MILWAUKEE — For many Irish Fest volunteers, the event has become more than a celebration of Irish and Irish-American culture.
"This is 'framily,' friends who are family," said Katie Ward, who's been volunteering at the Fest since 1987, when she was just 12.
Her mother, Margaret, has been a volunteer since 1981, the inaugural year.
"And when the people come back every year to work with us, we met them here at Irish fest, and they're special to us," said Margaret Ward.
Over decades, the mother and daughter have seen the event transform into the world's largest celebration of Irish, Irish American and Celtic music and culture.
So they're excited it's back after the pandemic prevented Irish Fest from being held on the Summerfest grounds last year.
And traditionally, even for just a weekend, it's been a boon for the local economy.
According to a 2014 report by the University of Wisconsin Whitewater and Marquette University, Irish Fest contributed nearly $21 million to the local economy.
Festival staff said attendance reached more than 105,000 people in 2019.
But after a tough 2020, in which the festival was reduced to virtual programs only, staff say they're just happy to be back, even amid the humidity.
"I think we're not as concerned this year about the money we're going to make from the festival," said Bridget Jaskulski, vice president of the board at Celtic MKE. "I think we're more concerned about people coming down here, having a great time and enjoying the Irish music and Irish culture."
Irish Fest will follow CDC guidelines, encouraging hand sanitizing and mask wearing, but not enforcing it.
Next month, Summerfest will be held on the same grounds, but proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will be required for entry.
Danny O'Neill, a jewelry vendor whose business took a hit during the pandemic, said it's just good to be back on the lake.
"It's nice to know that we can still come out here, because most of us are involved in this weird cultural thing because we love it," said O'Neill. "And Milwaukee [the festival] has always been the daddy of them all."