The Greening of O’nnapolis

There may be nothing quite as rousing as men in kilts wailing away on bagpipes — at least to Eddie McGowan.
    A group of bagpipers walked into a bar, and he was smitten. “I knew I had to learn how to play,” says McGowan, whose appreciation of all things Celtic has grown into the Annapolis Irish Festival.
    Back in 2010, McGowan talked a few bands into coming to Annapolis for a weekend of music.
    “That first year was tough,” says McGowan, whose fulltime gig is running a construction company. “We were just happy to not lose any money.”
    Many of the bands brought their own fan base to Annapolis for the inaugural festival. Bands returned year after year. So did fans.
    “I estimate we had maybe 4,000 people the first year, McGowan says. “Now we are looking at around 15,000.”
    O’nnapolis is their key to success, says wife Tracy McGowan.
    “There really isn’t anything else like it on the map,” she said. “There is no major Irish festival within five to six hours, other than Shamrock in D.C., which isn’t very family-friendly.”
    Annapolis Irish Festival is very family-friendly.
    “It’s not a drinking festival, like a lot of people think most Irish festivals have become,” she says.
    In fact, it’s a family dream come true: Good music, libations and a place for the little ones to run free with lots of activities.
    For the youngest festivalgoers, the McGowans created Little Leprechaun Land, open all day Saturday. Here, kids enjoy arts and crafts, games and bounce houses. Irish step dancers perform, a balloon animal craftsman entertains and volunteers from Floyd’s Barbershop paint hair the colors of the Irish flag. It’s fun and games and more. Kids take a step into Celtic culture as well, with a bagpipe instructor.
    McGowan was strategic about planning his “good, family-friendly community festival with great music and energy for everyone from four to 80 years old.”
    “We chose a July date,” he says, “because it is the time of the summer when a lot of groups were traveling from the Michigan/Chicago circuit south. By offering up our festival the weekend after the Fourth of July, we hit the bands and the fans at a perfect time.”
    Gaelic Storm, whose lead singer Patrick Murphy calls Annapolis home, will play Friday night on the Shamrock Stage. Musicians also play pretty much nonstop on two other stages, the Galway Bay Traditional Music Stage and the Fado Irish Rock Stage.
    Other headliners this year include Carbon Leaf from Richmond; Seamus Kennedy of Arnold; and Scythian from Rockville.
    “We are just a hot nest of Irish bands here,” McGowan says.
    About 13 bands, some international, are on the lineup for July 11 and 12 at the Annapolis Fairgrounds. The music ranges from traditional to rock with enough variety to appeal to many tastes.
    “We have the high-energy big drums and pipes from Scottish group Albannach, plus a lot of other fun performers who know how to put on a show,” McGowan says.
    He’s especially excited about the Gothard Sisters, a trio from Washington State. “They are just a phenomenal act,” he says. This will be the group’s third year.
    The festival’s growth has meant the addition of a third stage, plus a hangar-like structure for shade and shelter. Nearly 70 merchants will be hawking their wares plus plenty of food and beverages.
    “Each year our expenses increase,” McGowan says. “But we have been able to keep the ticket price the same except for a small increase for Saturday tickets.”
    Along with larger crowds and bigger headliners, growth has also meant an increase in the charitable contributions the festival makes.
    “Giving back to our community has always been an important part of the event,” he says. “We have donated $108,000 to nonprofit groups. This year our festival will make contributions to Hospice of the Chesapeake and Bello Machre.”
    In addition, McGowan gives tickets to community groups, nonprofit organizations and youth sports teams.
    Friday, members of the military (with ID) plus a guest are admitted free.
    No discounts for kilt wearers, though that’s the choice of dress for many, including McGowan.
    How big is McGowan dreaming?
    “The fairgrounds are only so big — but we’re happy to just keep on growing as much as we can in that space.”

F 4-10pm; Sa 11am-10pm. Anne Arundel County ­Fairgrounds, Crownsville. F $15/$85 VIP; Sa $25/$110 VIP: 410-980-7971;