I update this list of Celtic & Irish festival attendances as figures become available and as I find them.
Every year as we approach Labor Day Weekend, I am asked about the size of Irish festivals in America.
Attendance figures are notoriously difficult to pin down short of going to every Irish Festival and counting them yourself. I haven’t.
Below the list is a discussion of the attendances, their sources and calculation, and of the larger Irish festivals in other parts of the world - including Ireland itself.
According to their own publicity the following might be the biggest Irish Festivals in America:
1. Bethlehem Celtic Classic - 265,000 (2007)
2. North Wildwood Irish Fall Festival - 250,000 (2006)
3. Chicago Celtic Fest - 190,000 (2005)
4. Milwaukee Irish Fest - over 140,000 (2007)
5. Green Lane Park Scottish Irish Festival - over 130,000 (2006)
6. Dublin Irish Fest - 102,400 (2009)
7. Irish Fair Minnesota - almost 100,000 (2006)
8. Kansas City Irish Fest - 97,000 (2011)
9. The Great Irish Festival NYC - 80,000+ (2011)
10. Longs Peak Scottish/Irish Festival - 80,000+ (2010)
11. North Texas Irish Fest - 73,000 (2011)
12. Indy Irish Fest - over 50,000 (2006)
13. Riverfront Irish Festival - 50,000 (2006)
13. Gaelic Park Irish Fest - 50,000 (2006)
13. Great American Irish Festival - 50,000 (2008)
13. ShamrockFest RFK - 50,000 (2009)
17. ICONS Irish Music & Arts Festival - 32,000 (2007)
18. Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival - over 30,000 (2005)
18. Irish Day Festival Long Beach, NY - over 30,000 (2007)
18. St Patrick’s Church Irish Festival, Richmond,VA - over 30,000 (2006)
21. Los Angeles County Irish Fair & Music Festival - 26,000 (2009)
22. Erin Feis on the Riverfront at Peoria - over 25,000 (2004)
23. Pittsburgh Irish Festival - over 25,000
24. Syracuse Irish Festival - 25,000 (2006)
25. Great Irish Fair of New York - 20,000+ (2011)
Note: And if we’re talking North America then don’t forget CelticFest Vancouver in Canada with over 250,000 (2008).
In the US there appears to be a few in the 20,000 range, and some just don’t regularly post figures so I assume they’re not huge or they’d be boasting about it.
The Great American Irish Festival for 2008 was reporting figures of 20,000 for the Friday and again for part of the Saturday of a 3-day festival. With its final attendance reported at 50,000, up 25% on the previous year in only the 5th year of the event, its organisers believe this cements its frequent claim to be the fastest growing Irish festival in the world.
Green Lane Park Scottish Irish Festival in Pennsylvania went from 10,000 as a single-day festival in the year 2000 up to over 127,000 as a 3-day event in 2007 (source). I’ve seen no other festival match that growth over that timespan.
It is routinely stated that Irish Fest in Milwaukee is the biggest Irish festival not only in the US but also in the world. Wikipedia repeats this claim but cites a Business Journal article that does no more than also say it without reference to any figures.
If you’re talking in terms of the world it should be noted that the St Patick’s Festival in Dublin, Ireland - currently a 4-day event - registers attendance at well over 1 million people since 2001 (this includes the attendance at the parade - 675,000 in 2009.
There are several festivals in Ireland with atendances in 6 figures (e.g. Spraoi in Waterford) but special notice should be paid to the Puck Fair in Ireland’s County Kerry because its crowds of over 100,000 are quite something when the town that hosts it, Killorglin, has a population of only 1,500 or so.
There are also several Irish festivals in Britain and Australia with very large attendances, including the Manchester Irish Festival (200,000+) in England.
In Ireland, Fleadh Ceol na hÉireann routinely calls itself the world’s biggest traditional Irish music festival and with good reason as it expects in the region of 300,000 people to attend the 2012 event in County Cavan. Update: And in excess of 400,000 attended in Derry in 2013.
Looking at the programs of each festival I believe Milwaukee is the biggest in the US in terms of entertainment and features, even if it isn’t the biggest by attendance.
Some of the festivals claiming the bigger attendances are free and/or held in loosely defined areas rather than a single gated venue. These attendances are estimations, so we’re trusting the authorities that make such estimations.
The Chicago Celtic Festival figure for 2005 of 190,000 cites the Mayor’s Office of Special Events as the source.
At current rates I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dublin Irish Festival challenges Milwaukee before long as Milwaukee seems to have reached a plateau while in the last few years Dublin has gone from 75,000 to 81,000 to 85,000 to 93,000 to over 102,000. Or so they say.
For the Guinness Irish Festival in Syracuse, NY, I have seen reports of attendances of 20,000 to 25,000, and also of 132,000! If the larger figure is true then this festival would be in the top 5 in America, but for now I’m going by the lower figure as research tells me it’s more likely.
Back when it was a one-day festival, the Irish 2000 Music & Arts Festival in Altamont, New York, claimed to be the largest single-day event of its kind in the United States, in terms of attendance and number of entertainment attractions. Crowds of about 20,000 were reported. And since then I’ve read claims of it being “the largest two-day Irish festival anywhere”.
The Longs Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival in Estes Park in Colorado, with routine crowds of 75,000 claims to be “the largest Scottish Irish Festival in the United States” but is that really different than a Celtic festival? Or an Irish Scottish festival, or a Judean Peoples festival?
It should be noted that multiple day events are particularly difficult to define what attendance even means. And a 4-day event can have smaller crowds per day but be the bigger event overall.
If 20,000 people buy 3-day tickets and turn up on every day, you have an attendance of 60,000. But what if they only turn up for 2 of those days or even just the 1 day - is attendance then still the 60,000 places that have been sold, or is it the reality of between 20,000 and 40,000?
Plus how do festivals count their free admissions? Or do they even bother?
It’s fairly common for Irish festivals to have schemes whereby people can get in for free if they turn up early on a Friday or Thursday evening, or early in the morning for a Sunday mass, or if they bring gifts for charity. Does anybody count these people streaming in the gates who need no paperwork to gain admission? At a big event these numbers can exceed 10,000, but I’m not telling you how I counted those.
Volunteers typically are given free admission tickets for other days than they volunteer for, or even entire weekends. Usually there are also arrangements with sponsors to receive many free tickets. All of these are obviously easy to count but are they counted when they are given out or when they are collected? If somebody doesn’t avail of them then they haven’t attended.
Similarly organisers, vendors and entertainers might have passes to give out - if these are the sort of passes you display on your person then there is nothing to collect, and are they counted? Should they be counted if they are working, but many aren’t working and if they are buying beer and just enjoying the festival should they not be counted?