A Celtic Celebration

Second annual Flathead Celtic Festival plans for fun and connection at Herron Park on Sept. 17

By Molly Priddy
Rob Eberhardy, founder of the Flathead Celtic Festival, pictured at Herron Park in Kalispell on Aug. 31, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Standing on a hill on a smoky August morning, Rob Eberhardy adjusted the flag draped over his shoulder paying tribute to all Celtic nations, put his fists on his kilt-wearing hips, and surveyed the nearly empty Herron Park.

If you squinted a little and pretended that the drying grass on the hill was instead lush, purple heather and the smoke was the fog of the Highlands, Eberhardy was a picture of his ancestors, represented by the tartan pattern on his kilt denoting the Bruce clan of Scotland.

And, probably like his ancestors, Eberhardy is serious about his heritage, but quick to offer a joke.

“People like to say ‘What’s worn under your kilt?’” Eberhardy says. “The answer is, ‘Nothing’s worn, everything’s in good working condition.’”

As the drummer for the Montana Highlander Band and the founder of the Flathead Celtic Festival, Eberhardy, 39, is full of one-liners and quips about kilts and Celts, most stemming from his time talking to others about them.

And on Sept. 17, Eberhardy will be talking and joking and teaching all day long at the second annual Flathead Celtic Festival, taking place at Herron Park just outside of Kalispell.

The event is free, family friendly, and open to the public, featuring at least six tents for the area’s clans to gather, live Celtic music all day, vendors, beer and wine, and, of course, the ever-popular Highland Games.

Last year’s inaugural festival was a hit, Eberhardy said.

“We had roughly a 1,000 people show up, give or take,” he said.

Since it’s in Herron Park, people who were biking and hiking the trails nearby wandered through and stuck around, like some of the families who showed up for a regular day in the park and found instead throngs of people celebrating Celtic traditions and heritage.

“All we have to do is improve on what we did last year,” Eberhardy said. “This year it’s really taken off.”

Eberhardy hails from Milwaukee, but his mother’s family is part of the infamous Bruce clan in Scotland. He loved learning about his heritage, and also appreciated that Milwaukee held festivals all summer long, pretty much every week. There were festivals celebrating Italian, German, and Irish heritages, and when Eberhardy moved to Montana, he wondered if he couldn’t do the same here.

He attended the first Bitterroot Scottish Irish Festival held in Hamilton in 2010, and participated in the Highland Games there. Those include traditional Celtic festival contests, such as the caber toss and hammer throw.

Going to that festival and playing the games of his forefathers and foremothers awoke a feeling that Eberhardy hadn’t had since childhood.

“I had that feeling like I’m a little kid again,” he said. “And I wanted to do it up here.”

Starting the festival here was in part to get that feeling back, he said, but largely because he wanted his own daughters, ages 8 and 11, to understand it and have it as well.

“I wanted to do it for my girls,” he said. “That’s the whole point.”

The festival is also a great time to learn more about Celtic history or even your own roots. People within the clan tents will pore over ancestry looking for connections, Eberhardy said, and celebrate when they find them. The Friends of the Irish Studies in the West group will be in attendance, as well as the Montana Gaelic Cultural Society, to answer questions and give presentations.

Musical performers will be on stage all day, and this year’s lineup includes new faces, such as the Spokane-based Broken Whistle headlining the show at 5:30 p.m. Local favorites, such as Tra le Gael, will also perform. The Parade of Clans begins at noon, and the Kalispell Irish Dancers take the stage at 4:30 p.m.

All are welcome at the Flathead Celtic Festival, especially those without Celtic heritage. Sharing histories is an important part of building a contemporary community, because it helps its members understand more about each other.

But, as Eberhardy makes sure to mention, it’s also a chance to hang out in the Flathead on what he hopes will be a sunny day, drinking beer and wine and playing games. Because that in itself is a way to build the connections that become our lives, writing our own histories in places and ways our ancestors never dreamed.

“It’s just a matter of finding roots,” Eberhardy said.

For more information on the Flathead Celtic Festival, including how to sign up for the Highland Games, visit www.flatheadcelticfestival.com.

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