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Tartan Steampunks, Celtic Cowboys and Green Power...the changing face of Irish Festivals

Posted by Sharon Armstrong on Fri, 03/11/2011 - 21:28

Traditional Irish music festivals in the States often play host to various groups that seem to be more attached to a certain idea of Celtic history, a chain-mail and heaving bosom kind of idea, than to the more historically correct musical and cultural aspects of traditional Celtic music. But you know, who is to say that you can't have a little fun with established traditions?

And with that in mind a fun evolution in the fantasy aspect of being Celtic that I was pleased to see at the 2011 North Texas Irish Festival was the move from fluttering damsels and medieval gentlemen to flights of the imagination with a slightly harder edge – that of the emerging ‘Steampunk’ aesthetic.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, incorporating alternate histories based on what could be described as a Victorian Sci-Fi perspective, worlds usually set in the future or in alternate realities but still heavily reliant on steam-power. It might be hard to describe but it is easy to recognize, and it has spilled out from the written page into Steampunk conventions and fashion. It is kind of fun, and can be found at more and more Irish Festival all over the States, and beyond.

Adam Mc Craw, resplendent in leather top hat, and antique-clock-cog-embellished metal and leather aviator glasses is co-owner of Silver Leaf Costumes. Sandwiched between several stalls full of katanas and broadswords his booth glittered with brass and leather accessories, and whimsical anachronistic ray-guns. Corsets still abounded but at least the ones at his stall were a little tougher looking than the norm...more Mad Max meets Jules Verne lost in the Wild Wild West , than where the hell did I leave my unicorn?

“We had been involved in the Ren Fests for about twenty years," Mc Craw said. "And we got tired of working for other people, so my wife and I started this business. Over the last four or five years, we branched into Steampunk, which is a lot like a mish-mash of Charles Dickens and Flash Gordon - science fiction with a Victorian aesthetic which has been brought over into anime and popular fantasy movies. The thing I like is that it is all pure imagination. There is no one telling me that I am wrong. It’s more fun when you do it in costume.”

He winked.

“And I am not just talking about festivals.”

For the many people in the UK who grew up watching Dallas and Lonesome Dove, Texas will always be more oil magnet and cowboy than Celtic.

At the Equine area of the NTIF, Robert M Liner looked to me exactly like a cowboy should. He was a tall and solidly build, with a big walrus mustache - in the best tradition of Larry McMurtry gunslingers and trail riders - and wearing worn leather chaps that somehow totally failed to look ridiculous.
The large shaggy horse leaning against him pushed against his arms and chest like a big dog, rubbing its head on his back and sneaking puffs of breath against his face. I felt that the only thing preventing it rolling on its back to get its stomach tickled was the worn and comfortable looking saddle on its rough back.

Liner is a C.H.A (Certified Horsemanship Association) certified riding instructor, qualified in English, Western and Trial, and he is the founder and head trainer for Equine In Line, where he uses a unique type of horse training techniques, which he describes as Intuitive Equine Guidance, to train both fearful horses and their riders to overcome their difficulties. He has been giving demonstrations at the State Fair of Texas for over a decade.

According to Liner his approach on horse training is based on older, more holistic outlooks on the relationship between horses and humans, of a kind he says was traditionally used by both Native Americans and ancient Celts, as well as other cultures.

“We do a program called The Spirit of the Celtic Horse,” he explained. “And it’s to teach the traditions not only about horses but also about the Celtic outlook on the spiritual connection between the earth and mankind and about what the horse can really teach us. And by doing this we specialize by working with rescue horses and horses that people say cannot be trained, and getting away from the whole idea of kicking them, and whopping on them.”

How does his methods differ from more traditionally accepted western practices?

“What they really meant when talking about ‘breaking horses’ was breaking resistance." he explained. "But what got into people’s minds was I am gonna break YOU, but a lot of times what happened was the human got hurt, and then the horse got blamed, and then it became more about literally whipping the animal – they were going to beat it into that horse. But the thing about it is that the horse is a vegetarian, and he is also a prey animal - he doesn’t have an instinct to want to hurt a human. The only time that people get hurt is by being with a horse that is claustrophobic or afraid.”

In 2010 Liner was involved with ‘The Long Ride’, a western expedition led by James Locke from Texas to Montana which followed the famous Goodnight-Loving cattle trail, a journey of over 2000 miles. He also rescues abused horses and rehabilitates them, and provides what he calls therapy horses for disabled children.

“There is no greater thing than to have a service animal like a horse,” he explained. “We get kids that can’t walk, and they have a therapy called hippotherapy. The rocking motion of the horse stimulates the brain waves, kind of the like the Mozart effect, helps you think, and when they are rocking on the horse, their brains are stimulated and that is where they can give them speech therapy, and psychological therapy, you know, help the kids. It’s accepted world-wide, they have them as far away as Mongolia. They even do it with kids and adults that have had severe brain injuries and get their motor skills back by using a horse. The idea here is to just work with the natural instincts of the horse and see what the horse can teach us, and like the therapy horses, let them be of service.”

The Irish T-Shirts on display were not the only thing that was green at the festival. For those of us in Scotland who grew up watching Dallas, oil and Texas are closely linked. But in today’s Texas there is a move away from traditional power, and other options are being explored that incorporate something else of which there is no lack in the Lone Star State - wind power.

“In the State of Texas people have choice between different electric companies,” explained Lydia of Miller, of Green Mountain Power, a ‘sustainable’ wind-powered energy company.

“They can choose according to price, but they can also choose the source of the power used by that company. So Green Mountain Energy uses only wind-power for residential customers, and that is a very easy way for people to make a difference through their electric company. “
The company started in Burlington, Vermont in 1997, and has been providing energy in Texas since 2001. It also provides energy in Oregon, New Jersey, and New York State."

The company draws its power from a number of wind-farms all over the state of Texas, in Amarillo, Midland, Oddessa, Sweetwater, and Lubbock., and, according to Lydia, is expanding all the time.

“We are very proud to say that the Empire State Building in now one our customers,” Lydia said. “We run into people that believe that there isn’t any global warming and actually it is fine if they don’t think that global warming is an issue, because almost everyone agrees that less air pollution is a good thing and in Dallas we have some pretty bad air pollution. The primary benefit is that there are no emissions produced by wind turbines. It actually is fairly substantial. For one household to change over to us, instead of the traditional power generation which is coal or natural gas, is the equivalent of not driving a car 17, 000 mile a year, or planting 950 trees, or recycling 63000 Ibs of paper. We have competitive pricing options, we are pretty much in the middle price range. We might not save people a fortune, sometimes it will be more, sometimes it will be less, but it is not a huge difference either way, but is a very easy way for people to make a difference through their electric company.”

Old and new, a musical and artistic mix of America and Ireland set in modern times but with its roots in the past, a staging area between new greener power options and old traditional Texan oil and gas, cowboys teaching ancient methods in today’s riding schools, the North Texas Irish Festival is nothing if not full of surprises and if history teaches us anything there is nothing more traditional than change.