Explore Irish history, music, art, literature, and language at the Irish Cultural Center

Irish Cultural Center

Explore Irish history, music, art, literature, and language.

By Julie Carlson


Do you enjoy researching your genealogy or celebrating St. Patrick’s Day? Do you know that Arizona has a long and storied Irish history? At the last census there were over 500,000 people in Arizona with some Irish ancestry.

An Irishman named Hugo O’Conor founded Tucson. Nicknamed Captain Red, he was asked by the King of Spain to assist in colonizing the territories of the southwest. In turn, many of Arizona’s pre-settlers were of Irish descent.

“The Irish came to be the blacksmiths, miners, cowboys, ranchers, lumberjacks, dairy farmers, and shopkeepers,” says Anna O’Hara, the head docent at the Irish Cultural Center (ICC) in downtown Phoenix. One such dairy farming family was the McClelland’s, who’ve owned Shamrock Farms in Phoenix since 1922.

A group of Irish missionaries, the Sisters of Mercy, founded St. Joseph’s Hospital to assist doctors with the outbreak of tuberculosis during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Another legendary Irishman was John Patrick Riley, who fought alongside the Mexican Army during the Mexican-American War.

If you would like to discover more on how the Irish impacted lives and became an integral part of history, then head over to the ICC. Passing by the ICC, located at the Margaret T. Hance Park, one might do a double take. The 1950s Clare County-style farm cottage, the Frances B. McClelland Library, and the Great Hall could easily be pictured on the hillside coast of Ireland.

The ICC was founded in 1999. Thirteen years later the library opened its doors. The Irish Cultural and Learning Foundation is a partnership with the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department. The ICC is open in all but summer and is supported by the Emigrant Support Programme of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through the Irish Consulate in San Francisco.

Three stories tall, the 15,000 square-foot library was designed by local Valley architect Paul Ahren. It resembles a 12th century Norman-style building and contains 8,000 books from renowned Irish poets and authors.

If you’re particularly interested in genealogy and have Irish and/or Scots-Irish roots, the library is the perfect spot to conduct your research. The ICC claims it’s “the largest library of its kind in the Western United States.” Search through databases on your own or receive assistance from professional genealogy staff on hand. You can also search the materials available at the McClelland Library online through the Phoenix Public Library System.

The ICC also holds permanent and traveling exhibits. A popular permanent exhibit is on The Book of Kells, an illustrated Gospel written in Latin, decorated with Celtic knots and other vivid imagery throughout the manuscript. The original Book of Kells is located at the Trinity College Library in Dublin.

A current exhibit not to be missed is Remembering the Eastern Rising: Historical Context and Cultural Legacy, part of a series commemorating 100 years of Irish history. The exhibit showcases Irish history from the 17th century to today. It’s been extended through June 2017.

If you enjoy cultural activities, the ICC offers programs for adults and kids of all ages, such as rowing in a Currah, a traditional Irish boat, on Tempe Town Lake alongside members of the Currah Team of Phoenix. There’s also Ceili dancing for the whole family, family story hour held the first Saturday of the month, and book discussion groups on Irish literature.

And don’t forget St. Patrick’s Day. The 34th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Irish Faire is on Sat., March 11. Attendees can listen to Irish music and performers and enjoy Irish food and beverages. The ICC is in charge of the Faire, which is held on their campus.

Want to dig even further into Irish history, music, art, literature, and language? The ICC provides an Irish Academy, open at various times during the year. Upcoming dates are March 21 through May 20. Music is a big part of Irish tradition. Members and non-members can participate in music lessons in the viola, clarinet, cello, great highland bagpipes, choral arts, Irish tin whistle, and more.

Meanwhile, the Great Hall called the An Hall Mor, is available for rent and is a perfect picturesque setting for an Irish-themed wedding. The Irish Cottage and the basement of the library is also available for meetings, parties, and other events.

Membership, sponsorship and volunteer opportunities are available at the ICC. O’Hara trains and schedules people who are interested in becoming a docent. The dedicated volunteers provide explanation on the items that have been collected on display and historical information as well as a tour of The Hunger Monument (An Gota Mór), The Great Hall (An Halla Mór), The Courtyard (Heritage Clós), the cottage, and the library.

“I believe whether you have Irish ancestry or not, it is important to know the Irish have historically played an important part in America’s and Arizona’s history,” says O’Hara.

To learn more about the ICC, visit azirish.org.


St. Patrick’s Day Parade & Irish Faire

March 11, 2017


Parade location: 3rd St. from Virginia to McDowell. Starts at 10 a.m.

Faire location: Irish Cultural Center, 1106 N. Central Ave., Phoenix


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