All things Celtic at 6th annual festival

Thousands sample the tastes, sounds and flair of Highland culture


Bob Ellis/staff photographer       
Carolyn Tewksbury spins as she dances among the bagpipes of the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band during the sixth annual Cortland Celtic Festival Saturday at the Cortland County Fairgrounds. Tewksbury is a dancer with the Clough School of Highland Dance.

Staff Reporter

Cool gray clouds rolled overhead and the air had a damp, almost highland taste to it that lent itself well to the sixth annual Cortland Celtic Festival Saturday.
Music from three separate venues bathed the Cortland County Fairgrounds in traditional and more contemporary sounds while dancers, bagpipers, Highland games athletes in kilts and everybody else, whether kilted or not, moved from one activity or event to the next during the “celidh,” or celebration.
Dancers took to the stage in the pole barn, legs moving fast but gracefully in a flurry of tartans while the powerful bagpipers and drummers of the Mohawk Valley Frasers Pipe Band played early in the day, every so often starting up a march with drumsticks twirling as they executed precise turns while ringed by a crowd of festival goers
Pat and Jennie Mooney, of Cortland and both Irish, were enjoying the performance near the stand where Linani’s Cookie Factory sold refreshments.
“I just found out last year that I was Irish, and I never knew it!” Jennie Mooney said, laughing. “I really enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day much more this past March.”
The Mooneys had previously attended only the first Cortland Celtic Festival because of scheduling problems, and were happy that the event is held in August instead of September as it had been in the past. They noticed considerably more going on this year, they said.
Although exact attendance numbers were not available Saturday or this morning, event organizer Ces Scott said about 4,200 had come to last year’s event and that this year the attendance seemed to have decreased, although whether the decline was due to inclement weather in the morning or higher ticket prices is unclear.
Standing just outside the door to the pole barn, Carla Plunkett, of Cortland, asked how anyone could not enjoy the music.
“It’s great that the festival is growing. I think the earlier time is nicer,” said Plunkett, a one-time event committee member. “It’s nice to see it established and growing.”
As a private music teacher, Plunkett said that her love of Celtic music has rubbed off on her students.
“They can’t get away without it,” Plunkett teased. “I have a lot of guitar players who enjoy Celtic music, a lot of flute players and piano players.”
Near Plunkett, young and old alike took their turns tossing large cardboard tubes as miniature stand-ins for the “cabers,” or long lengths of tree trunks, that were thrown by the athletes competing in the heavy athletics Highland games competition in a field with Smith Elementary School as a backdrop.
Last year had been the first time the Highland games heavy athletics had been made part of the festival and it had proven very popular, said executive director of the Cortland Regional Sports Council and festival committee member Machell Phelps.
“The heavy athletics is a sanctioned event — all of these guys are professionals. We’re one of the very few New York festivals that has a sanctioned heavy athletics event,” Phelps said as she watched the athletes hurl a massive, asymmetrical stone put from either a glide or a spin, bellowing as it flew through the air and landed with a heavy thud.
“Very rarely do you ever get a woman (competitor), and we’ve got two this year,” Phelps said, indicating athletes Sara Monette, of Parish, and Kate Mason, of Connecticut, a six time All-American track and field athlete who is ranked fifth in the country for women’s heavy athletics.
“This is the second year they’ve had athletics here, and this is my first time having someone to compete against,” said Monette, an Oregon state champion in shot put and discus who had competed in last year’s games along with her husband, Bill. “You have to go to up to Canada to get much professional competition.”
“These are pretty serious guys that come here — some of the best in North America,” Bill Monette said before the event. “A lot of track and field guys, when finished with college they come over here.”
All seven of the men’s events were won by Harrison Bailey, of Pennsylvania, who placed third overall in the world championship last year. Bailey had a field record of 54 feet, 10 1/2 inches in the stone throw on Saturday, which Will Barron, of Syracuse, another top-ranked professional and the liaison to the festival committee, said was one of the top throws in the country this year.
Although this year was his first at the Cortland festival, Bailey will return to the event next year, Phelps and Scott said.
Other festival-goers worked up the courage to try haggis, which could be sampled in both beef and lamb varieties at the Caledonian Kitchen exhibit.
Clay Patterson of Talbott, Tenn., said haggis, which was traditionally made from sheep’s organs and was combined with oatmeal, onions and spices, had earned a dubious reputation through bad word of mouth.
“When people hear the stories that it was cooked in a sheep’s stomach, they get a little squeamish but they still want to try it,” Patterson said, adding that the Caledonian Kitchen’s canned beef haggis (No sheep’s organs) had placed fifth in the 2003 World Haggis Competition in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Although her stepson Anthony Giudi had sampled and enjoyed the lamb haggis and enjoyed it, Stephanie Crowley, of Liverpool, said  she would pass.
“I’ve done a lot of unusual food — I’ve done snails and chocolate-covered grasshoppers (by accident, she later admitted), but I haven’t worked my way up to haggis,” Crowley said, adding that she had made the trip to see the heavy athletics.”



