The year was 2001. The time was late spring. While reading the Post Standard one morning, I came across a story about farmers in Scotland and how some of their herds of sheep and cows were afflicted by a deadly outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. In many cases, the stock had been developed and tended to by the same family for many generations. Hoof and mouth disease is extremely contagious and, as a precaution, many herds had to be destroyed even if they had not become infected. The article went on to say that the sheriffs in these rural areas had to be dispatched to take the farmers’ guns away. There had been cases of farmers who had become so distraught that they had taken their own lives.
This article haunted me. I could not stop thinking about it. I began to think of some way that I might help. The fact that Cortland is a rural community with many dairy farms led me to the idea of involving the whole community, especially the farming community, in the effort.
While mulling over fundraising ideas in my head, I remembered with fondness the Cortland Youth Bureau’s 50th Anniversary celebration for which the director, Fran Tokar, had hired a pipe and drum band, The Mohawk Valley Frasers. The day of the Anniversary celebration was cool and rainy even though it was the middle of summer. I’ll never forget the sight and sound of the pipers and drummers marching over the knoll and through the mist. It was that experience, along with the notion of raising funds for the Scottish farmers that led to the idea of holding a festival. A committee of enthusiastic supporters quickly formed. Members included Susan Williams, Callie Doyle, Carolyn Dailey (co-workers at the Cortland Youth Bureau) Jim Sponaugle, and Sandy Marcin. We decided to call the event the Cortland Scottish Festival and all proceeds were earmarked for an organization in Dumfries, Scotland, involved in aiding farmers impacted by the hoof and mouth outbreak. To learn more about farming and raising livestock, we visited the farm of Bob Fouts. The Cortland County Farm Bureau was one of the first sponsors of the festival.
Six pipe bands were booked including Feadan Or from Rochester and The Penn York Highlanders from Athens Pennsylvania. A dance troupe from Ithaca was to perform Scottish Country dances. The date of the festival was set for Sunday, September 16.
But then, on September 11, everything changed…
An emergency meeting was called for Thursday, September 13, to determine what course of action to take with the festival. The decision was made to go forward with the festival but to divide the proceeds between the relief organization for the Scottish farmers, and the New York City Emergency Services.
The day of the festival was a very solemn occasion. The sound of the pipes filled the Cortland County Fairgrounds as people gathered, still reeling from the horror of the attacks, to find comfort in being together as a community, and to honor those who had died. The event drew thousands of people in its first year. Over $10,000 was raised that day and was shared equally between Dumfries Scotland and New York City.
2002 brought many changes to the festival, the biggest change being its name. During the 2001 festival, attendee Ron Barrows approached the committee to propose changing the name of the festival to the Cortland Celtic Festival. Ron’s reasoning was that Cortland County has a large Irish population and this change would generate a broader interest. Although “Celtic” has become somewhat synonymous with “Irish,” it actually refers to seven nations that were first settled by the Celts: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Brittany, Cornwall, and Galicia. Future festivals were enhanced by this change and our goal has been to include cultural exhibits, music and dance from all 7 nations.
In 2002, entertainment was at the top of the list for the festival committee, and as luck would have it, one of the biggest names in Celtic music, a band from California, Gaelic Storm, happened to be touring the East Coast in September of 2002. The nice thing about advertising a Gaelic Storm concert is that you need are just five words, “band from the movie Titanic,” and everyone knows who you’re talking about.
A relatively new band to New York at the time, Enter the Haggis, shared the stage with Gaelic Storm and quickly became a Cortland favorite playing at 5 consecutive festivals! Other bands to take the stage that year included: The Wild Geese, The Flyin’ Column, and the Stoutmen. Anne Johnston’s School of Irish Dance and The Ithaca Scottish Country Dancers rounded out the day’s entertainment.
The 2002 festival continued the tradition set the previous year of donating proceeds to worthy causes. In 2002, profits were split between Project Children (which brings children from Northern Ireland to the States for the summer) and a local program for children called Bridges for Kids (which matches children from stressful home situations with adult mentors).
Subsequent years brought more changes to the festival, such as the addition of the Scottish clan tables, the Heavy Athletic competitions, animal exhibits and S.C.A. Medieval re-enactors. The venue changed from the Cortland County Fairgrounds, to Courthouse Park in downtown Cortland to the current location at Dwyer Park in Little York.
Well, that’s the story of the Cortland Celtic Festival in a nutshell. The festival, now in its 14th year is alive and well and evolving into a premier event for avid festival goers across the North East. Be sure you mark your calendars for August 23 and 24. You won’t want to miss this one!
Many thanks go out to Cecile for stepping in and helping everyone remember the origins of this family favorite festival. We are very thankful that Cecile took the initiative so many years ago in getting this great event off the ground. This will be our third year at Dwyer Park - a huge change of venue which was a big leap of faith - a very well received change with positive comments each year regarding how perfect this beautiful setting is for the Celtic Festival. We are at the point that many of the bands are contacting us for a return visit, including the Fingerlakes Pipe Band who requested to perform for us both days this year. Also asking to expand to two days this year are the athletes competing in the Highland Games. Open Men's Competition will take place on Saturday and Master's/Women's Competition Sunday. Unlike many other festivals in the area, ours is culturally based with the involvement of Irish Step Dance Schools, Highland Game Athletes from around the Northeast, pipe bands, and includes quite a number of bands which translates in to quite an expense. We are thankful to the Cortland County Visitors and Convention Bureau for their help with annual funding. However, that amount needs to be supplemented by vendors who sell their wares and by asking for donations at the gate as well as soliciting donations from local businesses. We are grateful for the support in kind from: Builder's Best - donation of a lift for the Games; Contento's - trash container; Plan First - Web Host; Websites by Vickie - Web Page Design; Max Graphics - copying/sign services; McCraine Mercantile - Program Guide/Advertising; Clark's CPA - financial advice; BAC Fine Arts - Posters/Signs; Mike Henry - Entertainment Coordinator; George Davis - resident Leprechaun; and Barbara Ferguson - Athlete donation. Even still, as with all non-profit events, we hold our breath to see how the books balance once the show is done!
To get a look at this year's line-up and schedule of events, please visit us at: cortlandcelticfestival.com.
We hope to see you at the Festival!! Brenda Clark, President, Cortland Celtic Cultural Festival