IN THE BEGINNING…
One of the major achievements of the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club, founded more than 50 years ago, was the inauguration of the annual “Field Day” in 1963. The first Field Day included exhibitions of Irish dancing, a Gaelic football game against County Leitrim, a hurling match (Kilkenny v.Cork), a youth football game, a tug of war and a road race.
The event was repeated annually and, in 1966, Feis competitions were joined with Field Day activities then called the “Feis and Field Day”. That first year almost 400 dancers participated, with the stage lit by automobile headlights for the final competitions. Music, art, singing and language entries grew in numbers and by 1977, it was the largest such competition in the country, with 1,600 entrants from the United States,Canada and Ireland.
In 1989, the Feis and Field Day expanded to a weekend Irish festival (first for 3 days, now 2) changing it’s name to the Connecticut Irish Festival. (However, the Feis, remains to be called “New Haven Feis” with the North American Feis Commission.) Hundreds of club members and friends volunteered to assist and guide cultural exhibitions, music, dance, evening concerts and sports. In addition to the spotlight on national and international step dancing competition there are demonstrations of such skills as bread baking and Irish lace making and information about genealogy, set dancing and music of uileann pipes. Here, more than anywhere, are the children and grandchildren of those founding club members, carrying on the traditions of Irish culture.
THE IRISH AMERICAN COMMUNITY CENTER,
parent of the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club and sponsor of the Connecticut Irish Festival, reflects the passion and reverence for Irish sports, music, dancing, language and customs brought to America and safeguarded for posterity by Ireland’s sons and daughters who arrived in this area over many decades.
The following are descriptions, and a bit of history, of some of the activities that are the foundation of the Irish American Community Center, where the culture, language, music, dance and sports of Ireland flourish.
As early as 1866,Connecticut newspapers reported “hurley” matches among Irish factory hands. Subsequently, in the late 1940, young Irish immigrants grouped together to promote organized Gaelic football in New Haven– at a time when the social life wasn’t good…no dances, no football, nothing to interest a young Irish man or woman.
The number of Irish immigrants had decreased during World War II, but when the war ended, immigration once again flourished and by 1948 several recently-arrived young men regularly gathered for pickup Gaelic football games.
From those casual games and conversations more than a half century ago was born the organization that is today the Irish American Community Center, with a membership in excess of 1,200.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s there were many hurling teams in Connecticut. However, hurling activities declined somewhat during World War II as parallel to declining immigration, not to be revived until after the war ended and immigration resumed. Renewed interest in hurling attracted large crowds and resulted in organization of the Connecticut State Hurlers in 1948.
During the Korean War there was another lull in hurling activity while many players served in the armed forces. But in 1951 and 1956 the Connecticut hurlers won championships and again in 1958, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979. But during the 1980’s the number of hurlers from Connecticut dwindled and games were fewer and fewer. There is widespread belief that hurling is a game more suited to native Irishmen who learn to play as youngsters: it is difficult to teach and dangerous for the unskilled.
The success of the fledgling club was due in large measure to the participation and support of its women members whose roles expanded over the years. In the mid 1960’s the club sponsored a camogie team and, in the 1980’s, a women’s football team. As part of the club programs, a Women’s Committee supported fundraisers as well as cultural and social events.
TRADITIONAL MUSIC AND DANCE
It is well known that in Ireland, especially in rural areas, dancing has always been an integral part of life. No Irishmen was ever too tired after a full day’s work to walk to a dance – and to stay on until daylight! In the old days, traditional folk dances were held at the crossroad between villages and towns. Anyone was welcome. The Irish American Community Center continues both the traditions and the welcome.
Over the years there have been set dancing and ceili dancing, each with a distinct personality. In the beginning, there was set dancing, so-called because of its firm forms of four couples to a “set”. Although many sets had their roots in County Clare, the other counties picked up the steps and often modified them, with the result that the figures are infused with different personalities. Set dancing evolved from the quadrille, a form of dance favoured by the British and continental Europeans, set to the music of traditional Irish jigs and reels.
Ceili dancing, on the other hand, became popular in the 1940, 1950’s and 1960’s in Ireland and America. Ceili dances incorporate two, four, six and eight hand reels. The names of the dances are particularly colourful: The Siege of Ennis, Shoe the Donkey, the Gay Gordons, the High-Cauled Cap,and the Stack of Barley. Mixed in with those were some old-time waltzes at which virtually all Irishmen and women, of course – excel.
Set dancing may be seen and danced frequently at the Irish American Community Center, where it has made for itself a permanent home and where its many enthusiasts exhibit skill and zeal. (Instruction is always available: everyone is welcome in the truest Irish tradition)
Irish music is addictive and irresistible. The worldwide Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann promotes Irish dance, music, singing, language and storytelling, and it’s Connecticut cluster is joined with the international group. They hold traditional music sessions around the area and at the Irish American Community Center. Whether playing or listening, traditional Irish music has retained its attraction for members and nonmembers alike. Fathers teach their sons, and entire families know the airs, the tempos, the rhythm. Sessions at the club are open to the public.
Other club-sponsored musical events include concerts that have brought preeminent musicians to the area-including the Chieftains, Clannad, Clancy and Makem. Noel Henry’s Variety Show, Foster and Allen, Barley Bree, Rare Air, the Wolfe Tones, Irish Tradition and Triona Ni Dhonhnaill, sponsored and welcomed by the Irish American Community Center.
After centuries of oppression, forbidden to speak their native language, the Irish are more than ever bilingual. The Gaelic language is still spoken exclusively in some regions. Here in the United States it is seldom heard casually: nonetheless, there are numerous scholars of the language and scholarships offered for its study. Gaelic has been taught at Yale and Harvard Universities and it is also offered at the Irish American Community Center.
JIGS, REELS AND HORNPIPES
Irish step dancing has become more well known and more popular worldwide thanks to programs such as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance”. Although new to some, classes and competitions have been available at the Irish American Community Center for more than 30 years! Students have gone on to win high-level national and international awards and even a headline place in a national production of “Lord of the Dance”. And again, it is gratifying to see that dancers who “grew up” with the club step dancing programs have gone on to launch their own successful dancing schools.
Since 1968 the New Haven Gaelic Players have impressed audiences with their presentations of works of such playwrights as Sean O’Casey, John B. Keane, Brian Friel, Brendan Behan and Vincent Carroll. The club has supported actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes managers who were extraordinarily talented and who were nurtured and mentored and enthusiastically accepted by New Haven area theatregoers.
IF THE DESCRIPTIONS of some of the programs routinely offered by the Irish American Community Center have intrigued you, more information is available by checking out our club’s booth at the Festival’s Cultural Building or visit www.iacc-ct.com. Everyone finds a welcome there!.
BUT IF THERE IS ANY AREA in which the Irish American Community Center excels, it is that of generosity of spirit. Members have always recognized and responded quickly to anyone in need, whether members or nonmembers or a religious or civic group. A sampling of monthly club newsletters through 50 years shows at least one major fundraiser annually and beneficiaries that range from member families with health or other problems, to churches in Ireland, to a benefit from an Italian earthquake relief fund.
Céad Míle Fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes)
Irish American Community Center
9 Venice Place, East Haven, CT 06512
Irish American Community Center 501c3 non-profit organization