By Tarez Eisen
It was nothing but a soft day.
Or so any number of Celts would tell you, describing the characteristically dreary weather of the United Kingdom, as you watched that same fine drizzle come down on Sunday’s Celtic Day at Mills Mansion.
For the 23rd year, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, along with the Friends of Mills Mansion, opened the gates to the historic site in Hyde Park to welcome anyone with an ounce of Celtic heritage, and even those with simple interests in a haggis puff or beer as dark as Loch Ness. And the rain was never a deterrent.
“I think people here at the festival feel intuitively at home in this weather,” joked Alice McGovern, of Rhinebeck, who has been attending the festival for 15 years.
Vendors from around the Northeast, including garment makers, The Kiltmaker’s Apprentice and traditional fish and chips merchant Tastefully British, scattered across the lawn of the mansion to celebrate the shared heritage of approximately 34 million Americans.
The MacLeods of Cornwall Pipe Band, the Taconic Pipe Band, and Mt. Kisco Scottish Pipes and Drums tittered out Celtic standards. Blaring bagpipes played by men in Scottish tartans echoed all afternoon, while dancers from the Solas an Lae School of Irish Dance of Dutchess County leapt and fused contemporary and traditional Irish dance.
Between showings of caber tossing, a traditional Scottish game that involves the end-over-end toss of a wooden pole similar to a telephone pole and haggis hurling, which is the chucking of a wrapped sausage like food from atop a pedestal, Scottish musicians The Brigadoons stamped the stage.
“They try and have a little of everything for everyone,” said Maryan Walsh, of Pleasant Valley. “The bands and the dancing are really the best parts.”
Beer seemed to flow like water, Scottish meat pies were eaten like hamburgers, and the air lay thick with Irish, Scottish and Welsh brogues, but the most important features of this event that bring people back every year were the hearty laughs and the sense of ancestral unity that permeates everything.
“This is the most welcoming and loving community,” said Celtic Weave owner Kaye Doucet. “If you want to be Irish here, you can be Irish.”
Doucet, who hails from Watertown, travels to approximately 20 Celtic festivals each year, selling sterling jewelry and clothing, but cites the event at Staatsburgh as “the most laid-back” of all.
She added, “We’re all friends here, the camaraderie is just great.”
Maureen Grant, whose husband George emcees the daylong event agreed. “This is just a nice, big, family gathering,” she said.
Grant, originally from the Scottish town of Balloch on Loch Lomond remembers when the festival started 23 years ago with just one pipe band and one group of dancers.
“We would go up and dance five or six times a day to fill time back then,” she said. “Now it’s just great to see so many young people coming back for the heritage, in this beautiful setting.”
For laughs, look no further than the Bonniest Knees competition. Men dressed in kilts stormed the event stage where three female judges felt their way around the knees of each contestant, deciding who had the “bonniest” or prettiest, based on skin texture, bone structure and overall feel.
Shouts of “Yeah, feel it baby!” could be heard among a crowd that cheered with each lift of a man’s hemline and each Goldilocks style judging of “too bony”, “too hairy” and “just right”.
Una Corns, the vendor coordinator for the event was quick to garner laughter with the request to never say her first and last names together.
And Rick Mattice, clansmen of Clan Mac Callum or Malcolm who was at the festival to piece together the bloodlines of the Malcolm clan and watch his son perform with the Mt. Kisco Scottish Pipes and Drums was eager to share his favorite joke, in the true spirit of the day.
“What’s a Scotsman’s favorite color?” he asked.
“Why, plaid, of course.”