Pittsburgh Irish: Gems in the Furnace
By Elizabeth Myers
I am excited to join the iIrish team as a columnist covering the Pittsburgh region. Each month we will feature local faces and places of special interest in our area.
We of Irish heritage are loud and proud here in The Burgh, and there is no better evidence of that than our local Irish festival. Staged at a new venue in the Swissvale neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Historic Steel Valley, this year the festival was framed by the dramatic backdrop of Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark. What was once acres of seven separate blast furnaces and the center of the world’s steel production, is now a protected national asset and a prime location for film production.
The areas surrounding are in development and will see movie studios, tech companies, and more. Motivated by a theme of “Shamrocks of Steel,” the 31st Annual Pittsburgh Irish Festival earned record ticket sales, according to Executive Director Mairin Petrone.
“Our goal is to strike a balance between classic festival favorites and providing new activities,” says Petrone, 34, of Swissvale, who is one of the youngest organizers in the national Irish festival circuit.
Festival favorites included the return of The Screaming Orphans and Gaelic Storm, both of which enjoy a loyal fan following in the Greater Pittsburgh Area. Gaelic Storm arrived in full fashion, featuring a new fiddle player, Natalya Kay; while former fiddler Katie Grennan hit the stage once again with The Bow Tides, a newly formed ensemble of former Gaelic Storm fiddle players. The lady’s trio made its in-person debut on stage at the festival in 2021, and quickly became a hometown favorite. Grennan, 34, originally hails from Wexford, Allegheny County. The full list of amazing talent that filled the air with stories, Irish Trad songs, and Bag Rock tunes all weekend is long and can be found at https://pghirishfest.org/entertainment-schedule/, along with other festival features
New to the musical line-up this year was the Celtic music group RUNA and The Friel Sisters of Glasgow. New activities include a Celtic-themed kitchen sponsored by Five Farms Irish Cream, where chefs offered baking and cooking demonstrations all weekend long.
Five Farms Irish Cream
Top shelf servings of premium aged whiskey; and tastings of Jameson Orange, Five Farms Irish Cream Liqueur, and a local favorite, Kingview Mead of Mount Lebanon, Pittsburgh were a big hit. Johnny Harte, creator of Five Farms Irish Cream, explained the backstory of the making of the premium product and shared cocktail recipes with the crowd: “There is very much a deep Pittsburgh connection with Five Farms,” says Harte.
As a graduate student, Harte was working on a thesis about launching premium Irish Whiskey in the American market and his mentor lived in Pittsburgh. Harte visited the city often to meet with his mentor and explore concepts of high-quality bottling techniques of premium liquor products.
“I am grateful for Stanley Stankovic. There would be no Five Farms without him,” admits Harte. He spoke with great admiration of his mentor, who was the first man to trademark the Irish words, “uisce beatha,” which means “water of life” in the Irish language, and is the term used for Irish Whiskey in Ireland. According to Harte, Stankovic was also the first man to successfully launch a super-premium Scotch Whiskey in crystal bottles in the United States, in 1987.
Shannon Lambert-Ryan, vocalist for RUNA, jumped into the kitchen in between sets to share her family’s favorite recipes for shortbread and Welsh Cakes. “I’ve never baked in a field before,” said Lambert-Ryan. “This was so much fun!”
“I have never seen comedians, axe throwing or live cooking shows at a festival,” said Nikki Hinterlang, creator of YinzLidz and a new vendor to the festival this year. A skilled artist and craftswoman herself, Hinterlang added that she “was completely blown away” by the blacksmith demonstrations hosted by Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation.
Hinterland, 36, and partner Nicole Fadeley, 40, of Sewickley, created a new artform, making hand-drawn, hand-crafted wooden hat brims and personalized products that reflect Pittsburgh’s iconic skyline and classic Pittsburghese slang terms. The duo says they not only gained new customers at the festival, but also a better understanding of their own Irish heritage.
“I’ve got huge Irish roots,” says Hinterlang. “That’s why we were so excited to be invited to the festival this year. I come from a line of Riley’s, but she laughs, “the way the name is spelled in Irish is insane.”
Fadeley adds, “We were always proud to say we were Irish. I come from Crosseys. The [genealogist] showed me where we were from in books, on maps, and was able to tell me the whole story of our family in Northern Ireland. I learned so much. It was amazing.”
Also new to the festival scene this year were a group of college friends who formed a company called Flora & Folklore. Nathan and Sarah Forbes, both 33, of Scottsdale, Westmoreland County, teamed up with Sabrina Angelo, 35, Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, and Cassie Angelo, 33, Pittsburgh, during the pandemic to create a collection of Celtic-inspired gift items.
“It all started with a ‘Wine Night’ during the pandemic. My wife would host everyone each week and we realized we are all self-taught artists and decided to just go for it.” says Dr. Forbes, who teaches and serves as the Dean of Academics at Jeannette High School. Nathan is a metal worker and woodworker as well. Wife Sarah is a speech therapist, graphic designer, and crafter. Angelo is an accountant, and she and her sister Cassie, specialize in metal work.
“I grew up coming to this festival as a little girl,” says Sarah with a shining smile. “I feel so honored to be here as a vendor sharing what we’ve made.”
According to Nathan, the group will travel to eleven more festivals between mid-September and Halloween. “We felt so welcome at the Pittsburgh Irish Festival that we decided to reach out to other Irish festivals around the country for next year,” he says.
Despite growing pains and the need to change venue locations for the second time in four years, Petrone remains resolute in her commitment to putting on the best possible festival and maintaining a year-round schedule of cultural events through the festival’s umbrella organization, The Irish Partnership Pittsburgh, Inc.
“We can only grow as much as we can afford,” she shared with passion. “I want people to know that we are a non-profit organization, and that we are a volunteer-led organization. This [festival] is a labor of love… For our culture, our history, and our future.”
For more information about year-round cultural events and updates on next year’s festival, go to www.pghirishfest.org.
*Elizabeth Myers is a native of the Allegheny Valley region of Pittsburgh, living in Castle Shannon, a former Irish settlement in Pittsburgh’s South Hills neighborhood. She can be reached at El*****************************@gm***.com.