A taste of Irish spring

Steve and Maggie Sill stand in front of their booth that features a replica of the Blarney Castle at Saturday's Irish Spring Fest in Front Royal. Kevin Green/Daily

Fresh in the midst of a bitterly cold winter, residents and out-of-town visitors received a small taste of Ireland at the Irish Spring Festival in Front Royal on Saturday.

The event was the result of an organized effort by a new alliance of businesses and agencies called Power of Partnerships Alliance that was formed in 2014.

The alliance is chaired by Ken Thurman Warren, County Regional Airport chairman, and has seen participation from a wide array of area groups from the Warren County Chamber of Commerce to the Northern Virginia 4-H Center.

“Nobody has tried a festival this early in the year … this is the first festival of the year. It’s basically like a kick-off festival for the year,” Thurman said.

A 10-inch blanket of snow received in some areas around Front Royal on Thursday caused a few concerns for Thurman as well as alliance participants and volunteers.

Robert Hall, right, owner of Blue Wing Frog, serves Irish stew and shepherd's pie with employee and Virginia Tech student Jordan Wirth. Kevin Green/Daily

“I was on pins and needles, trust me,” said Thurman, adding, “It’s like, ‘oh my gosh here’s another one of these things where you plan for six months and the weather’s gonna nail you.”

However, with sunny skies and temperatures rising to around 46 degrees, the show went on.

Saturday’s event featured 61 vendors from area restaurants and businesses. Thurman said they were surprised at the level of interest since the alliance had originally anticipated 50 vendors.

The event featured Irish music from members of the Shenandoah Chorus of Sweet Adelines as well as Irish dancing from the Jigg N Jive Dance Studio.

The Irish theme was also carried over into the booths. Thurman noted that the alliance was holding both booth decoration and costume contests during the festival, with winners receiving a $50 gift certificate.

Thurman said that the roots of the festival came from Front Royal residet Maggie Sill.

Sill explained that the thought behind a March festival was that “it just appeared like something … that would help people get up and out of the cabin fever mode.”

Maggie and Steve Sill are co-owners of Heaven Sent Shoppe in Front Royal, and their booth featured custom crafts etched with Irish sayings as well as a re-creation of the famed Blarney Castle.

“The Blarney tradition is relatively new, it’s only 100 years old and … the theory that grew up behind it was not a tourist thing,” Steve Sill said.

According to “http://www.AuthenticIreland.com” target=”_blank”>AuthenticIreland.com, the true stone is atop The Blarney Castle in Cork, Ireland. Kissing the real stone is said to give visitors “a mystical eloquence.”

Steve Sill said, “You are always looking for something to sort of stand out … so we thought, ‘why not build a Blarney Castle and do the Blarney Stone?'”

Keith and Maureen Menefee of Down Home Comfort Bakery on Main Street in Front Royal also incorporated Irish culture into their booth.

Keith Menefee noted that they made Irish mint brownies, scones and soda bread specifically for the event.

Both were quick to say that they had actually sold out of the Irish soda bread around noon. “They wanted the soda bread and we made quite a few loaves,” Keith Menefee added.

Other vendors, such as Blue Wing Frog, saw the festival as an opportunity to increase awareness.

Part owner and operator Robert Hall said that although the restaurant serves gourmet deli, they made a slight exception for this weekend.

“This is an Irish festival and we thought we would include some Irish fare,” Hall said. “We are certainly capable of cooking Irish.”

Among Blue Frog’s Irish dishes were Irish stew, shepherd’s pie, Irish coffee cake and Irish cream cake.

Hall noted that, among all of Blue Wing’s Irish-flavored items, the shepherd’s pie sold the best. Hall pinned its popularity on novelty. “You don’t often find shepherd’s pie.”

More than two hours into the event, Thurman noted, “We’ve probably got a good 300 or 400 people moving in and out of here.”

Thurman estimated that they probably had over 1,000 people visit the festival throughout the day.

“I think we have a lot of people having fun and I think our vendors are feeling good about it, too,” Thurman said. “It’s one of the more colorful festivals I’ve ever been to.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com