In the midst of a pandemic, being that it’s March, I still was in the Irish spirit… you know that dancing a jig, good food, smiling faces… and oh yeah, green beer! I think nothing will compare to my experience volunteering at the annual Irish fest.

In the search of new ways to give back to the city where I was born and raised, as well as I was longing for connections, my heritage that one never really gets to know living only in America whilst looking for new experiences. I looked up local events coming up and volunteering opportunities. Let me say that I was completely nervous signing up for a position I knew nothing about. The description was driver and muscles. Let me say I am not a heavy lifter, so I quickly glanced over that and signed up for a float position. The uncertainty of that was even more worrisome, so when the day came I knew I would learn and experience new things, but never did I imagine this! 

When I arrived I was familiar with the Oktoberfest grounds, but not this festival. In the distance, I could hear music and laughter, but still did not know what I was walking into. They thanked me for coming and handed me a shirt and a name badge. Then, they called a person to come and take me where I was needed. As we scrambled about trying to find where I would be needed, this process afforded me a tour of pretty much every position they had. The culture tent and the associations that banded together to put this event on, raffles and ways to take trips to Ireland, two music tents, the shirts, hats, and other swag being sold but when they brought me to the kitchen, my confusion turned to worse fear. I quickly said I don’t cook. The ladies laughed, but I was super serious.

I asked if help was needed and they quickly responded, “Yes, we need a runner.” In my nervous state, I said I don’t run. I have a knee injury… they laughed again and said if I needed to sit to just let them know. 

The smell was very different as you walked through the old Oktoberfest grounds kitchen. Boiled cabbage, sausage, and these very prominent fish with different spices hit your nostrils as we opened the screen door.  

Without a doubt, I can say that I was clearly sheltered. Not eating fish and only having had cooked cabbage, I filled my anxieties about running food with questions of… what if someone asks me how this tastes and I will not know? Everyone here expects this crazy, part Irish girl, hasn’t ever tried these foods and is looking at me sideways.

Thankfully, I knew one young lad who clearly felt exhilarated from the atmosphere. His giant smile welcomed me to the La Crosse Bantry Friendship Association. While I was there, someone introduced me to the process and informed me that Festival Foods had donated the mussels (not muscles that was listed wrong in the volunteer sheets to which I was laughing about my confusion,) and we would hand them out as a fundraiser for the Bantry.

We would throw four fresh steaming hot oysters into a bowl, stick each with a toothpick, and set up a tray with napkins for the runner to take out to the crowd. So I was told to approach people and ask if they wanted to try the mussels.

Ok, here goes nothing. Go offer mussels to strangers and don’t let on that I don’t eat them. I have always been able to approach random people if I have a reason to do so, and this was for a noble cause. So I set my anxieties aside and pushed out the door even though it felt crazy, put a smile on my face, and walked out the door. Yelling loudly wasn’t an option as the music was very loud, even on the far outskirts of the beer tent area. There was no way to avoid approaching people, so I dove in headfirst. 

I quickly found out these mussels were a beloved jewel of the festival! When people said “how much” I simply replied by donation only. I soon realized this phrase was a way for people to bring out their wallets and throw money at the Bantry

With a name like Riley, I actually didn’t need to worry about small talk. Almost everyone was asking if it was my real name or something made up. In true Irish fashion, there were jokes being made, smiles on everyone’s face, a drink in their hands, and those who were in the front of the tents were always dancing, swaying, arms over shoulders and singing with the Irish bands playing. The energy was unparalleled with anything I had experienced before. Even during intermissions it was as if I was the girl with gold in her hands, people waving me down, and trying to place orders as if that was even a possibility. I came back in and out of the kitchen so many times and every time with a tray full of money that one woman said what are you doing or saying?! I quickly told her “by donation only” and went on my way once again. It was nowhere near the end of my shift, but we had run out of the mussels for the night. I felt proud knowing that I helped others in the community by feeding them, serving them, and raising money for a noble cause… that’s the Irish spirit that lives in all of us! They asked me to come back tomorrow to do more, I agreed, then went out to enjoy Gaelic Storm, which generated a whole new level of energy.

When that was over, I was asked to drive the golf cart shuttles to take individuals to their cars or to a downtown location. Despite my knee injury, that task was right up my alley and once again raised funds for the festival the following year. 

So if you aren’t even Irish but have an upbeat spirit ready to come alive, give the Irish fest a try or even volunteer to get to know people! 

I won’t pull the old Irish goodbye on you, but instead, Slán leat! Irish for goodbye and health to you!

By: Riley Hunter