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Harpers Ferry celebrates its Irish roots with music, dance

March 27, 2005|BY RICHARD F. BELISLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.VA.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the C&O Canal, the country's first armory and many of the homes and buildings in Harpers Ferry were built by the initial influx of Irish immigrants to come to America in the early 19th century.

On Saturday, the historic town on the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers celebrated that bit of history with the second annual Irish Heritage Festival.

Sponsored by Harpers Ferry Main Street, a nonprofit downtown promotional effort, the celebration featured Irish music and dancing, plus historic district tours with an emphasis on the town's Irish heritage, said Linda Rago, Harpers Ferry Main Street executive director.

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If the amount of money spent on this year's event was any indication, it was going to be about 10 times bigger than the 2004 festival. Last year, Main Street spent between $300 and $400 on the celebration. This year, nearly $3,000 was spent on advertising and bringing in better-known entertainment, including Al Petteway & Amy White, the headline group of Saturday's festival.

The music and dancing performances were under a small tent across from the Harpers Ferry Railroad Station.

Small crowds of around 30 patrons stood in front of the tent early in the afternoon to watch and hear such groups as the Blue Ridge Thunder Cloggers from Loudoun County, Va., the New Hope Irish Dancers, Maggie Sansone, Patrice Flynn and Joe Osment.

Petteway and White were scheduled to take the stage at 5 p.m.

According to Marshall Hamilton, promotions chairman for Main Street, large numbers of Irish laborers were brought to Harpers Ferry in the 1820s and 1830s to build the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the C&O Canal. The workers and their descendants helped shape the growth of the town and were involved in its historic events before and during the Civil War.

"Nobody around the area does an Irish thing," Rago said. "Last year, we put our toes in the water and it was a success. This year, we jumped right in. We want it to become one of the major spring kickoff events in the area."

"Last year the weather was perfect," Hamilton said. "This year, it's cold and cloudy."

Rago put a positive face on the cold, gray clouds.

"It's real Irish weather," she said.

The people standing in front of the tent watching the cloggers early in the afternoon seemed oblivious to the weather.

Brian and Linda Heinrich of Hagerstown came to Harpers Ferry for the festival.

"We thought it would be a blast," Brian Heinrich said. "We thought we'd check it out and get something to eat."

Two couples from Mechanicsburg, Pa., Steve and Janeann Runkle and Lloyd and Shirley Kramer, were in area on a weekend getaway. They spent Friday at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg and came to Harpers Ferry on Saturday.

"We didn't know about this festival," Brian Runkle said. "This is a plus."

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