The setting could not have been less Irish. The sun gared down on the barren field and track behind Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, making Sunday's temperatures in the 90s seem even hotter.
A shopping center or two, parking lots and traffic jams were within view, just beyond the gray chain link fence behind the bleachers.
But in the midst of that Washington suburban summer scene, there they were. Little redheaded kids answering to names like Kathleen, Maura, Michael and Patrick, performing jigs and reels to Irish folk music on accordians and fiddles.
More than 1,000 of them came from Boston, New York, Toronto, Canada, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. environs to compete in their performances of standard Irish folk dances for trophies and acclaim as accomplished Irish dancers.
The event was the second annual Irish Feis (festival) in Washington D.C., sponsored by the Irish-American Club of Washington, D.C. There are at least 100 similar festivals across the United States, where there are competitions and displays in everything from knitting sweaters and performing dance to playing bagpipes and tin whistles. The Feis takes its name from the ancient Celtic assemblies where an Irish kingdom would take care of its political business and follow it with festivities featuring competitions in dance, story-telling, athletics and singing.
Only about 200 of the 1,000 competitors who came to the two-day event that began Saturday were from the Washington metropolitan area, said Sean Coakley, a local realtor who was born in County Cork, Ireland, and who initiated the festival last year. He estimated that the festival this year drew between 5,000 and 6,000 spectators.
"The way it looks, this festival should take off all right," said Coakley, who also started the annual St. Patrick's Day parade here. "It's already bigger than last year. It's like horse shows, you know. Once you're on the circuit you start to attract more comers."
Most of the "comers" were fair-skinned Irishmen or decendants of Irishmen becoming lobster red watching countless dance and bagpipe competitions in Sunday's heat.
While the specatators sunbathed, the performers suffered. No sunhats and short sleeved shirts for the competing Irish dancers. They were dressed out in Celtic best. The boys wore woolen or linen kilts, black knee socks, white shirts, blazers and scarf tossed across the chest fastened with an Irish pin. The girls wore longsleeved, embroidered fitted dresses with lace collars, black stockings and lace-up shoes.
"I've danced in the rain of Ireland, in muddy fields and stuffed auditoriums," said one 24-year-old office clerk from Boston who was competing in solo jig performances. "But I've never danced in heat like this."
Although the weather was far removed from the mild summers of Ireland, the weekend still turned out to be days for the Irish. Occasionally a name like Schneider or Palazzolawould pop up among the contestants, but mostly there were names like Ryan, Fitzpatrick and Doolan.
Irish songs and impromptu jigs started up on the sidelines, cheered on by a bit of beer drinking and reminiscing. By late afternoon Sunday, which had started out with an open-air mass, the performers were dog tired, the spectators were nursing sunburns, and the crowd began thinning out.
The winners were off to display their trophies, and the losers were off to practice longer and harder for their next Irish Feis. And the Irish-American Club of Washington, D.C. was off to the drawing board to plan a bigger and better festival next year, maybe one with full Ceili bands to shake up the Walter Johnson High School stadium.