Luck of the Chi-rish

By Colin Shively

The history of Chicago is rich and infused with many different world cultures living and working together. The diverse cultures within the city have all added their own characteristics to the community. Be it architecture, dance, music or cuisine, Chicago is its own cultural melting pot. Now, however, is the time when one specific culture in the city steps into the spotlight to celebrate their personal heritage and cultural impact—they are the Irish-Americans.

March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, has long been a city-wide celebration resulting in numerous festivities which include two of the most popular city events: The St. Patrick’s Day Parade and The Southside Irish Family Festival. These two events alone bring the Irish-American population of Chicago and countless fans of the holiday together to relish the traditions of Irish culture. Most people are unaware that the city’s history is full of Irish influence. From the beer people drink right down to churches, Irish-Americans have helped shape what Chicago is today.

During the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, Chicago celebrates its Irish heritage by going green. That is to say, the city dyes the Chicago River a vibrant green. The dyeing of the river is world-renowned and tourists from around the globe travel to see it happen. The dye itself is a secret, with the recipe under lock and key, but there is no doubt Chicagoans are proud to show their support for their Irish neighbors.

Much like other cultures, Chicagoans owe a great deal to Irish-Americans. When Chicago first became a city, Irish immigrants and settlers helped develop the architecture of the city, and build the canals that the city uses for exporting and importing goods. The Irish have been a key building block to Chicago’s society, said Tim McDonnell, executive director of the Irish American Heritage Center.

“They are a huge part of the general make up of the city and the fabric,” McDonnell said. “The history of the city itself is included with them. The Irish had a huge hand in building this city, building its canal, its buildings and bridges. They did much of the hard work that laid the infrastructure for one of the world’s greatest cities.”

McDonnell said that over the past 150 years, Irish-Americans have moved to Chicago and made the city one of the most Irish-populated cities in the world. Chicago is a trading hub. In the beginning, a lot of Irish came here to help build the Illinois-Michigan canal,” McDonnell said. “The core message is that [Chicago] is the crossroads of Irish-America. That is not only in the current context because [Chicago] is such a proud Irish hub, but in the historical context as well.”

Apart from Chicago, the Irish who came to America also helped create eastern cities like New York and Boston, both of which have prominent Irish-American populations to date, McDonnell said. After providing assistance in the eastern cities, the Irish migrated westward to California to chase gold; resulting in a large Irish community in San Francisco.

According to the 2007 United States Census, Chicago is home to more than 201,836 thousand citizens with Irish heritage, including Celtic, which comprises about 7.1 percent of the total 2.8 million residents in the city. Due to the large population, the Irish-American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave., stays busy year-round to help preserve the Irish culture.

Opened in 1976, the Irish-American Heritage Center has been hard at work preserving, educating and demonstrating the beauty of the Irish culture, McDonnell said. The center moved into its current location in 1985. The Heritage Center does indeed celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a variety of shows, performances and exhibitions, but in reality is it just another day for them.

“The Heritage Center is pretty unique, every day is pretty much St. Patrick’s Day here,” McDonnell said. “This place is extraordinary in preserving the traditions in music, dance, theater, singing and in sports and making sure that the Irish traditions live on in Chicago. This is the house to walk into if you want to get a taste of what it is like in Ireland.”

The Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., much like the Irish-American Heritage Center, doesn’t limit it’s Irish culture events to just St. Patrick’s Day. Throughout the year, it proudly demonstrates the vibrant culture by hosting artists of all backgrounds from Chicago and even from Ireland.

“Musically speaking, a lot of Irish musicians look to Chicago as a place to try and break into the U.S. market because there are so many Irish here,” said Brian Keigher, programs coordinator for the Office of Cultural Affairs. “They feel like it isn’t that far of a jump from Ireland. They feel more at home.”

The Cultural Center has played host to numerous performers that have brought true Irish culture to Chicago. Sean Cleland, a famous Irish fiddler, is one such performer who has made a name for himself in the city.

In 2003, Cleland founded the Irish Music School of Chicago because he wanted to share and teach the traditional methods of Irish music. The school reaches out to Chicago-based Irish musicians to come and pass their knowledge on to students interested in learning that style of musicianship. Students who have competed with the school have received numerous awards such as the 2009 Midwest Fleadh Cheoil from 2005-2009.

“The great thing about Chicago is that there are so many different cultures,” said Kathy Meldic, business manager at the Irish School of Music. “You can’t go anywhere without experiencing some type of culture and [Cleland]wanted to create a place where anyone can come and experience the richness and uniqueness of Irish music. The teachers we have here are just amazing in getting the students interested in music and the students themselves are just, amazing.”

McDonnell described Chicago as the crossroad of the Midwest, where cultures of the world blend together and bring about the culture in which Chicagoans live on a daily basis.

“The Irish-Americans in Chicago, and across the nation, are proud of their heritage. McDonnell said, “We have helped shape this city into what it is today and being able to show our culture through various means is not a way to make us better than others, but to show a piece of the people who live here.”