The History of the Celtic Faire

Story By: Patrick Michael Karnahan (Founder/Owner)

35 Years Ago on A Rainy Saturday

Having returned from Ireland in 1986, where I had been teaching art, I sat there in my small cabin in Soulsbyville listening to Irish Music on the radio. It was St. Patrick’s Day and no one in my community was celebrating that special Irish holiday, not even with green beer or corn beef and cabbage! As I listened to the music on the radio, I looked at a few of my oil paintings that I had brought back from Ireland. It was a sad moment: wanting to celebrate and nowhere to go. That’s when an idea hit me; I thought, maybe a showing of Irish artwork next year with a reception that included food, drink, music and poetry.

A month before the very first Sonora Celtic Faire in 1987, I was very busy organizing entertainment and artwork for the event. I had some great help from the local arts council that offered to fund the idea. With a group of dedicated volunteers from the local community, word was getting out. The name of the first event was a Celtic Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. The event featured my artwork along with three others artists. The bands hired were Golden Bough and Kenny Haul and the Long Haul Band.

As Irish fate would have it, along with Irish weather, it rained! Boy did it rain, all day in fact… We were all crowded inside the small Creekside building at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds. There were about 200 people that showed up on that rainy Saturday some thirty years ago. The event was advertised as a two-day event, so when Sunday morning rolled around with bright sunshine, I hoped that a massive crowd would show up.
Not the case at all, only about six people showed up total. As the day grew to a close the mood was festive among the few that experienced Saturday’s joy. The Sonora Celtic Faire was born!

You say Celtic Faire, so are you celebrating the Boston basketball team in Sonora?

Before the big craze of Riverdance and movie blockbusters like “Rob Roy” and “Braveheart”, no one in our local community seemed to know just what Celtic meant. At least half the people thought we were taking about a basketball team, no kidding! As I organized the first few faires, people started to get the idea that this was not a celebration of a Boston team. In the second year, along with artwork, there was more music, with the addition of bagpipers and a small Celtic marketplace. The event did grow in attendance that year mainly due to the fact that the Home & Garden Show was taking place at the fairgrounds at the same time. Many people had to just wonder: why there are so many men in Scottish dresses?

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Sonora, Calaveras, and back to Sonora again!

Not all the Celtic Faires have taken place in Sonora. During the 12th Celtic Faire, the first year of the Joust, difficulties started to play out with the staff at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds. By event’s end, it seemed impossible to continue at the Sonora Facility.
The cost of doing business and rent agreements were not working out. As the talks broke down I started to look for another site in the local community to put on the faire. I ended up across the river in Angels Camp, at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds. The faire manager at the time, Buck King, was extremely excited that the Celtic Faire might cross the river. A deal was struck and the whole faire moved. It was not easy to move the event, and there was a lot of local concern. In the end, it turned out to be the right move. At the Calaveras location, the faire had so much parking and room to grow, which it did. In the years at Angels Camp, the faire jumped to over 10,000 people in attendance. The only real drawback, was the lack of covered buildings and local lodging establishments.

Towards the last years at Calaveras County Fairgrounds, new management had taken over and new policies became a major issue. Rents started to get unrealistic and the management became impossible to work with. The idea of moving the faire back to Sonora or even Amador County was not going to be easy, but something had to be done. I realized that this was not going to be an easy move. Many of the folks that worked for me did not want to move. The thought of returning to Sonora presented the obstacle of no parking, which had always been a major concern. The positive side to moving back to Sonora however was the large area grandstand to watch jousting and all the covered buildings.

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Story By: Patrick Michael Karnahan (Founder/Owner)

time to move

I ended up bringing the faire back to Sonora in 2008, and the faire continued with great success. With the great help from our partners at Black Oak Casino, utilizing their bus service, and the fine folks at Sonora Wal-Mart, we were able to park thousands of cars and make our patrons very happy. Back in Sonora the crowds came back with us and the joust became a larger attraction. Working with the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, the faire was also able to find festival patrons affordable lodging options, which lacked in Angels Camp.

folks at Sonora Wal-Mart, we were able to park thousands of cars and make our patrons very happy. Back in Sonora the crowds came back with us and the joust became a larger attraction. Working with the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, the faire was also able to find festival patrons affordable lodging options, which lacked in Angels Camp.

