Festival celebrates Koroit’s Irish Pride

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In 161 years, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree in Koroit.
The little village that was built by Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine would still be recognisable to those first settlers from 1857 if they jumped in a time capsule and hurtled forward to 2018.
Sure, the town’s buildings and modes of transport may have changed dramatically, but the most important fabric of any small town, its people, carry a similar set of ideals and passion for where they live and where they came from.
Since its inception in 1997, the Koroit Irish Festival has been an annual showcase of the town’s link to its Irish heritage.
Two men that have played a key role in the evolution of the festival are Barry Brody and Anthony Dowling.
The pair will team together again on the weekend of April 27-29 to oversee the smooth and spectacular running of the festival’s street procession.
The street procession is a snapshot of all that is good about the festival and Koroit itself.
It celebrates the town’s Irish heritage with the carrying of the 32 county flags, an initiative Mr Dowling has driven. It also features a cavalcade of Koroit residents, under their club, group or school banner, proudly marching down the town’s main street. One important part of the procession is the classic cars which cruise down Commercial Road with some of Koroit’s unsung heroes as passengers. It was the brainchild of Mr Brody’s eight years ago to honour the ordinary people of Koroit for their extraordinary contribution. These include mothers, fathers and community servants who had carried out the non-glamorous roles that have built communities over generations.
The passion of both Mr Brody and Mr Dowling for Koroit, their Irish heritage and the festival are clear for all to see.
But despite their shared passions, the men come from different ends of the spectrum when it comes to places in Koroit’s history.
Mr Brody is old school Koroit, a man who has lived in and around the town his whole life. The Brody family story is the classic Koroit tale. His parents, Michael and Winifred (nee Fahey), met and married in their native County Clare. As is the way for many young Irish, emigration was the way forward, with the couple and their three-month first born making their way to Australia in 1927.
“My father had worked with spuds in Ireland and they knew Koroit and Ballarat was spud country so they came to Western Victoria,” Mr Brody said.
“The Koroit spud season was in full flow so that’s why they decided to come here.
“Dad started working in the spuds when he got here and then he got a job on the railway.”
It was to be a fatal career move for Michael, with the trolley he was riding while doing maintenance work on the railway line near Illowa tipping off the track after hitting stones, sending the young Irishman hurtling from the trolley and to his untimely death.
The tragedy was even greater given Michael and Winifred had grown their family to 15 children.
Mr Brody, who was four when his father died, was the second youngest of the family and was named Kevin Barry, after the famous Irish rebel.
He was to become known as Barry, a strange quirk of the Irish to often use the second name as the first.
Mr Brody and his siblings combined to help their mother make the large family clan a close-knit one.
Winifred died in 1983, aged 76, and Mr Brody fondly recalls his mother.
“She had a thick Irish accent, when she would ring on the phone a lot of the times i couldn’t understand what she was saying,” Mr Brody said.
“When our father died, a lot of us kids were still dependant on her, she had it pretty tough.”
Growing up as part of a big Koroit, Irish family, and going on to raise a family of five of his own, Mr Brody is well placed to judge just how Koroit’s heart beats.
“I think a lot of the traits of people are still pretty much the same as they have always been,” Mr Brody said.
“The Irish have always had to deal with hardship and that just brings everyone closer.
“When you look at the Irish festival, it is great we can celebrate all those things that have made us what we are today.
“People want something pretty real, that’s what they get when they come to the festival, it’s a good event to show what Koroit is all about.”
Mr Dowling’s Irish heritage is also a badge of honour he proudly wears.
His grandfather Thomas Dowling was born in County Kerry before heading to Australia in the 1920s and settling in Collingwood, creating a still held Dowling family passion for the AFL team carrying the black and white stripes.
Always aware of his Irish heritage, Mr Dowling decided to strengthen those ties when he moved to Koroit in 1994. He took on the role of principal at Koroit and District Primary School, a job he carried out with distinction for 12 years, and immersed himself in the community.
Part of this was joining the very first Koroit Irish Festival committee, where he was to fill numerous roles in the event’s formative years. He had a couple of years off in the late 2000s before returning to offer his experience and enthusiasm.
His input has helped grow the festival’s audience to beyond 3000 and have a 2018 three-day program that includes the world champion Christine Ayres School of Irish Dancing, Damien Leith, Maria Forde, Saoirse, the Australian Danny Boy Championship, spud picking and peeling competitions and a Gaelic Games Carnival.
It is a program Mr Dowling is proud to be a part of.
“It’s a great festival,” he said.
“The original aim of the festival was to bring the town together to celebrate our community and our Irish heritage and it is achieving that.
“It is very community driven and the greatest thing about it is everyone has fun.
“The committee are all volunteers and everyone wants to be there, our meetings are good fun and that desire to make the festival as good as it can be shows through, the people who come through the gates feel that attachment.”
The festival continues to embrace its community and is getting plenty of love back the other way.
The town’s two schools, the kindergarten, Woolsthorpe primary, the football netball, basketball and bowls clubs, the Lions club, the CWA, the scouts, the floral art group, the CFA, the SES and the historical society all play a role, using the event as a fundraiser while contributing valuable goods and services that make the festival run smoothly.
Festival president Chris Evans, who grew up in the town and has returned after some time away, said the event wouldn’t happen without community support.
“It (the festival) has become a pretty big event,” Mr Evans said.
“We have a great committee of 20-odd people but we’re all busy with work and family as well so we need that external help.
“I think the festival does bring the town together, we like to think the community feels it has real ownership of it.
“We get a massive kick knowing we are bringing people and great entertainment to Koroit..
“Koroit has never been a tourist place like Port Fairy or Warrnambool so to be able to put something on that helps put the town on the map is really pleasing.
“I think the festival also generates a lot of town pride, Koroit’s a pretty special place.
“When the festival is pumping on the Saturday afternoon or when Barry and Anthony have the street procession in full flight, Koroit’s an amazing place to be.”