For many people, Irish culture is synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. But the Valley’s Irish community wants to get the word out that it’s easy being green all year long — and you don’t even have to be from the Emerald Isle.
Take a look around the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix, which opened on St. Patrick’s Day 2002.
"One-third to one-half the people are not of Irish descent," said Patrick Cunningham, the center’s director. "They just love the music or the dance or the entertainment."
And the Irish — and those who admire them — don’t just come together March 17 and then disband after a few rounds of green beer. In late January, the Irish Cultural Center restarted its Friday night Celtic concert series in An Halla Mór (The Great Hall), and all week the Academy of Irish and Celtic Studies offers classes at the center in Gaelic music, dancing, history and language instruction.
The center also hosted a family-friendly Irish festival in October, focusing on history, crafts, music and dance; it’s slated to be an annual event. In addition, this weekend there will be an Irish step dancing competition in Mesa and an Irish beauty pageant in Phoenix.
There are also numerous other ways to get involved in Irish culture locally. The Desert Shamrock, a bimonthly newspaper addressing Irish issues, listed 27 clubs and committees in its December/January issue.
"People think Irish is just (about) St. Patrick’s Day, and the only song they know is ‘Danny Boy,’ " said Cunningham, of Chandler, "and you can go to our concerts all year and maybe never hear ‘Danny Boy.’ "
Sean Lee of Glendale, one of the founders of Executive Resources for Irish Networking (ERIN), said many members of his group aren’t even part Irish.
"The charter says specifically that it is open to people who are either Irish or with a strong Irish interest," he said. That means members could be married to someone of Irish descent — or they could simply appreciate Irish music or dancing.
Cunningham hopes the interest in Irish culture will continue to grow here in the Valley, and the center is branching out to make that happen.
"We want to be the connection between Ireland and Arizona," he said. First, they’ll host a photography exhibit called "Through Each Other’s Eyes" which will be up by March 15, Cunningham said. It will be free and open to the public. A Phoenix Sister Cities project, it includes works by Arizona photographers who took photos of people and places in Ennis, Ireland, and those from Ennis who came to Arizona to take pictures.
In addition, Cunningham said they’re breaking ground in March on a building adjacent to the center, which will be a replica of an 1800s Irish cottage. Right now, the center itself functions as a multipurpose venue; there are no permanent displays for the public to view. The cottage, though, will house permanent and rotating exhibits, antiques, books and a small museum store. It’s due to open this fall.
Cunningham said the cottage’s first exhibit will be a reproduction of the Book of Kells, which he calls "the national treasure of Ireland." It contains the four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — in Gaelic along with brilliant illustrations.
The book was written about 800 A.D. and given to Trinity College in the 17 th century.
"When they restored it, they made a few hundred replicas that are indistinguishable from the original," Cunningham said.
All are in museums or universities, except for the one owned by Lee, who came to the United States 15 years ago. He is permanently lending it to the center.
The center is also raising funds to set up a videoconferencing system so that people here can take language lessons from people living in Ireland.
"Also, we’ll add a satellite connection to Irish TV so we can have Irish film nights at the center," Cunningham said.
He added that they’re planning to have computer resources available for people who want to track their Irish roots. Don’t assume you know your heritage until you investigate: Anyone could be a wee bit Irish. For instance, Lee said E.R.I.N. member Chuck Valenzuela’s great-grandmother was Irish.
And that’s no blarney.
For more information
• To contact the Irish Cultural Center, 1106 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, call (602) 392-7850 or visit www.azirish.com.
• For a subscription to the Desert Shamrock bimonthly newspaper, call (602) 242-3203 or write to 5205 N. Central Ave., No. 600, Phoenix, AZ 85012. Cost is $15 annually.