It’s been a long time coming, but Mercer County is about to launch its first Irish music festival. The Mercer Irish Fest, hosted by the Trenton Irish Heritage Association, will be held on Saturday, September 10, froom noon to 8 p.m., at Mercer County Park. The day-long event will include an Irish cultural pavilion, Irish giftware vendors, a kids’ park, and a food and beverage court, as well as some the best Irish bands in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“The idea’s been percolating for 10 years,” says Jimmy Walsh, festival chairman, at a kick-off press conference held at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub in Trenton. “It’s a big project, and to get people involved is the hard part; getting a committee together to do it. I’ve been involved with festivals for many years, and I always wanted to do one here but just never had the time. I think it just fell into place.”
The festival comes just about a month before the Trenton chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians holds its Irish Music Festival in Hamilton Square on Saturday and Sunday, October 1 and 2. Proceeds from Mercer Irish Festival will go to help fund the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Trenton.
“It’s going to be a fantastic event,” Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said of the Mercer Irish Fest. “My name is Brian Murphy Aquinas Hughes, and I have seven brothers and sisters, so you know if you cut me, potatoes fall out.”
The festival will feature the Willie Clancy Band out of northern Jersey, the Shantys and the Birmingham Six, both from Philadelphia, and Amaduan, which is based in Morristown.
Then there is the very local talent of the Nog Bhoys. Singer/guitarist Tom Glover and singer/mandolin player Frank Thewes have been quietly making a name for themselves in the past few years, especially with their loyal fans at Tir Na Nog.
Glover, a Hamilton native, has been into music just about all his life. “I’ve been playing since I was five years old,” he says, “and I just turned 48 on August 30. My dad, Tom Sr., came home from the army and taught me three chords that he had learned, and I got hooked on it and pretty much taught myself the rest — I never had lessons. I read a couple of books and just started playing.”
His favorite songwriter is John Denver. “After my dad taught me the three chords, I listened to John Denver until I was blue in the face. I learned a lot of his songs. That was my inspiration. Once I started doing Irish stuff, I saw that country music and Irish music are not far off. I was born and raised in Hamilton, but my roots go back to outside Dublin.”
The man who really got Glover into his Irish musical roots was Billy Briggs. When Briggs died in 2008, it could be said that virtually everyone connected to the Irish community of Mercer County knew “Irish” Billy Briggs. The owner of Tir Na Nog, a musician, activist, and a fundraiser, he was always described as a larger-than-life character by friends and admirers.
“I was playing at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church for a folk group, and we weren’t really going anywhere,” Glover says. “Billy hired me to play (with him at Tir Na Nog) when his guitar player retired. He literally sat me in the upstairs room, and we played three songs. He liked what he heard, and he said, ‘You got it every Wednesday and Friday ’til you mess it up.’ Then he said, ‘Hold on a second’, and he grabbed a legal pad and started listing songs from memory. He wrote out two full pages of songs that I had to learn in two weeks. Thank God for the internet — I just listened and learned. Some of them I knew from listening to Billy and his partner when I would come see them. We played New York, we played Philly — we were doing really well.
“It wasn’t a lot of old ‘Danny Boy’ and St. Patrick’s Day stuff,” Glover continues. “Freedom for Northern Ireland, that’s what Billy believed in. We played a lot of Irish rebel songs like ‘Broad Black Brimmer,’ ‘Rising of the Moon,’ ‘Sleivenamon,’ and ‘Boolavogue.’ I sang with him for eight or nine years, until he got sick, then I kept singing by myself every Wednesday and Friday as he and I had always done. After he died, I asked Margaret (O’Donnell-Briggs, Billy’s wife) for a little bit of help on Friday nights. She said, ‘You’ve got a green light; see if you can find somebody who you connect with.’
“Frank had already been playing at the Tir Na Nog on Saturday nights, and he switched from guitar to mandolin. Once I heard him, it just clicked. So I asked him what he thought, and he accepted, and the Nog Bhoys were born.”
The Nog Bhoys, of course, is a tip of the hat to their venue. “Margaret came up with the name. We were just going as Tom and Thewes. She just put it up on the board one day: ‘Check out the Nog Bhoys Friday night’. It’s got a ring to it.”
Glover and his partner may be identified as an Irish music duo, but there is more to them that, as they are anxious for the audiences to know. “We play a mixture,” says Glover. “We play country, Irish music, and classic rock. We are trying to spread out, and not all the places we play are Irish pubs. We play regularly in Princeton at Triumph Brewery, and we play at Killarney’s Public House out on Mercerville Avenue in Hamilton.
“We feel like we are just getting started, getting off the ground running. With some musicians, you have to rehearse for hours just to get one song down. With Frank, he knows what I’m going to do next, and I know what he’s going to do next. I don’t want to say we don’t need to rehearse, but it only takes us a short amount of time. It’s just chemistry, and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve been together about three years now, and we’re just starting to make a little dent in the circuit. We are talking about a CD; it’s probably going to be a ‘Live from Tir Na Nog’ CD. We’re picking a set list now.”
They may switch genres from gig to gig, but you can be sure that in Mercer Park on September 10, the Nog Bhoys will be committed to all things Irish. And, Glover notes, “Because September 11 is the next day, we are trying to come up with a couple of tunes to commemorate that, too.”
The festival founders have high hopes that this year’s event will start a tradition. Says Jimmy Walsh: “The first year is always a novelty, and you get it off the ground. The second year will be bigger than the first year. We’d be happy this year with 5,000 people. The nay-sayers always say, ‘What will you do if it rains?’ Well, I’ve been to plenty of festivals where it rains, and they always carry on.”
Besides, what would an Irish festival be without a little rain?
Mercer Irish Fest, Trenton Irish Heritage Association, Mercer County Park, 1638 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor. Saturday, September 10, Noon. to 8 p.m. Irish cultural pavilion with music and dance, Irish gift ware vendors, live music by Irish bands from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, activities for children, food and beverage court. www.merceririshfest.com.