What better place to escape the cold of Melbourne winter than to a warm hearth with fiery music? Held annually on the June long weekend, the National Celtic Festival captivates the souls of many with Irish and Scottish traditions. Now running for more than twenty years, the festival attracts over 16,000 people from all ages to the Bellarine Peninsula for over four day; an area renowned for its vineyards, mussel farms, and a chilled back ambiance. In June, the normally quiet bay side village of Portarlington comes to life with the music, laughter and passion of the Celtic spirit.
After ten days of rain and cold and bitterness, I couldn’t wait to discover what the Festival had on offer. This was my first time going, so I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that I was very excited. My partner and I arrived at Portarlington on Saturday arvo.
I was a bit sad that we had missed the first night, but upon looking at the program, I realised the Festival is organised in a way that you can catch most of the acts even if you don’t go for the entire duration of the festival (which is great). However, with more fifty shows, twenty-four workshops and even a cattle show to choose from, decisions can get tricky. Luckily, most of the Festival’s activities take place on Portarlington’s foreshore, where five stages are set up among market stalls selling crafts, vintage clothes and food (so much food).
Additional venues include community halls, a hotel, restaurants, cafes and churches, but we didn’t get a chance to visit those because there was simply too much to see.
On Saturday we browsed around the shops and watched six bands play (we did a tour across all stages). What immediately struck me was just how diverse the music on offer was. Inyal captivated us with its electronic sounds while Señor Cabrales provided us with a more traditional take on Northern Spain’s music. The Dixie Chooks’ lovely acoustic sounds accompanied us through dinner before Zeon had us dancing and jumping off our feet. Jimmy O’Hare dazed us with its ethereal compositions and finally, the McKinnon sisters made us feel like we were listening to our aunts share family stories next to a piano in the family room before heading off to sleep.
After what felt like a fully-packed-day, Sunday saw us back at the Festival asking for more. Once again, we were not disappointed. One of the great things about the Celtic Festival is that you don’t have to wait until the late hours of the night to catch ‘the big acts’. At 1:45 pm on a Sunday, we went into the Celtic Club to dance to the sounds of Rich Davies & the Low Road, who had closed the festival the night before.
Other amazing acts throughout the day included Claymore and Tim Scanlan Trio, who mixed sounds from Australia’s didgeridoo, a Japanese violinist and a one-man-band who plays the harmonica, feet percussion, guitar and sings (all at the same time).
In between shows, my partner and I also had a go at a drumming workshop (so much fun) and checked out some top-notch Irish dancing.
We finished the day listening to Caledonian Castaways and the Celtic Ska Collective’s blues and ska sounds for a completely different take on traditional Celtic music.
On Monday, we grudgingly came back to Melbourne with the bittersweet feeling that we had discovered so much, and yet, left with so much untapped. I feel like we only glimpsed at the tip of a cultural iceberg that hides wonders. I, for one, would definitely love to be back.
Lourdes Zamanillo is a Melbourne-infatuated journalist. Originally from Mexico, she loves words, travelling, and (above all) feeling surprised.
The National Celtic Festival ran 7–10 June 2019 at Portarlington, Victoria.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of the National Celtic Festival.
Image credits: Jorge Linares