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.
The Irish Cultural Center hosts several annual events and programs for our membership and the public. These include:
Winter Film Series
Since 2001 we have hosted the Winter Film Series, a collection of four films shown on Wednesday evenings in February. Our goal is to expose audiences to a diverse selection of Irish, Irish-American and Irish language films. Some we have featured include: Some Mother’s Son, Circle of Friends, The Maze, A Love Divided, In America, The Nephew, The Secret of Roan Inish, Waking Ned Devine, Ned Kelly, The Field, Cré Na Cille, and The Secret of Kells.
St. Patrick’s Celebrations
To honor the patron saint of Ireland, we have initiated several events over the years. These include exhibiting collections of artifacts and artwork, a sing-a-long of Irish songs, and Irish tea parties. The Irish Cultural Center has participated in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade since 2001. Floats have been built by members and volunteers, and have included an authentic Irish jaunting car and floats honoring the culture and history of Ireland. ICC members, friends and Elms students have marched with us.
The ICC hosts a yearly brunch event for members to meet and mingle, with good food, pleasant company, and a review of the past year’s activities. Guest speakers have included: Congressman Richard Neal, Consul General of Ireland Isolde Moylan, Elms College President Dr. James Mullen, Quinnipiac University President Dr. James Lahey; author and Drew University professor Christine Kinealy, and historian J. Joseph Lee.
Celtic Adventures for Kids
Since 2001, the ICC has hosted a week-long summer program of Celtic Adventures for Kids, for children in grades one through nine. In the five classes daily, participants learn to speak and write the Irish language, dance, play the tin whistle and bodhran, and sing Irish tunes. They listen to stories and folktales from Ireland, and create arts and crafts.
Big E and Dingle Reception
The ICC maintains ties with merchants in Ireland, especially on the Dingle Peninsula. In September 2000, the Center invited a group of merchants to visit the Big E in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Since 2001, the Dingle merchants have brought their Irish wares for sale to the biggest fair on the east coast. During the seventeen days of the fair, several ICC members host some of the merchants in their homes, and provide transportation to and from the fairgrounds. The Center has an exhibit along with the Dingle merchants in the Young Building at the Big E, where we have information on our programs and events. We look forward to seeing you at the fair each September!
Christmas with an Irish Touch
Since 1999, the ICC has hosted a program called Christmas with an Irish touch. Established on the first Saturday of December, liturgy is celebrated in Our Lady’s Chapel on the Elms campus with readings and parts of the mass read or sung in the Irish language. We have included entertainment before and after the mass, where music, song, dancing, hearing stories of Irish Christmas and all the festive touches put everyone in the mood for celebrating the season. This is truly one of our best loved events.
In addition to our usual annual events, we also offer special events and programs throughout the year. These have included:
Since its founding, the Center has sponsored speakers:
Dr. Margaret MacCurtain, noteworthy Irish historian, on the Role of the Irish Abroad in helping to preserve Irish Culture
Kevin O’Hara, local author told stories of growing up in an Irish American household
James Flynn, Holy Cross College history professor, on Poland and Ireland: Keys to Understanding the Development of the Modern West
Maria Luddy, Boston College visiting scholar on the Magdalene Asylums
Rosie O’Grady, Elms College visiting professor of Social Studies from the University of Ulster, spoke Of Goddesses, Ancient Cures and Those Little People
Mayo native, Kathleen Murphy and a committee organized a celebration of the Mullet of Mayo with talks, reflections and accounts of their homesteads in County Mayo
Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal has spoken on several occasions about the progress of the peace process in Ireland
Peggy O’Brien, English professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, spoke of her book Writing Lough Derg
Journalist and author, Ed Moloney addressed the topic, Where now for the peace process
Elms College professors: Robert King, Thomas Moriarty, Laura McNeil, Damien Murray, Tom Cerasulo
Book and Poetry Reading, Story Telling
Ireland is called the “land of saints and scholars.” Thus, over the years we have invited writers and storytellers to enchant our audience with their poems, tales, and stories. The Center has featured the following writers to introduce their books and do a reading:
Cole Moreton, Hungry for Home
