Nearly 30 years ago, Kitty Munger was tasked with showing just how Irish a town in central Ohio could be.

Nearly 30 years ago, Kitty Munger was tasked with showing just how Irish a town in central Ohio could be.

In 1988, she had become one of the first to join a group pushing for a new event in Dublin. The idea, conceived at first by Mary Margaret McClernon and Terrie Conrad, was to put together a small celebration they called the "1/1000."

Dublin had just become a city, inching over the 5,000-resident requirement thanks to volunteers counting people door-to-door. The same year, more than 3,000 miles away, Dublin, Ireland, was celebrating its 1,000th anniversary. Organizers thought it was the perfect opportunity to help link the two cities. After all, according to local legend, the town was named by John Shields, who in 1810 helped John Sells survey lots. Shields reportedly named it after his Irish birthplace.

Organizers asked the Columbus Feis, an Irish step-dance competition, to be a part of their celebration at what is now Dublin Coffman High School. The group would showcase its Irish links in a modest event that no one expected would return for a second year, let alone establish itself as a regional event.

The community took a little convincing.

Kay McGovern was Feis chairwoman at the time and was surprised at the "dubious" attitude some had. "They were sitting here saying we're not Irish and I thought, 'What do you mean we're not Irish? Every street in this town has an Irish name on it,' " she says.

Barbara Avery, then a Dublin city councilwoman, helped route bed tax funding to the festival. She remembers people being largely intrigued by the idea, though some were skeptical. "We had a couple people who, whatever happened, they didn't like it," she says.

But Munger was up for the challenge. As one of the group's younger and more enthusiastic members, she drove around town with her camera, gathering evidence that the city had plenty of Irish influence -- just in case the naysayers balked. "I remember going out and taking pictures of things in Dublin that had a shamrock -- the police car and the city logo and the names of the streets that were Irish names," she says. "It wasn't necessarily a difficult task to get it done, but we did jump through a few hoops to make sure no one questioned it."

Gargantuan Growth

More than a quarter-century after she showed those photos to Dublin City Council, Munger, 57, is still involved with the Dublin Irish Festival, which has ballooned into a gigantic draw for the city and the region.

With more than 100,000 attendees, organizers say it's the second-largest Irish festival in the country, behind one in Milwaukee. According to the most recent annual event report, more than 18 percent of last year's guests came from outside Ohio.

"It's grown beyond, I think, what any of the founders thought it would be," Munger says. "It's been fun to watch it grow and to be part of it. I think we all just thought it would be a one- or two-night event."

The co-founders take pride in the organic nature of the event's evolution. Corporate sponsors such as the Wendy's Co. helped get some events off the ground in the beginning, but the vast majority of the work and planning were done by individual volunteers. "There was no corporate entity that said, 'Look, we're going to do this big thing,' " Conrad says. "It was not a city that said, 'This is what we'll do to make Dublin a big deal.' It was really a groundswell of the community."

As the years went on, people like Munger and McGovern stayed involved while more and more community members signed on to help. "It became kind of a prestige thing to be a volunteer at the festival," Avery says.

Twenty-nine years in, Munger hasn't lost the enthusiasm that made her want to take pictures of the entire city's Irish heritage. City events administrator Mary Jo DiSalvo, who has been involved with the festival for 16 years, says Munger always has been willing to do whatever was necessary.

"When there was no budget and nothing but a volunteer corps, Kitty was writing up media releases and calling the networks and radio and TV and promoting that Dublin, Ohio, had an Irish festival and encouraging people to come see for themselves what this was like in our own backyard," DiSalvo says. "Now, we have an event where the economic impact of this event is in the millions of dollars for the entire region."

For Munger, volunteering was never about prestige. Her grandmother was from Ireland, and Munger has visited the country several times. "That was always part of my history, and then I started taking Irish dance classes when I got out of college," she says. "I fell in love with it and started competing with other Irish dancers and got more involved in Irish cultural activities in Columbus. When this came up in Dublin, where I was living, I just thought it was the perfect opportunity."

McGovern remembers someone asking her if Munger was a good fit for the group. "She was aware of the culture and she was third-generation Irish," McGovern says. "She was involved in a lot of Irish activities. So I said, 'Yes, I think she'd be a good addition.' "

Leaving a Mark

In the last 30 years, Munger has gone from eager volunteer to experienced professional -- both in her work and personal lives.

She worked her way up from intern to director of communications at the Wendy's Co., where she spent 23 years and oversaw such projects as the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger national launch and the 2013 opening of the company's flagship restaurant/museum in Dublin. The Shoppes at River Ridge location is home to a life-size statue of founder Dave Thomas. Today, she's executive director of Wendy's Old Fashioned Franchise Association and president of her own consulting business, Munger Ink.

Those marketing and communication skills have served her -- and the Irish Festival -- well. "I remember writing news releases and getting pictures of Irish wolfhounds and hand-carrying those things to TV and radio stations," she says. "When I think about having written news releases and getting photos for publications and then getting to where we are now, it's really amazing."

While Munger's enthusiasm has rubbed off on those around her, DiSalvo says her expertise also has been important and will leave a lasting legacy. "I can honestly say that I look to Kitty for guidance on so many things," DiSalvo says. "As a professional in the public relations and marketing field, she brought a wealth of experience to the table and continues to do that. She's left her mark on a lot of people and volunteers, our staff and myself included."

The event has left its mark on Munger as well. She says she's "extremely proud of where the Irish Festival is, from where we started to where we are now." She hasn't missed one day of the festival in its 29-year history.

Despite her professional accomplishments, Munger says one of her proudest moments was organizing the world's largest Irish jig, which was certified by Guinness World Records. In 2007, volunteers put together the record-setting attempt during the festival, with instructors on-stage and participants in the crowd.

"It was a Saturday evening and everyone stopped and jigged," Munger recalls with a laugh. "Teachers led the dance from stage, and everyone did it. We passed out numbered stickers to figure out how many people were participating. I remember people were saying, 'I can't jig,' and I would just say, 'Try.'"

The record of 10,036 participants is still on the books with Guinness. "Being a PR person and doing events for a living, that was just a lot of fun," she says.

Organizing a Guinness World Records attempt is the kind of contribution that sets Munger apart from some of her contemporaries. While she wasn't the only founder of the festival, DiSalvo says she's perhaps the most involved of any of the original group. "There are a lot of retirees among the group who have truly paid their dues," DiSalvo says. "They're still interested and they're still involved, but maybe not to the level of Kitty."

Festival devotees shouldn't expect Munger's contributions to end any time soon. She says one of her favorite traditions is watching the tents go up in the weeks leading up to the festival. She's often considered leaving the work to someone else. But inevitably, she finds herself back in the mix, being as involved as she can be.

"Every year that goes by, I watch the tents going up and I think, 'It's here again. It's absolutely here again,' " she says. "And after being on the committee every year for 29 years, I think, 'I'm done. I'm finished.' Then I see those tents going up and I think, 'Maybe one more year.' "

While the 30th anniversary of the festival in 2017 would provide a round number for her exit, she's not sure she can bring herself to stop there. "I thought, 'Let's go out on 30,' " she says. "But I said the same thing about 20. I'll probably have to move out of Ohio before I can stop."

Andrew King is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.

This story appears in the Summer 2016 issue of Dublin365.