Dancers from the Drake School of Irish Dance perform at the 2022 festival. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

If you’ve ever watched the feats of strength at any Highland games – even right here in Marathon – and thought, “I could do that,” this weekend is your chance to put up or shut up.

This Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 7-8 will mark the return of the Florida Keys Celtic Festival to the Marathon Community Park. Canceled in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival roared back to life in 2022, and organizers have worked to add several major additions as it celebrates its 10th year in 2023. As always, proceeds from the festival will benefit the Hammock House at St. Columba Episcopal Church, a free after-school and camp program for Marathon residents.

Beloved staples of the festival will return, of course – from Friday’s kickoff party at Dockside Boot Key Harbor to Saturday’s sheep dog herding demonstrations and an ongoing Ladies of the Keys Highland athletics competition, one of the only events in the country to feature female Celtic games athletes. 

Performances by renowned returning musicians Albannach, the Screaming Orphans, the Byrne Brothers and more will rotate sets at the park’s amphitheater from open to close each day, with special additions by the Police Pipe & Drum of Florida and Drake Irish Dancers. A special “can’t-miss” caber toss event will close Saturday’s festivities at the conclusion of the live music.

Donnie MacNeil showcases his bagpiping talent during one of the band Albannach’s sets at the 2022 festival. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

But the second day of the festival will take on an entirely new life in 2023. Rebranded as the Celtic Sunday Family Fun Day, Sunday’s main event is a Highland games competition open to Marathon locals ready to test their Celtic mettle as they compete for cash prizes in four events. In partnership with Highland games organizer Bob Gourlay, the truly bold can even sign up for a Caber toss clinic – for the uninitiated, that’s the one that looks like throwing a telephone pole.

A “Zero K” Nessie Fun Run – shooting off at noon, with an afterparty scheduled for exactly one minute later – and a pet parade are both new additions to Sunday’s festivities, while a Celtic Crossroads area will feature a revolving door of culturally-themed activities from Celtic bingo to a children’s didgeridoo construction class with Albannach’s “DidgeriDrew.” And in a nod to the festival’s heritage, its final day will open with a Celtic contemporary worship led by St. Columba.

“I’m still most excited to see the people,” St. Columba’s Rev. Debra Maconaughey told Keys Weekly. “It’s such a great experience to see everybody gathered like that. We are really just trying to experiment a little bit.”

The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets purchased online in advance are $10 for one day or $15 for two days ($12 and $17 at the gate). Children 12 and under are free with a paying adult. Those interested in the local Highland games may register at Friday’s kickoff party at Dockside from 5 to 7 p.m., while “Zero K” fun runners can register by scanning the QR code here. For more information, including ticket sales, visit floridakeyscelticfestival.com.

Craigmalloch Farm’s sheepdog herding demonstration, a perennial favorite, will return. CONTRIBUTED


Friday, Jan. 6 at Dockside Boot Key Harbor
5-7 p.m. – Kickoff Party with West of Galway Duo and Police Pipe and Drum

Saturday, Jan. 7 at Marathon Community Park 
10 a.m. – Women’s Highland Athletic Competition
10:15 a.m. – West of Galway
11:15 a.m. – The Byrne Brothers
12 p.m. – Opening Ceremonies & Parade Led By Police Pipe & Drum of Florida
12:15 p.m. – Albannach
1 p.m. – Drake Irish Dance
1:30 p.m. –  Screaming Orphans
2 p.m. – Make a Didgeridoo with Albannach’s DidgeriDrew
2:15 p.m. – Police Pipe and Drum of Florida
2:30 p.m. – West of Galway
3:30 p.m. – Drake Irish Dance
4 p.m. – Police Pipe & Drum of Florida
4:15 p.m. – The Byrne Brothers
5:15 p.m. – Albannach
6 p.m. – Athletic Awards Presentation Ceremony
6:15 p.m. – Screaming Orphans
7 p.m. – Special Caber Toss Event on the Game Field
7:30 p.m. – Community Candlelight Compline


Ladies of the Keys Highland Athletics Competitions

Sheep Dog Herding Demonstration

Bingo in the Celtic Crossroads Tent

Sunday Jan. 8 at Marathon Community Park

9:30 a.m. Celtic Contemporary Worship
11 a.m. – Gates Open
11:45 a.m. – Police Pipe & Drum of Florida
12 p.m. – Zero K Nessy Fun Run
12:15 p.m. – West of Galway
1:00 p.m. – Pet Parade
1:15 p.m. – Drake Irish Dance
2:00 p.m. – The Byrne Brothers
3:00 p.m. – Albannach
4:00 p.m. – Screaming Orphans


Bingo in the Celtic Crossroads Tent

Children’s Celtic Games

Sheep Dog Herding Demonstration by Craigmalloch Farm

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.