Michael White, Garden of Martyrs
Kevin O’Hara, Last of the Donkey Pilgrims
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, renowned Irish poet and author did a reading of her work
Peggy O’Brien, the Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, selected the poems and wrote a preface for the book, The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry 1967-2000, from which she did some readings and gave a commentary
Walter Stock spent an evening in Irish Storytelling
Nuala Hayes entertained with Ancient Tales Retold
Vincent Dowling from the Miniature Theatre in Chester in a drama presentation, I Am of Ireland, based on the writings of William Butler Yeats
J.M. Synge: The Aran Islands with Tegolin and Sean Coyne in a dramatic recital
Integral to understanding the Irish soul is the appreciation of Irish music. We have had many events headlining Irish or Irish American musicians over the years. Local musicians, Bill Dempsey and Tim Donoghue, are called upon often to give an authentic flavor with background music. Teresa Kane, who sings in the sean nos style, gave a concert in October, 2003 and returned to play at our Brunch in 2004. Popular Irish American singer, Deirdre Reilly, originally from Holyoke, headlined our dinner/dance at the Council of the Knights in 2005. Bo Fitzgerald, another local singer, has performed solo and with his band the YankCelts on different occasions. A New Orleans based group, the Poor Clares, performed a Christmas Concert for us in 2002. In 2003 Michael Purcell hosted a “seisiún” with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a group of local musicians.
Since the center’s inception, several Irish artists have exhibited their work in the Borgia Gallery, Dooley Campus Center on the Elms College campus.
Ireland native, Mary McSweeney, who now lives on Cape Cod, exhibited her work. The artist was born in Killarney, Ireland and is a graduate of the Cork School of Art. She also studied in London before returning to Tralee in 1979 to begin her professional career as an artist. Her focus is on the Irish people at work and play, evoking a kind of “Norman Rockwell” nostalgia.
Mazzarella O’Flaherty, from County Kerry in Ireland, exhibited her work. The Dingle born artist lives on the Peninsula and operates both the Mazzland Art Studio and the Dingle Record Shop, blending her two loves of art and music. Using oils and acrylic, she reflects feelings and emotions through ever-changing colours and light, focusing on the windswept seas and mountains of the Peninsula.
Olwen O’Herlihy Dowling presented an exhibit, Shifting Clouds with paintings of the Connemara and Kerry landscapes. Born in Dublin, she grew up in Malibu, California, but has lived both in Ireland and the United States since the age of nine; she is married to Vincent Dowling, director and Artistic Director of the Miniature Theatre of Chester. Using oils and watercolor, she captures the stark beauty of Connemara and the richness of the green of Kerry – both with clouds above defining the view.
Kathleen Walsh Buchanan presents the Great Blasket Island print series – a form of traditional printmaking called a “collagraph” in a show called Island Home: A Printmaker’s Perspective on great Blasket Island.
Carol Shea had a photography exhibit Ireland …Faces and Places-A Photographic Journal. Her framed pictures portray people in everyday activities, as well as nature scenes, unique, familiar and famous.
R. Todd Felton exhibited photos from his collection based on his book A Journey into Ireland’s Literary Revival
To celebrate our 10th Anniversary Vincent Crotty exhibited Images of the Blasket Island, Ireland and Beyond.
We collaborated with the Irish Arts Center of New York to exhibit photographs taken of elder Irish immigrants of New England in a show called To Love Two Countries: Ireland’s Greatest Generation in America. World renowned photographer, John Minihan spent some time visiting homes and Irish centers to capture and honor some of the people who had left Ireland and settled in America but maintained ties with both countries.
Trips to Ireland, Boston, MA and Canton, MA
Travel to Ireland has become a yearly offering for the Irish Cultural Center. For many years, one of the dreams of Tim Allen, long-time President of the Irish Cultural Center, was to take a group to Ireland. In July of 2004 that dream became a reality when twenty pilgrims took the first Journey of the Soul. Beyond a trip and better than a tour, it was an opportunity to let the spirit of Ireland enter into the soul with several nights’ stay in most locations, a chance to leave the tour to explore on one’s own, or pursue genealogy research, to make friends with the Irish wherever we met them. The Journey of the Soul tour to Ireland is now one of our most popular offerings; the yearly trips have included the whole of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and most recently, Scotland.