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For the Love of the Joust!

In the third, year armored foot combat was introduced to the Celtic audience. It was very popular with the children and adults. Seeing guys in armored suits beat the heck out of each other was so much fun to watch. I did struggle in the early years with the decision to have any living history at the faire. I did not want the Celtic Faire to become a Renaissance type event. In the end, I thought that it would work as long as the whole history of the Celtic people was highlighted, thus it became “A Window to Celtic History”. The thought of having knights jousting on horseback would have to wait many years because of cost and finding the right venue to host it. The idea of Jousting on horseback did not become a feature at the faire until the 13th year.

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At last, I decided to try out jousting in the 13th year. We located the Joust not in the stadium, but in one of the smaller animal barns at the lower end. It was under cover and had a very limited range for horse travel. Somehow it worked with the audience and soon became one of the most popular attractions at the faire. The Joust grew and grew and supported thousands of spectators, climaxing in a National Geographic TV special about Jousting five years ago.

SNOW FAIRE, or Here comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again?

Putting on an event in March, still winter, has not always been the easiest thing to do. The fifth year we had snow at Sunday’s closing. The 9th year was known as “The Flood Faire”, because on Friday afternoon the whole creek below the fairgrounds let go and flooded half the buildings. The crew of volunteers worked until sunrise the next morning mopping out buildings. I was not even sure we were going to be able to open. We did and the sun came out to broke even… And then there was the infamous “Calaveras Celtic Snow Faire.”

The faire of 2006 was a different animal indeed. As the temperature kept lowering, the forecast showed a heavy blanket of snow in the foothills. Not something a faire promoter wants to hear with all his money on the table. On the Thursday morning, before faire, I was doing a live TV show in Sacramento when the announcer started talking about this Arctic blast! I remembered my gut was telling me that things were going to get real bad this weekend. The snow starting falling on Friday, during “Schools Day”, I spent most of the day with the Vikings and their large fire. By nightfall, there was enough snow to cross-country ski around the entire fairgrounds, which I did.

In the morning at dawn, I awoke to almost a foot of fresh powder. I remember driving my 4x4 around the grounds and looking at all the tents that collapsed underneath the weight of the snow. The power was out throughout the grounds and the highway was closed to the fairgrounds. As we got closer to opening, the power came on, and the highway opened with chain control. Throughout the day we made the best of an unusual situation. The sun would come out occasionally to make for some of the best pictures of the faire ever taken. Those that experienced the 2006 faire, said it was by far the best event ever. Looking back I agree, but not during the moment of operation.

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Story By: Patrick Michael Karnahan (Founder/Owner)

It’s been about the Celtic Music!

The very first band to perform at Sonora was Golden Bough. Thirty years ago there were very few Celtic Bands in existence. My own Black Irish Band did not form until 1989. Celtic music in our region did not get popular until the River Dance craze of the 90s. Bands were very hard to find in the beginning years of the faire for this reason. Golden Bough, to date, has been featured at every faire except one. By the mid 90s there was a floodgate open in the realm of Celtic Music. It was during these times that I started to hire bands from Ireland and Scotland.

During the 11th Sonora Celtic faire, I hired the band Arcady, featuring legendary accordionist Jackie Daley. They were scheduled to perform on Sunday, -which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day- at 1pm. As fate would have it, they did not show up until 4pm, an hour before closing. I remember the first words out of Jackie’s mouth were, “where’s the beer!” I was thinking: why are you late and where's the crowd that just left an hour ago? As it was, this did not sit well with me and I had my doubts about hiring bands like this again.

