In 1997, a documentary was shown at Elms College chronicling the migration of immigrants from Ireland’s Blasket Islands to Western Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley. The film inspired local residents, many of whom descended from Irish immigrants, to form a cultural center focused on preserving and sharing Irish culture with Americans from all backgrounds.
After spending several years on the campus of Elms College, the Irish Cultural Center of Western New England relocated to West Springfield, Massachusetts in 2017. In addition to hosting lectures, Irish dance lessons, and a student exchange program, the expanded center is also home to the Irish House Restaurant and the Trinity Pub.
In the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day, Producer Dave Fraser visited the ICC for a little Irish food, music, and flavor and brings us the story.
ICC President Sean Cahillane explains what the “snug of the pub” is in a digital exclusive clip.
Read the full transcript:
Singers: ♫ There are men from Dublin and men from Cork…♫
Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: Well, there’s a saying that “Everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day.” More than 1 in 5 people in Massachusetts can trace their roots back to the Emerald Isle, according to a 2015 U.S. Census.
At the Irish Cultural Center of Western New England, they celebrate their ancestry year round.
Sean Cahillane, Irish Cultural Center of Western New England: To us, it’s a gathering place and it’s not narrow, it’s broad. You know, rugby players are not all Irish, and people coming here for events and dinners aren’t and they’re not needed to be.
So, it’s a cultural place that promotes the Irish culture, but we’re very cognitive of the fact that other people’s culture is just as valuable.
Dave Fraser: The center got its start on the campus of Elms College in Chicopee in 1999. The college provided space for the center, and the mission was to foster an appreciation of Irish culture and to serve as an academic connection with other cultural organizations in the region.
Sean Cahillane: We did strategic planning and they said, “Your organization is really well liked. We’re really well respected, does a lot of good work, but you’re going to have to grow or die.”
Dave Fraser: The center moved to this 20-acre site in West Springfield in 2015 and has expanded to include a restaurant, a patio, soccer, and rugby fields and the Trinity Pub.
William Reichelt, Mayor of West Springfield: I knew of the Irish heritage and descendants in West Springfield, but I didn’t know anything about the Irish Cultural Center specifically until they came to us with this kind of grand plan of, you know, taking this shell of a building that has a lot of history and turning it into what it is now.
Ed Sullivan, Irish Cultural Center of Western New England: Mostly by volunteers, they built what you see here today. It’s been mostly done by volunteers, true Irish labor put into the the facility here.
Sean Cahillane: And here’s a book that was used for years…
Dave Fraser: Downstairs at the ICC is the library and museum that houses books on the history of Ireland from ancient to modern times, a collection of Irish music, clothing, and instruments.
Sean Cahillane: We run trips to Ireland. And, we send hundreds of people to Ireland, many of whom have Irish roots and Irish history behind them and have never been so — so that’s really cool, too, you know? When you’re taking someone, maybe that’s later on in life and they’ve wanted all their lives to go to Ireland and — and we take them.
Dave Fraser: On most Wednesday nights, the restaurant and pub hosts an “Irish Session,” the lifeblood of traditional Irish music. Though they vary in size, quality, and instrumental makeup, the format is fixed: a regular musical gathering in a bar, anchored by one or two musicians who are paid to play, sometimes only in drinks. The general session scheme is that someone starts a tune and those who know it join in.
Sean Cahillane: Some nights we have 15, 18 musicians and it’s quite literally one of the best traditional Irish sessions on the East Coast of the United States.
Ed Sullivan: I like to say this is like a microcosm of Ireland. It’s…as the country of Ireland is very welcoming, it’s very welcoming here. Everybody’s welcome. You don’t have to be of Irish ancestry.
It’s a great similarities to pubs in Ireland. What they’ve done here with the decorations and and the woodwork and the bar.
Dave Fraser: In 2017, a memorandum of understanding was signed between West Springfield and the Kerry County Council to form a sister city with Dingle, a tiny town in southwest Ireland.
William Reichelt: So, close to a quarter of of the population of West Springfield has Irish descent. They know where their family’s from. A lot of it is from the West Kerry Dingle Peninsula, which is our sister city, which is what a lot of the Irish Cultural Centers members, especially the president, Sean Cahillane, they’re from that area.
It is cool that that all kind of fits in together.
Sean Cahillane: So, there’s a big tradition here and the Irish politicians and the Irish musicians know it. We’ve had Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, two presidents of Ireland, visit. We’ve had Gerry Adams visit. We’ve had the ambassadors from Ireland come multiple times. We’ve had political leaders from Ireland come on a regular basis.
So, yeah, they — they know we’re here.