In the mid 1990s Irish film-maker, Breandán Féiritear arranged with Thomas Moriarty, History Professor at the Elms College, to interview Blasket Island émigrés and their children who had settled in the Springfield, Massachusetts and Enfield, Connecticut areas. In March 1997, the film-maker showed the resulting documentary in Veritas Auditorium at the Elms College for its American premiere. In spite of the fact that a winter storm of sleet and freezing rain raged outside, a large crowd, including many of those featured in the film, gathered for the viewing.
Subsequently, then-Elms President Kathleen Keating, SSJ, Thomas F. Moriarty, also now retired, and Sean F. Cahillane, whose mother came to Western Massachusetts from the Great Blasket Island off Ireland’s West Coast, spearheaded a group of local Irish people to form a cultural center at the college dedicated to preserving and sharing the many aspects of Irish culture to Americans of all backgrounds. The college agreed to give the new organization the space that had originally been the library.
Since then, the ICC has grown dramatically in both membership and events. How to account for our growth? We offer a good product. Even though, some may say, “Irish immigration has waned and generations of Irish-Americans continue to become assimilated into mainstream society,” I believe that most immigrants, even generations later, have a desire to tap into their roots. And perhaps the Irish is one group whose members believe strongly in their ancestry. Perhaps we continue to grow in part because of the variety of our programs. We have offered lectures, music events, films and exhibits, and several yearly events. These include a writing contest for middle school students, Celtic Adventures for Kids (children learn Irish music, dance and the Irish language), Christmas with an Irish Touch, a film series, a brunch in June, and marching in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The teaching of the Irish language makes us unique in the area, enabling us to continue to attract new students, as well as nurturing the continued interest of enthusiasts who first learned the language some 30 years ago.
Certainly, travel to Ireland is attractive to people. Perhaps, another factor is our collaboration with the other local Irish organizations, inviting each to appoint a representative to serve on our Board.
When the Center opened in 1999, many of the Dingle people came to celebrate with us, including Michael De Mordha, executive director of The Blasket Center in Dunquin, County Kerry. Each of the founders, listed above, and many of the original board members, have relatives in Ireland. A good number of the members also have family connections in Ireland.
One of our mission statements reads: to promote economic ties between western New England and western Ireland. Thus early in our history, we invited Dingle merchants to visit the Big E in West Springfield. They met with the officials of the local fair and yearly, several bring their wares to sell at the 17-day event each September.
We also continue to foster relationships on our journeys to Ireland, where we meet and make return visits to many of our new friends.
In October, 2009 we celebrated our 10th Anniversary with a weekend of events and programs, a little of everything we do – an art exhibit, music, dance, films, lectures, workshops and Liturgy with readings in the Irish language.
We have experienced remarkable growth since our beginnings, but we face challenges – the challenge of reaching the next generation, as well as the challenge of attracting new members. Another challenge is reaching out to more counties in Ireland. The Springfield Metropolitan area, consisting of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, is home to many immigrants, many of whom claim their place of origin on the west coast of Ireland, especially County Kerry.
Our strength rests with an active, committed board, and as long as we have such willing volunteers to organize events, we will survive and even continue to grow.