May the Force Be with You Ed Ward, Rest in Peace
By Colm Croffy, Executive Director
Association of Irish Festivals & Events (AOIFE)
Ballinasloe, Co. Galway
I first encountered the forcefield of humanity and culture that is Ed Ward in the summer of 2006 at The Falls Lodge Hotel at the Irish AOIFE Annual Conference. He was zig zagging between Glor, the Ennis Trad Nua and Ennistymon with a favouriite West Clare Scout of his Paul Edward Keating.
However, it was the fall of 2008 , I was in attendance at one of the pioneering Irish and Celtic North American producers Conference at the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton, that I struck up a rapport.
The Milwaukee Mafia were there in their battle group formation led by the Ward trio including his late brother Chuck. Small suitcases, large musical instrument cases, stout of heart and melodious to a fault.
Brian Doherty, the irascible Ulsterman masquerading as a Halifax publican, was tour guide. Nan Krushinki of Pittsburgh Irish Fest and Jane Mullally Anderson, the then CEO of Irish Fest resembled two fastidious Irish Nuns in charge of a boisterous busload of fifth graders.
We were billeted in summer holiday camp alongside the stunning lake Bras d’ Or, where the inventor of the telephone Alexander Bell had some stunning Holiday home.
Aside from the workshops, the concerts, the dancing, the sheer fun and impromptu music sessions, I was gravitated to this significant presence; who was charming to a fault but so generous of time, knowledge and insight to what worked with an audience, and genre, that you knew he instinctively was a master huntsman in seeking out the best of Irish, Celtic, Trad, Folk and fusion long before they got in the maw of the marketing guys.
Descended from Limerick and Meath folk; they came from a “ Music house” – Ed and his late and loved Brother Chuck played in a band “ Blarney “ in their college days and stumbled upon the lore of the Irish tradition which though popular on the East Coast by the Clancys and countless others since the 60s, left the Mid West a little out of the loop.
The Summerfest grounds, owned by the City and richly endowed with stages and infrastructure from Miller Brewing and Harley Davidson, is on the shores of Lake Michigan. It has been and is the stunning setting and back drop for almost four decades of music making, storytelling and fun.
Ed was a gregarious man, who in his community, continually gave and sought out other cultures and tribes – he had volunteered with different nationality days and fiestas as the summer grounds to understand a little of what made the audience want to come through the gates, stay and more importantly, come back!
In 1981, Ed turned his passion for Irish music into a venture that now requires 4,500 people to run and has 125,000 annual customers. It has been the guiding force in a global movement that he inspired, shepherded, and grew — and it will have a lasting influence on Milwaukee. Irish Fest and is arguably the world’s most influential Celtic music festival.
Ward, a musician himself, has been responsible for nurturing new musicians from all over the world, discovering new groups, and inspiring other cities to follow the Irish Fest lead. To put some things into perspective, back in the early 80s – perhaps the largest folk festival of comparable scale was Lisdoonvarna, which was begun in 1978, the Wille Clancy Week was only a 1972 child, Cork Folk only celebrated its 40th Anniversary this year. In the cannon of Irish (Island based festivals), The Fleadh Cheol na hEireann birthed in Mullingar (going back to roots in 2021), the Kerry Rose in 1959, Mary from Dungloe in 1967 – were all on the scene in the early 80s, but they have not been able to reach the ambition of Ed.
Not only did he pioneer a new vision in the ethos and scale of how a modern Irish & Celtic Festival should look and feel – he was uniquely responsible for sharing and curating that vision with so many others – musicians, artistes, writers and festival producers WITHOUT state or federal aid!
In 1998, he invited a few modest Irish and Celtic Festival producers for a meeting in Milwaukee and by 2005, when the Irish and Celtic Producers Conference came to gather, it was 77 of a group representing over 25 Festivals . I had the honour and privilege of speaking and attending four – Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Nova Scotia, before the economic crisis put an end to that.
In 2010, when the Irish Association hosted the Bi-Annual meeting in Ballinasloe and Limerick for the first time ( with Culture Ireland sponsored showcases in UL and Glor) – it was 105 and some 30 events – all still learning and being influenced by this giant of a cultured man. He really enjoyed sparring with the late Professor Michael O Sullibhean of The World Academy in UL.
He strongly believed in Walt Disney’s policy of entertaining and educating an audience and he never stopped pushing the boundaries of what the 100,000 plus attendees at Milwaukee could see and participate in.
In his outlook he strived for innovation in presentation and musicianship and was hugely encouraging to next generations of musicians. Ed Ward had experience in the Peace Corps, the military, politics, law and investing, but it’s in the not-for-profit world that he made his mark as a successful entrepreneur.
He was as tough as old boots when it came to negotiations, especially with Band Agents and promoters, and was always frank with others who were gonna bite off more than they could chew when it came to taking a punt on a band.
I can still see him sitting at a table in a conference setting his Irish Fest Baseball hat – dispensing advice and wisdom to other event organisers in the room of countless meetings, of what to pay, what to split and how to deal with excessive green room demands! He was a key promoter of sharing.
