Arts and Culture

New Irish music festival comes to Arena

The festival will take place in Sugarland Barn

After Mad Gael Music Fest petered out in 2017, Bonnie Sommers-Olson was itching to re-establish an annual celebration of Irish music, culture and craic in Madison. She says the idea for an indoor Irish music festival came from concerns about unpredictable Wisconsin weather. 

“A group of us were sitting around one day and decided that it would be wonderful to have an Irish festival in the summer that you didn't have to worry about rain,” says Sommers-Olson. 

So, Irish Fest in the Barn was born, taking place Sunday, May 26 at Sugarland Barn in Arena, Wisconsin.

There will be local, national and international acts including headliners JigJam and the Rattlin’ Bog Sisters, who are traveling from Ireland for the event. JigJam blends traditional Irish music with bluegrass, resulting in a new genre affectionately called ‘I-Grass.’ The Rattlin’ Bog Sisters, comprised of sisters Patrice and Clodagh, are newfound viral sensations after a video of them singing “Ho, Ro, The Rattlin’ Bog,” reached more than 2 million views online. 

Sommers-Olson says attendees are excited about the return of Rising Gael, a Madison-local Irish trad quartet. The group formed in 2004, but took a hiatus from performing while all four band members attended graduate school in three different states. Now, they've just released a new album in anticipation for the festival, "Rising Gael Roots."

"I think that will be a very popular show!" says Sommers-Olson.

The festival will feature more than just music. Food carts will sell Irish classics like shepherd’s pie and Reuben sandwiches, and there will be two full-service bars. Guests can also bring in a picnic lunch.

Sommers-Olson said a community of volunteers came together to help her put on this event, including Michael Lange, a past organizer of Mad Gael Music fest, and William Masino, a music organizer for the Wisconsin Highland Games. Additionally, organizers from more than half a dozen Irish festivals across the Midwest reached out to Sommers-Olson saying they will be in attendance.

The venue owners Nancy and Tom Viste transformed a building on the property into an Irish pub featuring a full-service bar, fireplace and chandelier for the event. The barn itself can accommodate 300 guests.

“Between the Vistes' and us... we have gotten the venue to be a great Irish site!” Sommers-Olson says. 

Sommers-Olson knew she had to bring Irish Fest in the Barn to life after meeting Enda Scahill, a member of the multi-award-winning Irish band We Banjo 3, on a flight to Ireland. Scahill and his band are veterans to Wisconsin Irish festivals, and play regularly at the world's largest Irish music festival in Milwaukee. Sommers-Olson told him she was interested in creating an indoor Irish music festival in Madison, Scahill was a bit surprised.

"He said, ‘You have barns that big in Wisconsin?’ and I said, ‘Oh we do!’”

Tickets are on sale now here, and you can find more information about bands, the venue and the event on irishfestinthebarn.com.


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