How do you make death a joyous affair? Ask Steve and Cathy Jo Smith, experts on the rituals of an Irish wake.
MUSKEGON, MI – How do you make death a joyous affair? Ask Steve and Cathy Jo Smith, experts on the rituals of an Irish wake.
There is no mourning in the house. Clocks are stopped and mirrors are covered as a sign of respect, and to keep spirits and fairies away. And through a three-day period of not leaving the body unattended, community members gather to drink whiskey, eat a lavish feast and smoke using pipes and tobacco as part of the process.
If it’s anything like the Smith’s model tent, it’s truly a sight to be seen.
There are many cultural lessons attached to this process, ones the Smiths, of Grove City, Ohio, felt would be a fitting addition to four days of the 15th annual Michigan Irish Music Festival, held at Heritage Landing in downtown Muskegon.
Steve Smith stressed that the handling of death is an important part of Irish culture, which has kept he and his wife traveling to share this lesson for more than 14 years.
“People don’t understand why they would turn this into a party,” Smith said. “You know, the short answer is, England occupied Ireland for almost 800 years and the Irish were held down. … It was illegal for too many Irishmen to gather together at one place at one time with two exceptions: weddings and wakes.
“If you’re marrying or burying someone, you want to take advantage of the time.”
Apart from lessons of death, the Michigan Irish Music Festival was abound with life Sunday afternoon, complete with the strumming of strings, the stirring of kettle corn and a few steps here and there to an Irish jig.
Chris Zahrt, president of the Michigan Irish Music Festival, said the festival continues to grow each year, seen prevalently in the expansion of music and food options.
Although the weather is an area festival organizers can’t control, Zahrt said the festival has carved its place on the annual event calendar in the Muskegon area – a long way from where it started under a single tent 15 years ago.
“(The festival is) to present the Irish culture and we do that through music and food and dance and the cultural presentation,” Zahrt said. “We’re so unique because there’s not really another event like this in Michigan where you can hear this type of music or eat this type of food or you know, listen to people present different cultural topics.”
The food options, in particular, stand out about the festival with options ranging from traditional Irish dishes to carnival food such as elephant ears and deep fried Twinkies. There also were multiple vendors offering beer and liquor drinks, some options seemingly written out of a James Joyce novel.
One of the food eateries on hand was McGovern Catering of Shelby. The McGovern family has been with the Michigan Irish Music Festival since the beginning and offered patrons a taste of classical Irish fare, complete with breads and potatoes and meats.
Michael McGovern, son of McGovern Catering owner Mike McGovern, commented about the growing crowds during the festival and how, despite the growth, festival organizers have kept pace with them.
“The festival gets more organized every year, everybody gets more organized and they’re more efficient,” he said. “There are huge crowds here but you wouldn’t know it. I think everybody has learned to be more efficient and helping to make the experience positive for everybody, keeping it moving.”
Muskegon native and Allendale resident Brandon Cilla made his second consecutive trip to the festival this year.
Cilla, who was not aware of how long the festival had been going in the area, said the music continues to be a draw for him.
“I came down last year and I enjoyed it very much,” Cilla said. “I decided to come again, this time for the entire three days and I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.”