By Margaret M. Johnson
Snowbird advisory: the Irish are alive and well and thriving in Florida, a virtual hotbed of Irish culture.
Though it seems there could be few places in the U.S. less Irish than the seaside cities of South Florida — Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, and Palm Beach, in particular — the Irish and Irish-American community is very much a presence in the Sunshine State. In the most recent national census, more than 1,150,000 Floridians reported their first ancestry as Irish, and indications are that the number has grown to nearly 2 million since the census was taken in 1990. With significant immigration from Ireland, the annual "snow bird" migration from the northern U.S. and Canada, and interested tourists in general, it’s not surprising that Irish culture is hotter than ever in Florida.
Irish Cultural Institute
The Irish Cultural Institute of Florida was established in 1987 in an effort to fill a cultural void in a state with an ever-expanding Irish population. According to Executive Director Sheila Hynes, "When I moved down here 14 years ago from Rockaway, we called it ‘the Irish Rivera then,’ there was absolutely nothing Irish here except one pub. As more and more of us relocated to Florida from Irish neighborhoods in the North, we really felt the need to make it more homey, you know, more like the places we left."
Hynes said she got together with people like Rory O’Dwyer, son of legendary New Yorker Paul O’Dwyer, and they decided to form an organization to bring some Irishness to the area. "At first we were really frustrated because there was absolutely nothing here, and now we’re flabbergasted at the change," Hynes said.
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For the first Cultural Institute-sponsored festival, she said, a city official remarked that the event was "just a good excuse for a bunch of drunks," and "cutsey" comments about green beer and metallic shamrocks were the norm. But along with other strides the organization has made, "Even the press has changed its perception of the Irish and we’re looked at in a much more favorable light," Hynes said.
Now the largest Irish-American organization in the state, the institute helps to preserve Irish traditions and heritage by hosting monthly ceili dances, Irish history and language classes, and sponsoring annual events like the Irish Open Golf Tournament in October, and Irish Fest 2000 (Feb. 11-13 in Fort Lauderdale, March 10-12 in West Palm Beach). You’ve got to love an event like Irish Fest, where you can attend a Gaelic Mass in the morning with liturgical music provided by Dermot O’Brien and Noel Kingston, grab a corned beef sandwich or shepherd’s pie for lunch, then wander through an Irish marketplace waiting for Cherish the Ladies to entertain. All this and performers like Black 47, The Prodigals, and Blackthorn, artists and storytellers, Irish cookery and genealogy, pipes and drums, cloggers and tappers, ceili and set dancers, even a hiring fair and a talent contest. Did I mention the temperature was a balmy 80 degrees?
The Irish Cultural Institute, which also publishes a bimonthly newspaper, The Florida Irish-American, is always looking for new members. For information, write Hynes at The Irish Cultural Institute of Florida Inc., 650 E. Sample Rd., Pompano Beach, FL 33064, or phone (954) 946-1093.
Turf Fire Foundation
One of the most exciting movements on the culture front in South Florida is a new endeavor called the Turf Fire Foundation, an organization that has tapped into the energy of the already-vibrant Irish and Irish-American community. Its aim is to bring authentic, original Irish performing arts to a great theatrical space, and it appears to have found a home at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
The partnership between Turf Fire and the Broward Center began in the spring of 1998 when executive director/producer Rosemarie O’Connor introduced visiting Irish poet Desmond Egan to Broward CEO Mark Nerenhausen. Her intention, she said, was to produce something unique, something authentic, "above all, something Irish," in an appropriate venue.
"The Broward Center is probably best known for big Broadway shows, opera, and the symphony," Nerenhausen said, "but as a public institution, we’re committed to programming that comes from the local community. We were looking for a way to expand that commitment, so when Turf Fire came to us to develop [what would become] the Irish New Millennium Series, it was a natural fit."
O’Connor’s vision evolved into "Irish Songs," an original piece that painted a broad-brush history of Ireland through its music and poetry. The sell-out March 1999 performance featured Egan, musician and musicologist Gearóid Ó h Allmhuráin, all-Ireland champion piper Eamonn Dillon, world-class fiddler James Kelly, and sean nós singer Bridget Fitzgerald. Said O’Connor, "People wept. People cheered. We found that we’d tapped into a vast and energetic Irish-American community and everyone began clamoring for us to do ‘something Irish’ again. It was that spark that started Turf Fire."
The group’s second project, considerably more ambitious than the first, is the Irish New Millennium Series, which kicked off at the Broward Center on Jan. 16 with "Irish Songs 2000," featuring Kelly, Celtic Thunder, champion step-dancer Regan Wick, and members of the award-winning Innisfree Theatre Group.
"What ‘Irish Songs’ did for all of Irish history, ‘Irish Songs 2000’ will do for Ireland in the 20th century," O’Connor said.
Irish tenor John McDermott’s concert on Feb. 27 confirmed O’Connor’s confidence. The series concludes on Aug. 13 with a special presentation of Joe Lucas’s one-man drama, "Once a Man, Twice a Boy," which follows six generations of Irish Americans into the coal mines and coal towns of Pennsylvania.
"It’s a good balance," O’Connor said of the series. "We have an original piece, a blockbuster popular success in John McDermott, and a pared-down, powerful drama."
Nerenhausen said he feels the Irish and Irish-American community is showing how valuable and rewarding community partnerships can be and hopes, he said, "to use the Irish New Millennium Series as a prototype to bring other interested ethnic and community groups to the Broward Center’s stages."
"We’re always battling the Fort Lauderdale spring-break image and the idea that we’re only about sun tans, golf, and partying," Nerenhausen said, "so cultural tourism is extremely important to us."
Above all, the Turf Fire Foundation has attracted attention because, said O’Connor, "we’re not a green-beer-and-leprechaun event; this area now has a serious Irish audience and a seriousness of Irish culture."
In the future, the Foundation hopes to provide a forum for artists and educators, sponsor Famine research, and consolidate efforts toward building an Irish Cultural Center.
"For years in Fort Lauderdale there’s been talk of building an Irish Cultural Center," said Eamonn Quinn, president emeritus of the local AOH. "I think that Turf Fire will be the group that draws everyone together and gets it built."
The Turf Fire Foundation is actively soliciting members and seeking to form new partnerships with interested groups. For information, write O’Connor at the Turf Fire Foundation, Inc. 2900 Palm Aire Dr. North, Suite 201, Pompano Beach, FL 33069-3482; phone (954) 970-2960; e-mail: email@example.com.
Beyond the arts and into the classroom, there are several serious-minded Irish studies programs based in Florida, including a branch of the Irish American Unity Conference, which is working toward introducing Famine studies into the state education curriculum. Dublin native Marie Tierney Smith, coordinator of The Great Irish Famine 2000, has worked for years in the area of Irish history, particularly in Famine studies.
"We [the Irish] have an obligation to remember and to memorialize the millions who starved and died in a land of plenty, and the millions who emigrated in the horrific hemorrhaging of the Irish race," Tierney Smith said.