Though the years, I have hired many bands from Europe and Canada with good effect. Some of the best groups the faire has worked with include Wolfstone, Dervish, and Daun’. On a side note, I did like bringing in the famous Irish Rock Band, Black 47. Unfortunately, the festival’s music goers did not as much. Crazy as it may seem, some of our more regional bands have had the best following and loyalty. Bands like Wicked Tinkers, Tempest, Celtica, Black Irish Band, Molly’s Revenge, and Golden Bough still bring in very large crowds. Like the term used in Guinness marketing, “familiarity breeds contentment”.

In the end it has always been about the Celtic Spirit!

Selling the idea of a Celtic Faire was not easy in the beginning, with a few dedicated staff members over the years and a very loyal public, the faire has survived 30 years. When the Sonora Celtic Faire first started in our region, there were a few Irish Fairs and Scottish Highland Games in California. The word or idea of Celtic was never considered until the Sonora Celtic Faire. To me at first, it seemed so appropriate because of the region of California I lived in. During the California Gold Rush, miners from Cornwall, Ireland and Wales inhabited our area. Many of these miners had gained experience working in the mines back home. Local towns like Murphy’s and Soulsbyville have a rich Celtic History that seemed perfect to explore.

With new generations of Celtic blood coming to the faire every year, you can feel the spirit of great enthusiasm. It has also been discovered that people come to the faire from many backgrounds and interests. To some, it might be the enjoyment of traditional Celtic Music or the more progressive Celtic Rock. Families of all nationalities seem to love the Jousting and armored sword fighting. I’ve heard many times that people only come to the faire to shop at our large marketplace and enjoy the many foods offered. Some folks that come to the faire are very traditional in their tastes and like Highland Games, Scotch whisky tasting, and the many Scottish Clan Booths.

Let’s face it, when you walk around the faire and see all the men in kilts, historic costumes, and general Celtic garb, you know you have a following for your event. I think in the end however it comes down to the people that believe in your dream. Over the years, I have worked with some talented people in my goal of building a faire. With so many people who work on staff and volunteer every year, I am blessed with a fantastic Celtic Faire family. I want to let you all know that I could not make this faire work without your help. To my Celtic Faire family and all of you that have followed this Celtic Spirit, thank you so very much, and let’s make it another 30 years!!! I might not be there in person, but I will be with you in spirit, it’s the least an Irishman can do, and make sure you have a few Teeling Irish Whiskeys in my name….

SNOW FAIRE, or Here comes that Rainy Day Feeling Again?

Putting on an event in March, still winter, has not always been the easiest thing to do. The fifth year we had snow at Sunday’s closing. The 9th year was known as “The Flood Faire”, because on Friday afternoon the whole creek below the fairgrounds let go and flooded half the buildings. The crew of volunteers worked until sunrise the next morning mopping out buildings. I was not even sure we were going to be able to open. We did and the sun came out to broke even… And then there was the infamous “Calaveras Celtic Snow Faire.”

The faire of 2006 was a different animal indeed. As the temperature kept lowering, the forecast showed a heavy blanket of snow in the foothills. Not something a faire promoter wants to hear with all his money on the table. On the Thursday morning, before faire, I was doing a live TV show in Sacramento when the announcer started talking about this Arctic blast! I remembered my gut was telling me that things were going to get real bad this weekend. The snow starting falling on Friday, during “Schools Day”, I spent most of the day with the Vikings and their large fire. By nightfall, there was enough snow to cross-country ski around the entire fairgrounds, which I did.

In the morning at dawn, I awoke to almost a foot of fresh powder. I remember driving my 4x4 around the grounds and looking at all the tents that collapsed underneath the weight of the snow. The power was out throughout the grounds and the highway was closed to the fairgrounds. As we got closer to opening, the power came on, and the highway opened with chain control. Throughout the day we made the best of an unusual situation. The sun would come out occasionally to make for some of the best pictures of the faire ever taken. Those that experienced the 2006 faire, said it was by far the best event ever. Looking back I agree, but not during the moment of operation.

Named the 

Best Outdoor Event

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by: Sierra Lodestar

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