Every March, “Spanish” St. Augustine celebrates its Celtic roots with the internationally-recognized St. Augustine Celtic Music and Heritage Festival. Though this beloved festival has a staggering turnout every year, most locals would associate the city’s history with Spain and laud the Spanish influence on the architecture and culture. But this little “Spanish” settlement has an incredible Celtic history, including Colonial Governors and historic vicars of Celtic descent, stories of romance and mystery, and most extraordinarily – St. Augustine was founded by Celts! More than half the residents of St. Augustine can claim an ancestor from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, or one of the other Seven Celtic Nations. And thousands of heritage tourism visitors have discovered and come to celebrate St. Augustine’s Celtic roots.
The St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival will take place on March 8-10 at Francis Field. Festivities begin on Friday with a pre-festival Whiskey Tasting, then continue Saturday and Sunday with live performances on two stages. The weekend also features the St. Augustine Highland games, Celtic artisans and food, and kids’ games. Of course, The World’s Original St. Patrick Parade steps off at 10am on Saturday from the Festival grounds and returns there after circuiting the city.
If you’re still in doubt of the local Celtic heritage, let’s take a brief historic tour of a view downtown landmarks – beginning at the statue of Don Pedro Menendez that stands in front of the Lightner Museum. Don Pedro was the founder of St. Augustine and Governor of La Florida in 1565. Along with his 800 colonists and soldiers, Menedez came from the northern, Celtic region of Spain. The people of his hometown, Aviles, and the surrounding regions (Asturias, Galicia, and Basque) are of Celtic descent! They have their own language that’s closer to Portuguese than Spanish. Those people of Northern Spain are Spanish-Celtic and share many traditions with the Scots and Irish. They play bagpipes called “gaita,” and wear kilts called “falda escocesa.”
Aviles Spain, St. Augustine’s Sister City, still celebrates its Celtic roots with the annual “Festival Intercéltico de Avilés” of more than 100 groups including huge gaita competitions. This music has more in common with the “Celtic Nations“ of Brittany, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Scotland, and Ireland than with Spanish music from Castille or Andalusia. According to former Mayor George Gardner, “Our city’s heritage is more bagpipes than bullfights.”
Just past the Governor’s House (where six of St. Augustine’s former governors were of Celtic descent), we approach Cathedral Place, on the route of St. Augustine’s annual St. Patrick Parade, the world’s original St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In 2018, a discovery in the Spanish Archives proved that the first event that commemorates Saint Patrick in what is now the US was held in St. Augustine in 1600 when they fired the cannons in the fort to celebrate St. Patrick, and the first St. Patrick’s parade/procession ever recorded in the whole WORLD took place here in 1601. That year, colonial Spanish St. Augustine’s Irish pastor, Ricardo Artur (Richard Arthur) led the first St. Patrick Day procession ever documented anywhere in the world. These historical events pre-date Boston’s prior claim to the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 1737, and New York City’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1762, and even Ireland’s first Paddy’s parade which was surprisingly not until 1903.
Just adjacent to the Plaza de la Constitucion stands the Cathedral Basilica. Irish Priests Thomas Hassett and Miguel O’Reilly supervised the construction of St. Augustine’s beautiful Cathedral from 1793 to its completion and consecrated it in 1797.
Winding the city’s narrow streets, we walk alongside a local Celtic legend. Rory McIntosh, captain of His Majesty’s Highlanders, always attended by Scottish pipers, paraded the narrow streets of St. Augustine, breathing out fire and slaughter against the 13 revolutionary “whig” colonies. During the American Revolution, Florida was the “fourteenth British Colony” that remained loyal to the Mother Country, and “Old Rory” was a most extraordinary character, a kind of Don Quixote who, even in old age, was always ready to storm any whig fortress that might present itself. In 1778 the garrison of St. Augustine marched to attack whig-occupied Savannah. One morning with the fortification of some fine Scottish spirits, Rory decided on his own initiative to attack a small whig fort on the route, despite the protests of his compatriots. He approached the gate and commanded “Surrender!” He was promptly hit in the face with a rifle ball and fell, but immediately recovered. Rejecting calls from his own to run for his life, he called back “Run yourself, but I am of a race that never runs,” retreating backwards safely into the lines, flourishing his sword, keeping his face to the enemy.
Just a short walk up San Marco Avenue, Mission Nombre de Dios is not only the site of Don Pedro Menendez’s first landing and the first European settlement in the U.S. with his 800 soldiers and colonists, it is also the site of North America’s first Mission and Parish. Irish priests, fleeing English Protestant rule in their native land, made their way to Spain and its colonies like St. Augustine. The Catholic Church in Spain trained and assigned numerous Irish priests to be the Colony’s vicars. Other priests were born in Spain or Portugal of Irish parents, and were often engaged by the Jesuits and the Franciscans because they spoke English. Ricardo Artur (Richard Arthur) was one of these. He served in St. Augustine between 1598 and 1606, was one of the first parish priests in America, and he was of Irish descent.
The Celtic Music & Heritage Festival’s traditional highland games, Celtic music, parade, artisans all stand in celebration of a Celtic heritage that permeates the “Spanish” city of St. Augustine. The Celtic people played a crucial role in forming the city into what it is today and making their mark on the stories and legends passed down through generations. The Festival is a chance to explore the Celtic history of St. Augustine and find the Celt in you!
The St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival will take place on March 8-10. For more information on the Festival and the parade, visit www.celticstaugustine.com.