Austin Celtic Festival highlights traditions with local flair

Lauren L'Amie

The shores of Ladybird Lake will be overtaken by Irish river dancers, bagpipes and an unusual number of kilts this weekend as the Austin Celtic Festival returns for its 17th annual event.

Supported by the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, the two-day festival serves as a tribute to Celtic culture.

The musical lineup this year features local Celtic bands and big names in the genre — like Paul Brady, The Paul McKenna Band from Scotland and the Horan Mcauley Trio, a traditional Irish band. 

Michelle Hedden of the Austin-based Irish trio The Tea Merchants said the Austin Celtic Fest for provides an authentic atmosphere and has some of the best Irish bands in the world.

“When we play all around town, it’s always a great display of Irish music to people who might not know it,” Hedden said, “But [at Austin Celtic Fest] these people already know and like our music. It’s a great opportunity to show our unique approach to Irish music with a Texas twist.”

Aside from the music, the Austin Celtic Festival has some other, less conventional events. Festival goers have the opportunity to see everything from realistic Viking-style combat to daily parades of Celtic dogs and miniature horses.

Returning for the fifth time this year is The Viking Invasion, an organization of Viking-Age re-enactors. The group will set up a makeshift Viking village and perform several acts of ancient live-steel fighting.

Though public performances of live-steel combat are performed using blunted weapons and some basic choreography, Viking group leader Dave Kilbourn said the re-enactments are as close to realistic as they can be.

“Our weapons are historically accurate,” Kilbourn said. “They’re weighted and balanced properly. You’ll see spears, axes, swords and shields. It’s important that our fighting system is an exploratory martial arts system that we use to portray the Viking age.”

The Texas chapter of Viking Invasion is part of a larger international collective of Viking re-enactors and craftsmen. The members specialize in trades like leather-making, blacksmithing and woodworking.  

“We have people who make their living doing these crafts,” Kilbourn said. “Learning from people who have made this their trade is great, in addition to the martial aspect. Even in modern terms, it’s interesting how many skills are applicable to modern life.”

The Celtic Dog Parade features trained miniature horses from the non-profit organization “Minis and Friends.” The group trains horses as a therapeutic tool, primarily for special-needs children.  

According to Sally Iwanski, co-founder of Minis and Friends, the tiny equines have distinctly Scottish roots, allowing the volunteer-based group to return to the Austin Celtic Festival for the past eight years. 

“This partnership has been really beneficial for us and for [the festival],” Iwanski said. “They let us come for free, and we’ve received grants because of this festival.”

The Austin Celtic Festival will take place Nov. 2 and 3, and is located at Fiesta Gardens on Ladybird Lake. One – and two-day tickets are available online.