New Irish Arts Center is a source of pride in New York


My earliest memory of Hell’s Kitchen is vague, I heard it was the destination my immigrant father Martin went to in New York City when he left his hometown of Clare in 1928.

He came to live and work with his uncle Thomas in the cooperage business in this neighborhood which would later support himself, his wife Mary and their eight children.

Fast forward to 1974, when my own experience at Hell’s Kitchen began when the Irish Arts Center acquired a converted dilapidated building at 553 West 51st Street and where adult Irish dance lessons would soon be held on a concrete floor. unequal. I was a student and eventually taught there.

Even then, the humble Irish Arts Center was doing its best in the Irish community of New York since its founding by a visionary and revolutionary Irishman named Brian Heron in 1972. It was an innovative grassroots organization that aspired to create a new environment to celebrate Irish culture and heritage, and that’s what it did.

And as we discovered and celebrated last week in Manhattan, that mission was supercharged by two significant events that took place, marking a long-awaited transition from 553 West 51st to their new premises at 726 11th Avenue around the corner. from the street. It was a long journey home, but eminently successful.

On Wednesday, December 8, the new headquarters of the Irish Arts Center officially opened in a decidedly more upscale neighborhood known as Clinton with great fanfare after a monumental $ 60 million fundraising campaign launched ago. 15 years old.

Although the pandemic may have interrupted and slowed its progress, it could not prevent its wonderful entry as a great achievement for Irish America, a fact well recognized by all who have stepped on the podium, including including New York’s new Consul General, Helena Nolan.

The Executive Director of the Irish Arts Center, Aidan Connolly, captured the importance of openness perfectly, saying: “The new Irish Arts Center is a dream come true and a tribute to the broad coalition of people in New York and in Ireland that gave it a time when we so badly need a place to come together with inspiration and hope.

The state-of-the-art performing arts space was built by one of New York’s leading Irish construction companies, Structure Tone, under the direction of Cel Donaghy whose subsidiary Pavarini McGovern built the jewel of four floors encompassing 21,700 square feet of flexible space in conjunction with architects Davis Brody Bond with assistance from the Office of Public Works Ireland as part of the support.

Once inside the new facility, you are first greeted at a modern cafe served by a nearby wine bar, Ardesia, to mix and mingle before ascending to the Crown Jewel, the second theater. floor which is accessed by poetic steps along the brick facade in harmony with the historic district that surrounds it.

Much of the magic and creativity will occur in this theater, a great improvement in size and capabilities over the beloved Donaghy Theater black box next door, which will come to life again after a much needed renovation. .

No less than 14 different setups have been designed and approved for the myriad of multicultural performances and presentations that will take place there, and I have already experienced three of these performances that prove its vast potential.

To keep everything running beautifully so far, the considerable planning and execution of the theater’s sound, lighting and stage installations are reinforced by an overhead wire tension grid providing access by any means possible. No expense has been spared to the delight of talented people like production designer Mac Smith and sound engineer John Murray who make full use of space and acoustics.

While many will come to the new Irish Arts Center to see the city’s newest theater, the center will focus on what they’ve been up to on this journey to greatness.

The center is acclaimed by many in Ireland and the United States for representing Ireland’s evolving cultural landscape and the talents that have risen to prominence in the 21st century. As Christine Sisk, director of Culture Ireland, the agency promoting Irish arts abroad, told the New York Times: “It is a showcase and a guaranteed space to showcase Irish arts.

In that vein, Connolly and programming director Rachael Gilkey invited singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan, who had already appeared three times on the old site, to not only be the official opening night act. , but to sustain a long period of four weeks until December. . This signals a new, longer programming approach to making the most of the 199-seat theater, which is smaller than many might have imagined, but there are many well-thought-out reasons for this and space is limited to Manhattan every time.

O’Sullivan is a multifaceted artist well suited to a diverse cabaret act. She performs songs from Bob Dylan, David Bowie, the Pogues, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and even the late Stephen Sondheim. His show called Where are we now? is adorable, well-crafted 1.5-hour entertainment that comes with great theatricality, sometimes fueled by genuine edginess and red wine as she builds her show.

To make the task even more enjoyable, O’Sullivan’s very strong and seasoned band mates, Music Director Feargal Murray, Paul Byrne and Steve Fraser, were joined by two very accomplished and likeable New York musicians, Jessica Lurie. and Omar Kabir, who added immeasurably to the whole.

O’Sullivan is an endearing artist who can create mood swings in a thoughtful and entertaining way if you hang out with her. And there’s a comedic side too when she puts on a dressing gown and talks about being home with her cat during the pandemic, highlighting how good it is for all of us to be outside now.

She also knows how to build a show because towards the end she reads one of the most dramatic passages from James Joyce’s The Dead before letting off steam in the Pogues “Thousands of Sails” with a visual backdrop inspired by Irish immigrants arriving by boat in New York like my parents.

You have to see its juxtaposition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the rowdy but immensely popular “Fairytale of New York”.

The O’Sullivan show runs until New Years Eve on December 31. For tickets and schedules and more information on upcoming shows and classes, visit

To top off the week, the Irish Arts Center hosted its annual gala at the fabulous Cipriani 42nd Street event venue across from Grand Central Station for just under 500 people on Friday, December 10.

One of the big parties and celebrations of New York’s Irish social season, support for the center has once again surpassed $ 2 million for the second year in a row, an incredible achievement at all times but especially as the pandemic grieves us always.

Guests of honor were Ron Coughlin, CEO of Petco, and Joanie Madden of Cherish the Ladies who performed that evening, in further recognition of her NEA National Heritage Award in 2021.

Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies, #SpiritofIrelandGala. Oiche mhaith!

Posted by Irish Arts Center on Friday, December 10, 2021

To answer Camille O’Sullivan’s question on where we are now, if you’re the Irish Arts Center, you’re in a great place, and an Irish immigrant and all New Yorkers can call home.

* This column first appeared in the December 15 edition of the weekly Irish Voice, sister publication of IrishCentral.


William E. Bennett