Whether you come to hear the great lineup of Celtic bands, to meet the award-winning authors of Celtic NOIR!, to watch the athletes of the Highland Games, to shop with the many Celtic artisans, or to just enjoy the immersive atmosphere of Celtic culture and scrumptious food, you can thank several talented Celtic women for organizing “The Finest Celtic Music Festival in the United States.” Pat Syeles, Lisa Mack, Amy Galbreath, and Erin Bradshaw Rodriguez pull it all together each year.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary on March 14-15, 2020, the award-winning St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival is recognized by audiences, bands, athletes, clans, and vendors, for its uniqueness and superior quality as one of the best in the U.S. This two-day event, which attracts an average crowd of 15,000 each year (to a town of 14,000), featuring top international touring Celtic bands like Albannach, The Dublin City Ramblers, Emmet Cahill, Jamison, Seven Nations, Steel City Rovers, and Syr.
People are fascinated to learn that St. Augustine, Florida, USA, is not only The Nation’s Oldest City, but also “America’s Oldest Celtic City.” St. Augustine was actually founded by Spanish Celts, who were steered by Irish vicars. As a result, the first St. Patrick Parade in history – anywhere – was held here in 1601. To this day, more than half of St. Augustine’s population proudly claim Scottish, Irish, Welsh or other Celtic bloodlines.
This St. Augustine Festival directly engages its audience in fun, entertaining and informative activities based on the music, sports, and heritage of our Celtic culture. And in 2020, it will present a special new feature called “Celtic Noir!: Authors Symposium,” offering panel discussions and Q&A sessions curated by Elizabeth Mannion (aka Sarah Jane McKenna) and featuring award-winning Celtic authors such as Liz Nugent, Jane Casey, Gerard Brennan, and Arlene Hunt.
There is also a Whiskey Tasting the evening before the Festival opens. This increasingly popular event allows attendees to savor seven different whiskies as you hear the background of each from a Brand Ambassador.
So, you may well ask, who is responsible for putting together this amazing event, which has been praised as one of the most organized festivals in the country? You may or may not be surprised to learn that is run primarily by a group of dedicated and talented women.
Festival Director Pat Syeles, who proudly proclaims that she is 97% Scottish, Irish and English and descended from the Cunninghams and Kennedys, took over the leadership role four years ago, but has been with the Festival since its beginning. She manages all aspects of planning and finance for the Festival from recruiting vendors to renting equipment, managing online ticket sales and ordering supplies; and on Festival days she works in the trenches, managing the money and helping to do whatever needs to be done. According to Pat, “My most important responsibility was to find the right people for the right jobs. We are extremely fortunate to have such an outstanding team of talented, dedicated women who handle every detail of the operation of the Festival.”
Foremost among them, she cites Lisa Mack (aka Lisa McPhillips), also in her 10th year with the Festival, whose role is that of Entertainment Director and Production Manager. Lisa, whose ancestors hailed from, England, Ireland and Alsace Lorraine, became a “Mc” by marriage to a fine Scot. She explains that her two roles are very different jobs that carry parallel but related responsibilities. “As Entertainment Director, I am building the show that festival-goers see, which involves selecting and contracting the performers, creating the performance schedule to ensure a continuous flow of entertainment that stays on time and on budget, and making sure the needs of our performers are met. As Production Manager, my attention turns to all the behind-the-scenes parts of making a show happen. Technical items such as sound reinforcement, lighting design, engineering staff, stage plotting, etc., all fall into this category. I believe that having one person serving in both roles as a single point of accountability ensures the production and presentation will be seamless,” says Lisa.
She adds, “I became peripherally involved in the festival in its very first year, when the production team initially contracted reached out for my assistance. Since that time, thanks to a major venue change, a new approach to booking artists, and some of the same production team members still involved, the event has spent the past decade evolving and developing the remarkable reputation it now enjoys.”
