Celtic pride: Newly formed group plans to stage major August festival, clan gathering in La Grande

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 01, 2010 04:41 pm

A good old-fashioned clan gathering and festival might become a part of

La Grande’s slate of summer events, thanks to changes brewing in the region’s Celtic community.

In September, the Baker City-based Eastern Oregon Celtic Society’s board of directors voted to dissolve the organization, and the decision isn’t sitting well with many rank and file members.

They say they plan to carry on, with a new organization and events in La Grande that will showcase Celtic traditions and draw big crowds.

Alan Roy Johnston is leading the effort to establish the Celtic Society of Eastern Oregon, a new and rejuvenated group based in La Grande.

 “We’re starting at the bottom, attempting to put together an organization that will carry on with Celtic educational and sports events here in Eastern Oregon,” Johnston, a La Grande resident, said.

Celtic societies in America work to preserve heritage and traditions begun long ago in Celtic League countries and regions like Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and the Isle of Man.

Festivals are popular in the United States and include athletic events that emphasize strength, events such as kaber turning, hammer and stone throws, and the weight toss. Beyond the sporting events, the gatherings include bagpiping, martial exhibitions, parades and lots of dancing.

The Eastern Oregon Celtic Society held festivals in Baker City the past three summers. Johnston said they were successful, family-oriented affairs that drew at a minimum of 1,200-1,500 people.

“That was paid admission,” he said. “That didn’t count literally hundreds of dancers and pipers. It was quite an influx of money for the service-related economy.”

Still, on Sept. 28, the EOCS board voted to disband, putting an end to the yearly festival and leaving the faithful without an organized venue.

Johnston said he believes there is ample interest in starting a new society in La Grande and continuing with a regional festival. Currently, he has more than 80 people on his mailing list, and many of those want to continue.

“We don’t want to see it gone. We want to save it,” he said.

Two organizational meetings have been held already, and a third is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Bear Mountain Pizza, 2104 Island Ave. Everybody interested is encouraged to attend.

The agenda for the Thursday meeting includes event development, a vote on bylaws and a membership drive. Also, nominations of officers will be accepted in December, with elections taking place in January.

Johnston said he and others are already laying plans for a “Burns Night” supper, celebrating the 252nd birthday of Robert Burns, the man known as the “Bard of Caledonia.”

The event, from 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 25 in the basement banquet room at Mamacita’s, is semi-formal and limited to 50 tickets. People interested in attending should call Johnston at 541-975-3952. All money must be received by Jan. 17.

While the Burns Night supper is taking shape, the new society is looking forward to staging a much bigger La Grande event, the Celtic Festival and Clan Gathering of Eastern Oregon, Aug. 26-28 at Pioneer Park.

The event will feature heavy Scottish highland games. Johnston said the new society is working now to gain the sanction of the Scottish American Athletic Association.

“If the S-Triple A promotes it, people will hear about it all across the United States,” he said.

Johnston said he thinks the new Celtic Society of Eastern Oregon can have a positive impact on La Grande. Because a major clan gathering is regarded by many as a chance for a family reunion, it can draw people from all corners of the country and even from overseas.

There’s still lots of work left to do. In the months ahead, the society will be working to acquire 501 C-3 tax status. The group also aims to build a partnership with the City of

La Grande that will make the August festival possible.

In the end the whole community will benefit, Johnston said.

“It’s in the works, and if we pull it off it would be a significant new source of income for our local economy,” he said.