Farewell to the Crawley Irish Festival

TRADITIONALLY, THE SUNDAYS before the August bank holiday saw a large influx of visitors to the Crawley Irish Festival, most recently held at The Hawth Theatre. It brought together local people and many traveling from beyond West Sussex. Those who enjoy Irish culture enjoyed a varied program presented over seven hours.

The organizer and president of The Celtic & Irish Cultural Society, John Nolan, from Co. Carlow, together with his wife Noreen, whose roots lie in Co. Tipperary, were at the center of the event. Together with an organizing committee they put together a program that combined culture, entertainment and heritage.

Sadly, the optimism about the delivery of the 25the festival has led to disappointment. John Nolan has carefully considered continuing, but the pandemic has been a game changer. Unfortunately, there are not enough volunteers to serve on an organizing committee to ensure a safe and professional event. John indicates that financing is only one aspect; as it is a ‘hands-on’ event, you need to rely on a broad spectrum of support, drawing on the experience of others. This appears not to be the case, as a result of the pandemic.

It is the end of a great era.

Holiday stalwarts Noreen and John Nolan.

To dial 21st festival, Ireland’s then Ambassador to the UK Dan Mulhall welcomed organisers, entertainers, volunteers and dignitaries including Crawley MP Henry Smith and Councilor Brian Quinn to the embassy for a reception

But no one predicted the pandemic, which impacted the planning of 25the The festival was well advanced. The cancellation was inevitable. John clarified: “The health of patrons, artists and volunteers comes first.”

Adrian O’Neill, the Irish ambassador to the UK at the time, tweeted: “Congratulations on past consistency. The cancellation is disappointing, but the organizers are to be commended for the responsibility they have shown in reaching the difficult decision to cancel the festival.”

In 2020, to coincide with what would have been the silver anniversary, Gerry Byrne of Irish Radio invited John to remember what made the Crawley Irish Festival special. Juan thanked those to whom he was indebted. These included major sponsors: Foundation Developments Ltd, The Killoughrey Group, Coinford Ltd, J Devine Civil Engineering. John confirmed that his valuable input, along with funding from the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Program and Crawley Council, meant that no admission fee was applied. People could spend the whole day enjoying various entertainments. There was a main stage with The Irish Post columnist Gerry Molumby in the lead as MC. Traditional, folk and country bands always performed.

Gerry Molumby comments: “Patrick O’Connell and I from the Triskellion Theater have joined John and Noreen Nolan as MCs for both stages. It has been a pleasure working with them. Planning and running a memorable festival requires much more advanced planning and affects your timing in the summer months. We want to congratulate them on their almost 25 years of contributing to Irish culture in Britain.”

Patrick O’Connell OBE added: “On August 30, 2020 I would have seen the 25ththe Annual Crawley Irish Festival at the Hawth Theatre. I am sending regards to John and Noreen remembering the festival which is sadly now missing from our calendar. It is one of the few Irish “institutions” to survive decades of troubled times. Its longevity is due to the willingness to change and present something relevant that the audiences supported en masse; this requires stamina, courage and perseverance.”

Sarah and Geraldine Finucane at their tea stall with homemade cakes (Picture by Gerry Molumby)

When the festival was in full swing, Patrick would keep things moving at a fast pace on the traditional stage, with his own brand of humor. He acted as a presenter for bands, street musicians and dancers. There were many other attractions: children’s corner, food/craft stalls and outlets, public information stands run by the Irish Charity in Great Britain as well as other organisations.

A popular tea stall was hosted by mother-daughter team Geraldine, famous for her homemade Irish wedding cake, and Sarah Finucane.

On the radio special, more tributes arrived, including Martin and Annette Logan from Irish TV in the UK, who filmed and televised the event. (See their list in this document).

Katie-George Dunlevy, a multiple gold medal winner for Ireland as a Para cyclist, is a Crawley resident and festival volunteer. Offaly man and former Crawley mayor Brian Quinn praised the festival’s reach in promoting culture for generations of the Irish diaspora. He commented: “There would not be a ‘new town of Crawley’ just for Irish men and women who came from the 1940s to work in construction and other industries and then settled with their families.”

The former mayor is Francis Guidera, born in Crawley but proud of his Irish citizenship; his father was born in Co. Laois. He described the atmosphere of the event as ‘fun and friendly’.

Ann Marie O’Shea, a fashion/branding expert who designed the London Roses, was given an exhibit. “John’s support for my campaigns has always been fantastic.”

At the end of the festivals, John could be found at the gate saying goodbye to everyone. The presumption was that people would return next year.

Unfortunately, that should not be.

It seems certain that John and Noreen will channel their efforts into supporting other Irish efforts. We can only hope they will be as successful as their industry for 25 years with the Crawley Irish Festival.

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