By Jim Smith
CANTON, Mass. — Amid beautiful autumn weather and under sunny skies, the Irish Cultural Centre in Canton celebrated its grand opening this past weekend as thousands of visitors turned out for the dedication ceremonies, Gaelic sporting events, and a Saturday evening banquet.
"It’s been a great weekend," said John Noel Connolly, president of the ICC. "We’re thrilled that so many people have come out to share in this special occasion."
For Connolly, the event was the fruition of a decade of dreaming and planning. In 1989 he and Mike O’Connor, who is now the ICC development director, gathered with a small group of other Gaelic Athletic Association devotees who were determined to find a suitable site for Irish sports in the Boston area.
Their collective vision soon expanded beyond sports to embrace all aspects of Irish culture, including language, music, art and history.
Local tradesmen, volunteering their skills on weekends for over two years erected the first building on the 47-acre site, a multi-purpose three-storey edifice that now serves as the administration and activity center.
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On Saturday afternoon in the basement of that building, a communications center was dedicated in memory of two young men from Ireland, Shane McGettigan and Ronan Stewart, who died last year in nearby Quincy in a scaffolding accident. Family members and friends from Ireland attended the dedication.
Other projects at present in the planning stages are a performing arts center, which is expected to cost about $8 million, a children’s playground, a museum of Irish history, and a library.
The fields of the ICC are the new home of the northeast division of the GAA.
Among the sports events held at the new pitch during the weekend was a Sunday exhibition match between 1999 All-Ireland hurling champion Cork and the 1998 Eircell All-Star team. Later that afternoon, about 1,000 Gaelic football fans were treated to a match between Cork and Meath, the finalists in this year’s All-Ireland championship game.
In ceremonies prior to those matches, Joe McDonagh, president of the GAA in Ireland, spoke about the new facilities.
"The vision was created, the dream has been realized, and the dream will be enhanced from here . . . There have been many milestones in the history of the GAA, from that very first game in 1886 when Galway and Kerry played on Boston Common . . . and so many have contributed to this wonderful day in providing a home from home for you here to enjoy our games, to participate, and to sow seeds for the legacy of the future of our Association into the new millennium."
In his commemorative message, O’Connor remembered the contributions of the many volunteers who helped make the dream become a reality: "Today, as I walk up the field and look back at this beautiful building, I pause and think of the many dark, cold, rainy or snowy wintery weekend mornings, and the many hot and humid summertime weekends when I stared from this site and wondered how many of the tradesmen and others that I had called during the week would show up in spite of their busy schedules.
"And then, through the trees I would see the first van, followed slowly by a flow of trucks, cars and pickups, coming in like Brown’s cows. ," O’Connor recalled.
The Irish Cultural Centre was established as a non-profit corporation in May 1990. In 1996 it acquired the 47 acres of land for $750,000 in Canton.
The campus was recently appraised at more than $2 million.
The playing fields are described by experts as among the best in the country.
The generosity of the volunteers has been matched in recent years by the good will and support of the people of Canton, a town southwest of Boston with a population of 19,000, about half of whom are of Irish descent.
The ICC, which sponsors the annual Irish Festival at Stonehill College, now has 3,200 members.
Persons seeking more information about the center can call 1-888-Go-IRISH, or visit the web site at www.irishculture.org.