Another talented woman, Amy Galbreath, serves as Field Team Leader and Site Planner. Amy is of Scottish descent, with the family clan name of Galbraith, which is of Gaelic origin. The early Galbraiths were centered in the Lennox district which spans the Highland and Lowland border of Scotland. Later generations of Galbraiths fled Scotland into Ireland in the 17th century and her ancestry shows many Irish ancestors (Greene & McFarland).
Says Amy, “I knew I wanted to be a part of this special event from the first time I attended it in 2015. I had worked on another Celtic Festival in the area, but the St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage festival felt like ‘home’ to me. The production team has the utmost respect for the Celtic culture and really brings an authentic experience to the festival goers.”
“I spend a lot of time on planning the festival site – infrastructure, equipment, logistics, electricity,” continues Amy. I measure and plan where all equipment, infrastructure, tents and vendors will be on the site and produce the site plan for the team. I coordinate the load-in and load-out of every entity on the site for seven straight days. I hire a team of ten amazing people to help prepare, setup, tear down and manage the event and any problems we incur during show hours. My team and I are responsible for making sure every piece of equipment is working throughout the event and that we don’t run out of supplies or resources. I’m most proud of my accomplishment in our electrical requirements — we’ve overcome all of our electrical problems since 2017. It is huge for an event of this size that has practically zero electrical problems! I’m also proud to be among a small group of women who act in the role of Site Planner & Field Team Leader in an outdoor festival environment. I found that my engineering and project management background was a perfect fit for this role. I absolutely love the measuring and planning of the field and taking care of problems as they arise during festival hours. This is a dream job for me!”
Amy’s second-in-command is Erin Bradshaw Rodriguez, claims to be mix of a lot of different things, but most of all Scottish, Irish and English. My family is part of the MacPhearson and Chatten Clans. Says Erin, “As Asst. Field Manager, I am basically Amy’s right hand, sometimes her left, and sometimes both. I manage most of the logistics of getting the field infrastructure set up and supplies delivered and assist with all other miscellaneous tasks. On Sunday morning I meet with the crew and get them started. Amy’s and my festival days together go way back. I am always excited to work an event with her, so when she asked me to stay on as part of the permanent crew, of course I accepted! Amy is so great at what she does, she manages like no other and has an amazing spirit for this work. And Pat puts so much work into every detail. I don’t think I have ever seen someone so detail oriented. I feel fortunate to be a part of something so meaningful to the creators. I have always loved this festival. There is something magical about the setting, in old St. Augustine, that gives this event a great Celtic vibe.”
Pat adds that the team is rounded out by Sherri and Mary as Gate Managers, Tiffany and Kayla as Vendor Managers, and Shelley as Volunteer Manager. And for 2020, the Curator for our new Authors’ feature is yet another woman, Beth Mannion. “But yes,” she says, “there are some men amongst us, including the Director of Advertising, Beverage Managers, and Highland Games Athletic Director.”
When these women were asked if they want to remain with the Festival in the years ahead, they responded:
Pat says, “I want to do this until I drop! I’m incredibly proud of the hard work we put into this festival and getting such positive feedback from our audience makes it all worthwhile.”
Lisa says, “Absolutely, although I have some concerns that with its amazing popularity and growth over these 10 years, our event might eventually outgrow our venue.”
Amy says, “Absolutely I want to remain involved! I got involved with the Festival in 2017 because I saw an opportunity to combine my festival planning career with my Irish/Scottish heritage. This event feels like home for me and I’m so lucky to be on a team of amazing women that make this event happen every year. Each year we grow, adjust and streamline! I’m looking forward to the 10th Anniversary in 2020!”
Erin says, “Of course! This festival is definitely a part of me now. I look forward to it every year. We work hard …and seeing thousands of people having a great time and completely happy is the best pay off. And, who doesn’t want to go to work with this group of awesome women? We Rock!”
The St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival is produced by Romanza – St. Augustine, Inc. and is funded in part by the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council, by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural, Florida Council on Arts and Culture, and by Visit Florida.
The St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival will take place March 14-15, 2020. More information can be found at www.CelticStAugustine.com.