The Irish Fair of Minnesota wastes no time on modesty, billing itself as the nation's largest free celebration of the Celtic culture.

About 100,000 visitors trek to Harriet Island Regional Park each year for the three-day festival, which kicks off with a Belfast Cowboys concert from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday but officially starts Friday.

St. Patrick's Day in St. Paul is certainly a celebration, but the Irish Fair focuses on a broader scope of Irish culture. In addition to music, literature and dancing, there will be rugby, wine tasting, sheep herding and a "sassy lassy" trivia contest.

Former pub owner and chairman of the fair board Kieran Folliard said St. Patrick's Day is more of a national holiday like New Year's. "It's just a celebration," he said, but the Irish Fair is "paying homage to and keeping alive traditions" such as the vibrant dance and music heritage.

Tickets to see the Belfast Cowboys sell for $15, which includes "beverages for the evening, laughter, smiles and dancing till your feet hurt," according to the website. The cowboys are a Van Morrison tribute band and will play his entire "Moondance" CD.

Headliners at the fair include Gaelic Storm, the Young Dubliners, Atlantic Steps, Liz Carroll and Cormac McCarthy, and Derek Warfield and the Young Wolfe Tones.

For fitness buffs, there's the "Get Your Green on 5K" family fun run that passes down Shepard Road beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday. Entry fee is $30 and the race closes at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. For less fit sports buffs, there's the "Couch Potato Zero-K" from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the festival's sports field. Entry fee is $20. And yes, the race is a zero-kilometer run with the starting and finish lines 3 feet apart. "There is absolutely no running allowed. Everyone wins a free pint and snacks," according to the fair's website.

Irish is the second-largest cultural heritage in St. Paul behind German, and the city draws crowds for all events Irish.

Only beer and wine will be available at the Irish Fair.

As for Folliard, two major Irish celebrations in St. Paul is just a start. "I've been here for 25 years and I've been trying to dream up an Irish Fair for every month," he said.

General admission to the Irish Fair is free, but upgraded tickets and detailed parking and schedule information are available at

As for the sheep, Folliard said the dogs herd them right through the crowds. "If that doesn't put a smile on your face, therapy is required," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson