Celebrating Celtic with Dollops of Irish Cheer at the Berks Celtic Oyster Fest

Photos by Arundhati Das Sara (Sally) H. Kent, Pipe Major of the Hamilton Celtic Pipe Band, engages the audience during a performance at the Berks Celtic Oyster Festival.
Photo by Arundhati Das Betsy Scott Chapman of the Ryeland Harp Ring holds up her harp, one of several that she owns and plays, at the Berks Celtic Oyster Festival.

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste… I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Ernest Hemingway, “A Moveable Feast”

Oysters for happiness, food for the soul and music for the feet, fueled by beer amid the rousing, throbbing cadence of bagpipes and drums —it was time to celebrate everything Celtic and a burgeoning crowd joined the Irish fraternity to raise a cheer at the 10th annual Berks Celtic Oyster Festival.

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“A new clubhouse,” declared Philip Kearney, speaking about the Berks County Irish American Fraternal Association’s plans for utilizing the funds from the event. “Then we could have a place to meet, to conduct dance classes, pipe band practice and other social events. Even $20,000 (from the festival) would make us happy and boost our efforts.”

Together with a dozen other members of the association, Kearney had the festival organized on an elaborate scale with oysters, both fried and raw, taking center stage as signature Irish food besides steamed clams and shrimp, smoked turkey legs, Guinness roast beef dip sandwich and Shepherd’s pie, to name a few. To wash it all down with were several varieties of beer, including Smithwicks, Harp and Guinness, and “Landshark and Miller Lite for people who don’t like their beer too strong.”

Interesting knick-knacks, pieces of jewelry, Celtic wares and quintessential Irish curios could be picked up for a song, and if one had the minute to spare, latch onto some fascinating tidbits of events past and present.

“My family is originally from Galway, Ireland and they came over here on a boat in 1916, landed in New York and from New York went straight to Trent, New Jersey. My father’s father was a policeman at the New Jersey State Prison during the Charles Lindbergh case. It was a family of 13,” recalls Matthew Lydon.

A licensed plumber and high-pressure refrigeration expert by profession, Lydon is passionate about crafting exquisite pens, both ballpoint and fountain, and bottle stoppers using the turning technique. Although aware of the technique, the idea to fashion pens germinated while attending a seminar conducted by Barry Gross of Arizona Silhouette.

“Take stone and grind it into a fine powder and pour it into the acrylic hardener before giving the pens shape and form on a lathe,” he explains in layman’s terms the process involved. “The big, bulky ones facilitate firm grip for people with arthritis. Plus, I also custom-design sports pens with the distinctive colors of the respective teams, like the Philadelphia Flyers, and even colleges, like the Ohio State University. I also keep a color chart for my customers to choose from.”

Among Lydon’s prized handiwork is also a broom fashioned “like Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000 with a braided thatch fixed to this sturdy piece of stick” he came across during one of his fishing trips in New York.

“Baloney!” scoffs his girlfriend Jill Kellerman who is at hand selling jewelry and other Irish-themed bric-a-brac. “We are coming from New Jersey and we’ve been doing this for five years. However, I used to work for an Irish firm and it’s been 20 years that I’ve had ties with the Irish community.”

Florida-resident Maryann Seifried has been traversing across the country and is a regular presence at Renaissance fairs since 1999.

“My main product is handmade bath and body lotions. But for this festival, I have brought along a lot of incense and soaps that are handmade from my Enchanted Forest Collection,” she says. “It is time-consuming and initially, it took me a while to get my products out in the market and I did every show I could. Today, I have a website and my biggest seller is my soap.”

For children’s book author and illustrator Carol J. Haile, husband John is the “Irish connection.” Prior to children’s books, “I started with calligraphy so a lot of my items are Irish blessings and Celtic sayings in the Celtic-Irish script. My husband John is Irish and that’s my Irish connection,” says Haile, holding up copies of her latest fable “The Princess Tree.”

Magic and a touch of the mystical drifted across from one corner of the park where members of the Ryeland Harp Ring played soulful music with Cathleen Sauber taking the lead: “Some of us are professionals and for some the harp is a post-retirement engagement.” she said. Nancy Sloane agrees. “I waited till I retired and got my social security to return to my first love, the harp. I wanted to play the harp ever since I was a kid and heard it being played over the radio during classical programs, but mom would say it’s so expensive. So it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I wanted to check into it and I found out I was not bad at all. Although I never knew how to read music, I had a passion for it and so I did it.”

“Today we are playing the Celtic harps and not the great big pedal harps that one usually sees in a symphony. Harps from as far back as 1100 to 1700 in the Celtic countries came in the distinctive triangular shapes, unlike the ones from other parts of the world,” said Betsy Chapman, who has been strumming her instrument of choice since 1988. “The original harps from Ireland are tiny and got bigger over the years, affording more range, more notes to play and also louder,” she said, pointing to the different versions being played by the members of the group, including a black beauty made from carbon fiber.

On the opposite end of the park, members of the Hamilton Celtic Pipe Band got prepped for their performance under the twinkling gaze of Pipe Major Sara (Sally) H. Kent.

“You never walk up to a man in a kilt and say ‘I like the skirt you got on.’ No. No. No. You say ‘I like the kilt’,” she tells her amused audience. “In the band, we wear individual kilt, sometimes national kilt and sometimes clan kilt. We also have a piper who wears the German national tartan.”

Another Irishman donning the kilt was Seamus Kennedy. The inimitable entertainer had the crowd in splits within minutes of taking the stage under the expansive white awning. Joining him to entertain the swelling mass of revelers was the Paul Moore Band.

“Blackwater takes over later in the evening from 6 to 9 p.m.,” informed Philip Kearney. Quite rightly they say, God created the Irish so mankind could have some fun.