It seems that Bethlehem's Celtic Classic has found its pot o' gold at the end of the rainbow.
Just six years after organizers of the festival of Irish, Scottish and Welsh culture didn't know whether it could continue in a struggling economy, Celtic Classic is prepared to expand for the second year in a row.
The 27th annual event runs Friday through Sunday.
This time, the growth may be its most significant ever. For the first time, the festival has a presence on Bethlehem's Main Street.
A new performance stage will feature some of its headlining acts, and five Main Street restaurants will sell food.
It's a significant step forward for the festival, which just last year added two performance venues and had one of its biggest turnouts ever, says Jayne Ann Recker, executive director of Celtic Cultural Alliance, which runs Celtic Classic.
"To be able to actually grow — not to sustain, but to be able to grow it and expand it — there's so much energy through the volunteers that do this and everyone that's involved," Recker says. "They're so excited, it's almost tangible."
Recker says the decision to expand to Main Street took almost two years, after the festival saw rapid growth in its crowds with its 25th year in 2012.
The festival doesn't release official attendance figures, but Recker says that, based on sales and Bethlehem police reports, it was one of the best-attended Celtic Classics.
"We felt very strongly if we grew the event we wanted to go somewhere new — and where we've never been to," Recker says.
"We have a very strong tie to the Main Street business owners. Our office is on Main Street and wanted them to be able to benefit. So it was pretty easy once we said it out loud to put the wheels in motion and make this part of the event. We wanted the businesses to really have some ownership in the event."
The new stage gives the festival 10 performance areas — nearly twice what it had just four years ago.
Also expanding will be Celtic Classic's children's area Heritage Hollow, on Heritage Lane under the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, with "a lot more activities," Recker says, "everything from traditional Irish storytelling to bagpipe demonstrations, weaving demonstrations and a lot of Celtic children's crafts to choose from."
Also new is a relationship with The Wooden Match restaurant and cigar bar adjacent to the festival grounds. The festival's pipe band competition will move from the Highland Field to The Wooden Match parking lot to give it more visibility, Recker says. The restaurant also will offer its own schedule of outdoor music during the festival.
Of course, all the elements that have made Celtic Classic a success are back: The Highland Games, the dancing and fiddling competitions and classes, and the food and drink.
Celtic Classic officially kicks off with the annual Haggis Bowl eating competition at 5:15 p.m., followed by the start of the U.S. National Highland Games Championship at 5:45.
Here's a preview:
The new stage on the east side of Main Street, just north of Market Street, will have some of the biggest performers.
The stage will open at 1 p.m. Saturday with a performance by comedic acoustic troubadour Seamus Kennedy, a festival favorite. It will close with a performance at 5:30 p.m. Sunday by regional band Burning Bridget Cleary, whose last album hit No. 1 on Roots Music Report's Folk and Roots Country charts, and was nominated for an International Music Award.
"Being that it was a new venue, we wanted to make sure that people found it," Recker says. "So we've got some of our heavy hitters up there. But we also have a really great mix of entertainment, from traditional to Celtic rock to comedy, to get everybody up there."
Playing on the Main Street Stage at 2:30 p.m. Saturday will be Philadelphia-based duo Timlin and Kane, who played Celtic Classic's early years as well as the past four. The Scottish Comedians play at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, making it the second year the festival offered comedy. (Last year it had Irish comedians.)
Music won't be the only draw to Main Street. Recker says organizers felt it was important to have Main Street restaurants offer food instead of outside vendors. They'll come out on the street and accept cash, she says.
They are Bethlehem Brew Works, Stations Cafe, Corked, McCarthy's Red Stag Pub & Whiskey Bar, and Hotel Bethlehem. Moravian Book Shop also will offer chef's samplings.
Beer will also be sold on Main Street. Neville Gardner, who owns McCarthy's, will be the official beer vendor, with pub tables and a small beer truck.
Crafts, food, drink
There will be nearly 40 food vendors this year — about the same as last year.
The variety also will be back, with Irish fare such as shepherd's pie, Irish stew, corned beef and cabbage, but also Aw Shucks roasted corn, J.R.'s London Broil, Mr. Bill's Poultry, Nico's Pizza, Tropical Paradise food, Theo's Gyros and Take A Taco, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs.
There will be 60 retail merchants, also about the same as last year, selling Celtic clothing, jewelry, artwork and more.
A new beer being offered this year will be Guinness' Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale — the first time it will be offered in Pennsylvania, and in very limited quantities. You'll only be able to get it at Celtic Classic or at McCarthy's, which has it on tap.
Other alcoholic drink choices are the same as last year: Guinness, Miller Lite, Smithwicks, Harp and Magners Irish Cider. Prices are $5 for a pint; $6 for Guinness. Celtic Classic mugs are available for purchase at the beer tents, and can be refilled for the same price as cups.
A new whiskey sponsor, 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey, means a bigger presence; the Irish pub tent will carry the brand's name.
Except for the Main Street restaurants, food and beverages must be purchased with tickets; each is $1, but can be torn in half to pay in 50 cent increments.
The popular "Pour The Perfect Pint" booth, which debuted last year has a Guinness expert showing how to correctly fill a pint. It will be offered at Spring and Conestoga Streets, at the north end of Highland Field. Participants get a Guinness glass, beer and a certificate of proof. Spaces only remain for noon-2 p.m. Sunday ($10); register at http://www.celticfest.org.
The popular whiskey tasting sold out in August.
Music and dance
There will be 25 music, dance and comedy artists — fewer than the 40 performers last year — but nearly 90 performances, which is an increase. Recker says.