Scottish clan history and warfare on display at festival


Bob Ellis/staff photographer     
Mark Comerford, of Cortland, right, discusses weaponry and Scottish military history with Andrew Tennenbaum, of Ithaca, at the sixth annual Cortland Celtic Festival Saturday. In background is Ken Lassey.

Staff Reporter

If ever there was a surefire way to draw a crowd, it’s to set up a few tables and cover them with sharp swords, axes, intimidating maces and handmade colonial era firearms, all of which are lethal.
As he stood in the Pole Barn in authentic armor, Mark Comerford, of Cortland, explained the history behind the replicas that he brought to the Cortland Celtic Festival.
Comerford, a medieval and Revolutionary War re-enactor, manned the table with his wife, Shoshana Comerford, and her father, Herman Wallace, who also were clothed in period dress.
Introduced to re-enacting by his father-in-law, Comerford said his whole family, including his children, had gotten into the hobby. Wallace was also displaying his custom-made armor, which weighed 30 to 40 pounds.
“In the 17th century, American colonists wore this type of armor,” Wallace said of the “half-suit.”
“You can’t hurt it, but it can hurt you,” Mark Comerford told the crowd as they tested the weight of the weapons.
“Everything on this table works,” Wallace said, although the reproductions of 18th century English and French muskets and Pennsylvania long rifle were unloaded.
Despite the fearsome weapons, Comerford isn’t a “violent” person and is a paramedic when not wearing his homemade chain mail — thus a display of 18th century medical implements, including linen bandages and all sorts of uncomfortable looking forceps and scissors. A jar with water and some plastic fishing lures stood in for real leeches, which were used to drain out “bad blood.”
“In the 1700s, Edinburgh, Scotland, had one of the leading medical colleges in Europe,” Comerford explained.
As she stood near a display of American and British Loyalist army uniforms and a 14-foot-tall pike and a shorter lance, Shoshone Comerford pointed out a less violent aspect of Scottish history.
“The Scots and the Iroquois in this part of the state got along very well together because they were both clan societies,” she said.
Several Scottish clans were represented at the festival, set up under tents with the patterns of their clan tartans and lists of the surnames associated with their clan displayed.
Members of Clan Mackintosh could wear three distinct tartan patterns. There’s the lighter, almost orange original, the darker red modern pattern, and the green hunting pattern, said Peter Messina, of Rome. Messina is the Central New York convener for Clan Mackintosh, and vice president of Clan Mackintosh of North America. Margaret McIntosh was also on hand to explain why you don’t have to have Mackintosh as a last name.
A “sept” is a smaller clan that has come under the protection of a larger clan, perhaps through marriage. McIntosh said the clans try to give people a basic understanding of Scottish history and the social system of 300 to 400 years ago.
“This is how the chief of our clan (John Mackintosh) spelled his name, but mine is very different,” McIntosh said, adding that some of the septs have different names altogether.
“Spelling isn’t important because most of the people back then couldn’t read or write… They were at the mercy of whomever wrote their name that day.”
A member of Clan Mackintosh had developed McIntosh apples in Canada, and Messina said that he usually hands the apples out when he goes to Celtic festivals.
“I’ve talked with people from all over the world. I’ve even talked to the lady who purchased the Inn at Loch Moy (in Scotland),” Messina said, referring to the clan’s ancestral home. “That’s where our chief lives. That (Loch Moy) is our battle cry, too.”
Next door at the Clan Macneil tent, Martha  West, nee McNeil, of Rome, and Catherine Taylor, nee McNeil, of Skaneateles sat bundled in tartans and blankets.
“My grandmother was a Mackintosh and my father was a McNeil,” said Martha West, explaining that clan membership descended in a patrilineal line.