Ed’s knowledge of all matters musical was voluminous – the Ward Archive was a gem of an idea (I think of him and other family members) who wanted to start in the Bunting tradition of gathering up those early 20th Century recordings and 19th century music manuscripts of our ancestors, who brought little more else with them on their emigrant voyages.
He was awarded the distinguished Presidents Medal for work in the field of Music, Arts and Culture with the Diaspora by Uachtaran Michel D Higgins in a ceremony at the Aras last November.
He was and will remain a giant of a man in the pantheon of Irish Festival and Event history. He has done more than all the agencies of both States- to bring our island culture to newer and younger audiences. Ed promoted fusion, Celtic rock, folk, trad, innovations with pipes, even bag pipes, and sought sincerely to allow his lakeside arena to be a space for all Celtic folk to come together and explore the similarities, not just their differences.
I was an invited guest to two of the Milwaukee Festivals in 08, I think, and 10. On each occasion, I was made warmly at ease by Ed, wearing one his various hats – either through Foundation or Festival Entertainment Chair. He was the same with Bishops, Mayors, Ministers, Musicians, Media or indeed his most beloved of all – his family of volunteers.
Chuck, his younger brother who had a beautiful voice and could give as good a rendition as the late Brendan Grace of the “ Dutchman,” was President of the Festival in August 2010, he was in the final stages of what called him home and in some considerable distress moving around the site in his golf buggy with a serene cheerfulness.
I still remember Ed and Sister making the trek to Ireland in November, just three short months later ,to attend the Producers Conference, only to be cruelly whisked back ahead of schedule with the news of Chuck’s death.
Ed was one of life’s generous givers – not untypical of a festival or not for profit event founder. He had an aura that compelled you to make way to his campsite fire and join in his sing song.
My enduring memory of all is my last Scattering night (the huge Come All Ye of a Jam, of everyone that is on the bill over the 3 days, where we were all enjoying the revelry – even Eamon O Cuiv T.D. was moved to song!
Ed was a huge, huge fan of Tommy Makem, loved his repertoire and style, more importantly his companionship. The haunting notes of Tommy’s “ Will Ye Go Lassie Go “ were played on the tin whistle and big Ed turned to me with tears in his eyes and says, “ Jeeze, I really miss Tommy “.
He’ll miss Tommy no more. They and countless others who have spent a lifetime of passing on in Heany’s words, “ The Given Note, “ are enjoying not a Scattering, but a Gathering in the next realm.
I again would like to offer my sincerest sympathies to Ed’s wife Cathy, his children and granddaughter, as well as his associates, colleagues at Irish Fest, the Irish and Celtic Festival Producers world and his many, many friends. at this very sad time.
Go Raibh a HAnam Dilis (He is a pure soul).
Edward J. Ward
JULY 14, 1945 ~ OCTOBER 13, 2019 (AGE 74)
Surrounded by his family, Edward James Ward, age 74, died peacefully at his home on Sunday, October 13, 2019 after a long battle with cancer. Ed was preceded in death by son Brendan and brother Chuck. He is remembered by his wife Cathy, sons Patrick, Sean (Melissa) and Conor, daughters Caitlin (Jimmy) and Kelly, grand-daughter Moira, brother Jack (Margaret), sister Colleen Kennedy (Tom) and sister in law Cathy. He will be further remembered by his many nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.
Ward served in the Peace Corp from 1967 to 1969, in the Malaria Abatement program in Thailand and served in the United States Army, during Vietnam, from 1970 to 1971; he was awarded a bronze star medal for his heroic service.
In 1967, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Marquette University of College Arts and Sciences and in 1976 earned his Juris Doctor degree from Marquette University Law School. Through his professional career he worked in politics and in financial services; he worked for the county government, state government and federal government, and as a wealth advisor for Morgan Stanley.
Ward’s involvement in the Greater Milwaukee community was extensive. He founded Milwaukee Irish Fest, the Milwaukee Irish Fest Foundation and the John J. Ward Irish Music Archives and was one of the founding members of the Irish folk band Blarney. He was a member of the Wauwatosa Rotary Club and the United Ethnic Festivals. He served on the board of directors for Catholic Financial Life, CelticMKE, St. Charles Youth and Family Services and Tosa Tonight, and as president for the Shamrock Club of Wisconsin.
Ward was a source of inspiration for Irish musicians, colleagues and friends around the world. He received various awards for his services to the community, including his A Person for Others award from Marquette University Alumnae; he also received awards for his commitments in promoting Irish culture in America, including Irelands’ Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.
No amount of accolades can match the profound pride and love he had for his family. Ward was a loving husband, father, grand-father, brother, uncle, mentor and friend. Humble in nature, he was charismatic and thoughtful. Many will remember him for his infectious laugh and his zest for life that followed everywhere he went.
Donations are appreciated to the Tommy Makem Cultural Legacy Fund or to the Irish Fest Talent Development fund in care of CelticMKE.
Obit courtesy of www.BeckerRitter.com.