The Kansas City Irish Center begins 2017 with much to celebrate. After almost a decade in the lower level of Union Station, last year the Center bought historic Drexel Hall, in Midtown at the corner of Linwood and Baltimore, and moved into its new home in September.
“It’s in a location that we really want in the heart of the city, where a lot of the cultural activities are happening, and where the history of the Irish is in Kansas City,” says Nancy Wormington, the center’s executive director.
“The purchase of Drexel Hall gave us a great opportunity to move into a space and begin using it as-is," adds Jay Burrus, the president of the center’s board of directors. "We have a big vision of what this space can become over the next two or three years."
The center's leaders say around 250,000 people in Kansas City claim some sort of Irish heritage. An estimated 100,000 people attend the annual Kansas City Irish Fest over Labor Day Weekend, and the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade is reputed to be one of the largest in the nation.
While Drexel Hall was move-in ready, Burrus says money raised through a new capital campaign will allow the center to make renovations that include an Irish library, space to exhibit the historic Irish artifacts currently in storage. And, of course, they'll need a pub.
For decades, Kansas City’s brides and grooms have been getting married in Drexel Hall’s wide-open, two-story auditorium, and Burris says those sorts of celebrations can definitely continue. Irish center leaders plan to keep renting out the hall to the public, while using the revenue to help the center grow.
“There’s obviously a ground swell for the Irish activities in Kansas City, between the parade and the festival, and there’s a number of organizations here in town," Burrus says, such as the Kansas City Gaelic Athletic Club, two local divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, multiple Irish Dance schools, and Sheehan's and Browne's Irish markets.
"The idea of the Center is to be a support mechanism for all of them to come together,” he says. "(We hope to) bring in people who would not be involved in a (Gaelic) football sporting event that still want to learn about Irish literature or Irish language or their genealogy.”
Those language classes are taught by Renata Rua, who earned her master’s degree from University College in Dublin and lived in Ireland for 10 years.
“We started in 2008 with language classes," Rua says, "and we have grown our community to the point that we’re now doing three language immersion weekends a year with visitors from over-seas who are fluent and who are giving my students a different dialect, or more examples of how to speak fluently than I can.”
The Center also puts on two big literary events each year, one in honor of the prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and a Bloomsday event in honor of James Joyce. And a book club meets eight times a year to discuss Irish literature. And, Wormington says, they’re working with Johnson County Community College to bring the Moonfish Theatre Company from Galway, Ireland, to town next year, to present a play that would be half in Irish, and half in English.
“We have two very different missions and are in two very different parts of town," Wormington says of the Performing Art Series at JCCC and the Irish Center, "but yet we share an interest in helping educate and bring to the public wonderful theater, wonderful Irish literature, and this is a way for us to work together.”
Then there’s the music.
“We also have an incredible music community here in Kansas City and some wonderful teachers, so in the past we have been able to offer music classes, instrument classes.”
But it won’t just be classes. In November, musicians played a tribute concert to the Irish pop singer Damien Rice.
Musician Nick Carswell, who’s also on the center’s board of directors, welcomed the crowd to that event by saying it was a place "where magical things like this are gonna happen all the time. All the time. Every Friday.”
He was joking about having concerts every Friday – for now. But on Sunday, January 15, the center hosts the Celtic roots group RUNA. Between the concerts and other events at the new Center, anyone in Kansas City looking for a bit of Irish culture won’t have to wait until St. Patrick’s Day.
Meghan Skevington is an arts intern at KCUR. You can reach her at email@example.com.