How the annual Potomac Celtic Festival got its start was almost an accident.
Ten years ago, the event founders, Barbara Ryan and Bernard Argent, wanted to do a "little Christmas show" exhibiting Ryan’s soft sculpture and other Celtic works at the Oatlands Plantation, but the place was booked.
Ryan and Argent, who also are musicians, chose another date in June and contacted their friends involved with Celtic music and arts. Almost 20 Celtic bands agreed to play for free for the first couple of years and instead of pay got wined and dined at the hospitality tent during the two-day Oatlands Celtic Festival.
"As we got established, … we were able to make more money and hire bigger names," said Ryan, president of Barnaby Productions, Inc., the company organized in 1994 to manage the festival.
Over the years, the festival increased to 40 bands and more than doubled in attendance to 22,000 visitors last year.
EACH YEAR, the festival features a different county. This year America will be celebrated June 14-15.
"It’s interesting, we think, to have these different areas, a slightly different focus and flavor every year," Ryan said. "It’s a little different without being radically different."
Until 1998, the festival was held at the Oatlands Plantation, but by then the festival had grown too large deeming it necessary to move elsewhere. The festival settled at the Morven Park Equestrian Center near Leesburg, where it has remained since as the Potomac Celtic Festival, now an international event.
"The secret of the success, number one is you pay attention to those details and meet those deadlines, and you treat people well," Ryan said.
Argent agreed. "One of our pleasures as long as we have been running it is to make it a performer-friendly festival and to treat the performers well. We hope the result is the performers perform well," he said.
At the start, Ryan and Argent handled most of the event’s organization. Three years ago, they handed over running the event to the 13-member board of directors, also tasked with starting other projects and holding Celtic concerts and lectures on Celtic culture. Ryan and Argent resigned from the board last year to serve in an advisory capacity. Ryan serves on the entertainment team and Argent with publicity.
"This will be our last year because we’re tired. It’s a lot of work," Ryan said, adding that the board has "done the best to continue our vision of a festival to represent all of the Celtic cultures, both culturally and historically, that came to and settled in America."
Choosing America for the 10th annual festival was fitting, Ryan said. "What most people don’t acknowledge is the Celts have been driven westward," she said. "They continued westward with immigration to America. All these cultures immigrated here. We maintain it’s one of the biggest Celtic nations where we have a melting pot."
More people of Celtic descent live in North America than in all of the European-based Celtic countries put together, Ryan said. The festival will celebrate several American Celtic cultures, including American Irish, Appalachia, Cape Breton and the Breton-inspired Cajun and Quebecois traditions.
"We decided it was time to blow the horn on our own Celtic cultures," Ryan said.
THE FESTIVAL will present different aspects of American Celtic culture through stage performances, vendor booths and living history exhibits. There will be nine stages, including the main WAMU Amphitheater, a family stage with family entertainment and several stages for Highland dancing, dance and Celtic culture workshops, poetry readings and pipe band performances. The pan Celtic band Iona, which Ryan and Argent founded in 1986, will be releasing their eighth CD "Branching Out" at the festival. The five-member band will perform at the Night Festival at the Guinness stage.
Besides the stages, there will be several booths for crafts and for clans and societies to provide genealogical research. The juried craft market will include 55 vendors, almost triple the 20 vendors who displayed their crafts and wares during the event’s first year.
"It’s an incredibly fascinating culture," Ryan said. "I am an artist. I have to love the artwork, which is really a trademark for the Celts."
There will be family encampments to demonstrate 1,000 years of Celtic village life and sporting competitions of Celtic athletics.
"We like to think our event has really covered the spectrum," Argent said, adding that he and Ryan started the festival for three reasons. "The first reason was to make this truly Celtic. The second was to treat performers well. The third is to make something for everyone to enjoy. … That’s what a festival should be all about."