By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 15, 2019 at 12:58 PM

Ed Ward, the driving force behind the founding of Milwaukee Irish Fest, the John J. Ward Irish Music Archives, the respected band Blarney and the Irish Fest Foundation, has died.

Ward, who was 74, passed away on Sunday, Oct. 13 after a long battle with cancer.

After serving in the Peace Corps and the United States Army during the Vietnam War, for which he was awarded a bronze star, Ward – a graduate of Marquette University, and later of MU Law School – returned to Milwaukee, where he helped create an astonishingly successful Irish festival in a city better known for its German gemütlichkeit.

As my friend Ted Perry so keenly observed ...

Ward launched Irish Fest at the lakefront in 1981 and has grown it into the largest such event in the world, with performances by more than 100 acts on 17 stages drawing more than 100,000 attendees.

In addition to serving as Irish Fest executive director for the event’s first 11 years, Ward was board president for four years, a permanent member of the board, and chaired the festival’s entertainment committee.

In 1992, he started the Ward Irish Music Archives and, two years later, the Irish Fest Foundation.

"Ward’s influence and legacy stretches far beyond the festival and its organization," reads a press release from CelticMKE, which produces Irish Fest. "He played a role in connecting with and supporting other Irish festivals across America as well as Irish musicians around the world. He established communications and fostered relationships to elevate Celtic culture with various entities in the U.S., Ireland, Canada and Scotland.

"He was a trailblazer whose ideas, advice, guidance and mentorship left an imprint on the Irish-American community. Ward has enriched so many lives and has been an infinite source of inspiration."

A visitation will take place at Becker Ritter Funeral Home, 14075 W. North Ave., in Brookfield, on Thursday, Oct. 17 from 4 until 8 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held at the Church of the Gesu, 1145 W. Wisconsin Ave., on Friday, Oct. 18 at 10 a.m.

CelticMKE encourages friends and followers to send thoughts, memories and condolences to rememberinged@celticmke.com.

"We have lost a true champion of Irish and Celtic music and culture. More importantly, we’ve lost a dear friend," said Linda Clark-Klibowitz, board president for CelticMKE.

"His impact will be felt in the Celtic community around the world for decades to come. We offer our sincere condolences to Ed’s family and to all those who have been touched by his kindness over the years."

All of Milwaukee owes a debt of gratitude to this man who worked so hard and so tirelessly to create what is not only a world-class annual festival, but an important musical archive and whose efforts have brought, and will continue to bring joy to people of all ages here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.