them. There’ll be a parade, there’ll be all the traditions around hurling, there’ll be an exhibition of hurling,” she says.

From the land and out to sea, the festival’s favourite sightseeing experience, The Tall Ship, will be back this year, offering cruises around the beautiful Bellarine bay accompanied by an acoustic set with a festival band. 

“On the back of Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s like one big weekend of fun. We aim to provide all of the experiences possible within the Celtic folk umbrella,” reiterates Una McAlinden.

No traditional gathering would be complete without the gourmet treatment. Top it all off with some haggis, Irish stew, Guinness and some craic, and you have yourself a cracker three days!

The National Celtic Festival is running from 9 to 12 June 2023. Ticketing and program information can be found at www.nationalcelticfestival.com