Where else in the Florida Keys can you feel like you are transported to another culture, and even another time, than at the Florida Keys Celtic Festival in Marathon? The lively event attracted thousands of visitors, including a slew of out-of-towners over the two-day weekend, with Scottish and Irish foods, entertainment, and even a bounce house for the little ones.
The festival was a fundraiser for The Hammock House Youth Programs at St. Columba Episcopal Church, a free after school and camp program. The Celtic Festival kicked off with a pre-party at Dockside Boot Key Harbor on Jan. 6 with revelry and music from West of Galway Duo and Police Pipe and Drum.
The ensuing two days saw Marathon Community Park transformed into a Celtic Village abuzz with people. Visitors were first greeted by a Celtic-themed arch. At $12 per adult (children under 12 were free), individuals, couples and families enjoyed a slew of activities and shopping opportunities from local, Scottish and Irish vendors. Some of the notable wares to be admired and acquired were colorful long Celtic-style dresses, tartans, kilts and a place called Children’s Armory which sold children’s toy weapons. Another purveyor carried leather handmade journals which were exquisitely crafted, complete with embossed covers and handsewn bound paper. Florida Keys vendors were also there, like Florida Keys Apiary, showcasing local honey and soaps.
Under a larger tent Taylor’s Croft, a large authentic Scottish and Irish import store based in Colorado, sold everything from Highland Whiskey Honey soap to authentic tartan kilts to canned haggis, to sweet, jarred preserves. While you shopped, Scottish Highland bagpipers wearing traditional garb played their instruments.
Speaking of whiskey, for adults, the Guinness Stout and Scotch whiskey did not stop flowing. The Nessy Pub lent a cozy, pub-like atmosphere and The Table provided the food. If alcohol was not your cup of tea, you could enjoy a traditional Tea with a capital T, served by Celtic maidens. If you were also famished, you could be served scones and cream, black currant jam and tea sandwiches.
Traditional Scottish clans showcased their heritage at each of their tents, while another tent featured clothes for dogs with a large sign emblazoned, “Stop dog nudity.” It had all kinds of skirts, jean jackets and everything usually seen on homo sapiens in the 21st century.
Throughout the day, Craigmalloch Farm entertained spectators with their sheepdog herding demonstrations. Strongmen and strongwomen demonstrated their feats of strength with the caber toss, open stone put, hammer throw and sheaf toss.
Drake Irish Dance, one of the most prestigious Irish dance schools in the U.S., left the audience in awe with their precision and beauty. Before and after the dancers, Scottish band Albannach had everyone toe-tapping with its unique sound (there’s a didgeridoo!) as did West of Galway, “Southwest Florida’s premier Irish party band.” Bag-piping Fort Lauderdale-based Police Pipe and Drum Corps of Florida, the Byrne Brothers (originally hailing from Dublin and now living in Orlando, Florida) and The Screaming Orphans, an Irish band full of verve, offered traditional music with a modern pop and rock flair.
Children were treated to fun Celtic games, bouncing the minutes away in a bounce house. Joey’s Mini Doughnuts were on hand to keep their taste buds satisfied, and smoothies to refresh and hydrate were available.
For authentic Celtic heritage fare, Scotch eggs, shepherd’s pie and delicious, flaky Guinness beer-battered cod were provided by the Holy Grill of St. Nicholas, while the Roses Fish and Chips were also to die for.
At noon on Jan. 8, runners and non-runners alike participated in a Zero K Nessie Run, which could also be called a zero-judgment run, as there was no training or skill required. The after-party was the draw, where everyone could rehydrate and recover from arguably one of the world’s shortest runs – all in keeping with the fun and games at the festival.
For history buffs, the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot (Black Watch) was standing at the ready in case any United States privateers wanted to attack – in this section of the park it was the early 1800s after all – their uniforms with red coats and white and red knee-length socks striking. They explained and showed the weapons used during the time of the American rebellion. The 42nd Highlanders are still in service to this day, even though the days of American rebellion and privateers are long gone.
Nearby were more historical reenactments with a lady and a spinning wheel teaching some girls about the art of spinning wool. Next to her a Civil War-era medic wearing a blood-spattered apron, walked curious visitors through the ghastly steps in amputating limbs, sans anesthetic. Their knowledge was vast on all things British Florida, which even though it lasted only 20 years, had an impact on our state.
Whether you have Irish or Scottish roots or not, the Florida Keys Celtic Festival offers a showcase of the two cultures, linked through its rich tapestry of Celtic traditions which delights and enchants.
Photos by SANDRA LEE PHOTOGRAPHY/Keys Weekly. See more photos at sandraleephotographystudio.com.