While Celtic Classic has many of its most popular acts returning, Recker says the festival also "kind of went in a different direction with entertainment this year. … We wanted to introduce a number of new bands to our audience, which they always appreciate."
She says organizers scoured Philadelphia/New Jersey area and found some "really talented bands and gave them a bigger audience to play in front of this year."
An example of that is The Hooligans, a high-energy Irish/folk/rock fusion pub band from Philadelphia that Recker says the festival "is really excited about." It will play the Main Street Stage at 4 p.m. and the 2 Gingers Irish Pub Tent at 9 p.m., both Saturday.
Another is No Irish Need Apply, a five-member Celtic rock, folk and blues group whose members include Philadelphia police officers. It plays the Celtic River Stage at 4 p.m. and the 2 Gingers tent at 7:30 p.m., both Saturday.
The 4 Leaf Clovers — sort of an Irish boy band, with members 15-17 — will perform at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the 2 Gingers tent.
Seamus Kennedy also will play Tavern in the Glen at 9:30 p.m. Friday and 10 p.m. Saturday, and on Sunday will play at Grand Pavilion at 1:30 p.m. and Tavern in the Glen at 6 p.m.
Burning Bridget Cleary also will play the Grand Pavilion at 6 p.m. Friday and noon Sunday, and at the Ice House at 1:45 p.m. Saturday.
Blackwater, a high-energy five-piece regional group that has played traditional Irish music for more than 25 years, plays at 6:15 p.m Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Tavern in the Glen and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Celtic River Stage.
Glengarry Bhoys, a festival regular with a raucous blend of Scottish and roots music, plays Grand Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, as well as an unplugged show at The Ice House at 4:15 p.m. Saturday.
The band also plays on a bill with the quartet Comas at 7:30 Thursday night at Godfrey Daniels intimate listening club in south Bethlehem in a Celtic Classic preview. Tickets are $18.50. Info: http://www.godfreydaniels.org.
For the second year, Moravian College's Foy Hall will be used for the annual Highland Dance Competition starting at 8 a.m. Saturday. Dancers of all ages will compete in traditional Highland steps, including the Highland fling, sword dance, seann triubhas (old trousers) and reels, as well as Irish jig and sailor's hornpipe.
Afterward, there will be instruction and ceili and contra dancing for children and adults through the afternoon.
It is Celtic Classic's 10th year as the home of the official U.S. National Highland Athletic Championships. It pits the Top 10-ranked professional Highland Games athletes in the country, some ranked in the Top 10 in the world, in tests of strength, agility and skill.
It's North America's largest free Highland Games.
Among the competitors are Daniel McKim, the No. 1 ranked Highland Games athlete in the world and world record holder for both the 22-pound and 16-pound hammer throws. He's back to defend the U.S. National title for the fifth straight year
Also back are 2012 world champion Matt Vincent and Michael Zolkiewicz, the world record-holder in the 56-pound weight toss. Nathan Burchett, who has broken several records in the 12- and 16-pound hammer throws, also is scheduled to compete.
The games kick off at 10 a.m. Saturday. There will be an athlete meet-and-greet at 3:30 p.m. Sunday on the Highland Field, preceding the athletic awards at 4.
The Highland Field again has free seating on small bleachers on both sides.
Contests, other highlights
While the Highland games are the centerpiece of Celtic Classic, there are other competitions.
•Haggis Bowl: 5:15 p.m. Friday, Highland Field. The person who eats a pound of Scotland's national dish the fastest is crowned Celtic Classic Haggis Eating Champion. Limited to 20 competitors. Entry is $10, and the winner gets $25 in Celtic Classic food and beverage tickets and a souvenir mug.
•Celtic Classic Youth Fiddle Competition: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Ice House. Fiddlers in two divisions — up to age 13 and 14-18 — will perform Celtic fiddling styles, including Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, Shetland, Orkney and Galician. Three cash prizes will be awarded in each division Entry is $10.
•Showing of the Tartans parade: 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Parade heads down main street to Highland Field for opening ceremonies at noon. Performing: Celtic United Pipe Band, Ceol Neamh Pipe Band, MacMillan Birtles Pipe Band, Rory O'Moore School of Pipes & Drums, Saffron United Pipe Band and St. Columcille Pipe Bandt.
•Pipe band competition: 1:30 p.m. Saturday for Grade 4 bands; noon Sunday, for Grade 3 bands; parking lot of The Wooden Match at Main and Lehigh streets. There also will be a drum major competition at 5:45 p.m. Saturday on Highland Field and massed band presentations at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday on Highland Field.
•Sheep-herding border collies: 5:30 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 5:15 p.m. Sunday on Highland Field.
•The Celtic Quest craft tent: Celtic-related arts and crafts for children with educational components, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, at Heritage Hollow.
•When: 4-11 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28
•Where: Downtown Bethlehem: Main Street, under the Hill-to-Hill Bridge, and the Ice House on Sand Island
•How much: Free; tickets for food and drinks are $1 each. Restaurants on Main Street will accept only cash.
•Parking: Free or metered on-street parking; free parking at Martin Tower lot on Eighth Avenue; paid parking in North Street, Walnut Street municipal garages and West Union Boulevard parking lot.
•Shuttles: Park at the Martin Tower lot on Eighth Avenue. Shuttle leaves every 15 minutes, 9:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday and 10:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Wristbands: $4 a day, ages 6 and older. No shuttle service Friday. Return-trip pickups from festival every 20-30 minutes.