Bus trips to various venues prove increasingly popular. We traveled to the Wilbur Theatre in Boston to attend the play The Playboy of the Western World by John M. Synge and produced by The Abbey Theatre’s 100th anniversary touring group. A group traveled to New York to attend the play Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, an Irish American playwright. We have sponsored bus trips to the Worcester Hibernians to attend plays produced by Pilgrim Souls Production: The Loves of Cass McGuire by Brian Friel and Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones.
We attended the Berkshire Theater Festival Production of Faith Healer by Brian Friel. We have sponsored bus trips to the National Archives, Pittsfield twice for people to pursue genealogy research. We traveled several times to the Boston Irish Festival in Canton, Massachusetts.
We have offered bus trips to the Fine Arts Center, UMass, Amherst for musical performances: Cherish the Ladies and the Chieftains. We traveled to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut to view the famine exhibit.
Many students of Irish Language in the Springfield, Massachusetts’s area first began their studies with evening classes taught by Dr. Thomas Moriarty and Mr. George Bresnahan, through the Irish Cultural Center at Elms College. (Prior to that, Irish was taught by Mr. Ken Nilsen, to a group of students at Elms College evening classes, Tom and George among them!)
As a result of these classes, the Center enjoys a growing number of Irish Language enthusiasts who strive to promote interest in the language. For the past four years, Elms College has hosted an Irish Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant, who teaches classes in the Irish Studies program, as well as night classes for the public.
Beginning in 2006, the Center has offered an Irish Language immersion day with teachers from Daltaí na Gaeilge and Árd dTeanga Féin offering classes on four levels. The program introduces participants to the sights, sounds, history and value of the Irish language. We have shown short films, offered workshops on the bodhran, tin whistle, and set dancing. Conversation groups moderated by the language teachers give everyone the confidence to converse in the language, whatever level they are at. The program concludes with a music session each year.
We have hosted the showing of several films of the Blaskets and Dingle: Blasket Roots: American Dreams; The Voice of Generations: The Story of Peig Sayers; Padraig Feiritear, Irish American Patriot and Scholar; Dancing at Lughnasa; Out of Ireland; and The Men of Ventry.
Spiritual – Mass, Celtic Spirituality
Father Pat Fenton of Dingle has presided over several liturgies and given talks on Celtic Spirituality; Father Liam Lawton, of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland conducted an evening of Contemporary Irish Liturgical Music; Father Tomas O’Caoimh, of Ballyferriter, Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland conducted a workshop on early Irish Christianity. Sr. Ruth McGoldrick gave a lecture on Celtic Christian Spirituality. We have a mass in conjunction with our program “Christmas with an Irish Touch” every year (Bishop Emeritus, Joseph Maguire and local priests, Fathers Sean McDonagh, Francis X. Sullivan, Mark Stelzer and Monsignor Christopher Connelly have presided.)
Writing Contest for Middle School Students
For several years we invited students in grades 7 and 8 to submit an essay for monetary prizes. We recognized the three judged as best essayists at our St. Patrick’s Day party.
10th Anniversary Celebration
On the weekend of October 9-11, 2009 we offered a weekend of events to commemorate the founding of the Center in 1999. We opened a month-long art exhibit Images of the Blasket Island, Ireland by Vincent Crotty On Friday, followed by a music session and dance demonstration. On Saturday, during the day, we offered a series of workshops: Gaelic Games, Irish Language, bodhran and bones, genealogy, dance, as well as showing Irish films: Give up Yer Aul sins, New Kid, On Another Man’s Wound, JFK in Ireland, The Story of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
In the evening we hosted concert with the Makem and Spain Brothers. We began the Sunday celebration with liturgy in Our Lady’s Chapel, followed by a brunch with author Peter Quinn delivering the George Kennedy lecture: Unremembered and Unforgotten Irish America and the Great Hunger.