LAKEWOOD RANCH -- From men's kilts to red hair and freckles to dogs who look like their owners, or vice versa, there was no getting around being Irish this weekend at Lakewood Ranch.
As expected, a crowd in the thousands ventured out to the otherwise serene community of Central Park to get a dose of Celtic Ireland before the big day, St. Patrick's Day, is celebrated on Monday.
For sure, the third annual Irish Celtic Festival at Lakewood Ranch will become the fourth next year, and many years to follow.
"I'm thoroughly pleased, and it's not even noontime," said Frank Shea, festival chairman and Lakewood Ranch resident. "It just gets bigger and bigger thanks to word of mouth and friends telling their friends," said Shea, who was dressed in a traditional green plaid kilt, ready to take on the men's kilt contest in the afternoon.
This year, the festival introduced an early, Top o' the Mornin' Lakewood Ranch Irish Celtic 5K and Family Fun Run to benefit the Wobbly Feet Foundation, a local charity for a Lakewood Ranch boy who was born with a rare genetic disorder affecting his immune and nervous system.
Nelie and Chris Boehle of Parrish, who like to visit Lakewood Ranch on weekends, gladly joined the run, along with their four-year-old English setter, Rueger, who competed afterward in the Lucky Dog Parade and Contest.
"We love coming down here, and the run was fun. After this event, Ireland is definitely on my bucket list." said an enthused Neli Boehle.
Alex Barr, a 20-year-old from Sarasota who attends Jacksonville University, won the 5K Race in 21 minutes, 30 seconds.
Afterward, as young Irish line dancers from the Drake School of Dance in Sarasota performed for the growing crowd, dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors, dressed as everything from Irish ballerinas to leprechauns, paraded around the downtown Central Park Gazebo, in anticipation of the contest that followed. Proceeds from the Lucky Dog Contest will benefit the local Humane Society of Lakewood Ranch.
Judges Eva Rey, executive director of the Lakewood Ranch Inter-District Authority, and Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh were more than impressed with the behavior of the dogs and their costumes.
"This is difficult because you go all out, but it's amazing whether you're Irish or not," Rey said.
Though Italian by heritage, six-pound Sparke, an eight-month-old Italian Greyhound dressed in ballerina duds, won first place for the cutest dog among the pack, along with some tempting-looking doggie cookie treats.
Her owner, 10-year-old Megan Workman of Bradenton, enjoyed being a part of the festival. "I get to see all the dogs dressed up. Sparke loves jumping on people and being the little dog. He really liked it today," said Workman, who named Sparke for his birthday, which falls on Independence Day.
There was plenty of entertainment between the Celtic music and fiddlers, Irish food, and child-friendly scavenger hunts and potato decorating.
Melissa Dwyer, who just moved from Colorado to Bradenton with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, Niamh, a Gaelic name, said she just got back from visiting Ireland for three months. Her husband, whose job transferred him to Florida, is a native of Ireland.
"It's beautiful there. The people are the nicest in the world, very welcoming and I love the castles."
The festival concluded in the warm afternoon sun with the traditional playing of the bagpipes by the Braden River Pipers and two very Irish contests, the Best Male Legs in a Kilt Contest, won by little Liam Paxton of Bradenton, who rocked his kilts, and the Most Freckles with Red Hair.
Said Lori Basilone, activities planner for Lakewood Ranch, "It gets better every year, and I'm always ready for it."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.