Imagine green rolling hills, romantic castles and blaring bagpipes. It isn’t too long before Ireland comes to mind. But what about desert sand, big blue open sky and a couple of cacti? Yeah, it’s Arizona, but Arizona is Irish too.
According to Patricia Prior, the executive director of The Irish Cultural Center on Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix, about 500,000 Arizonans claim to be of Irish decent.
On a regular basis Prior gets phone calls or visits from people curious about a family name or a long lost ancestor. In a lot of cases she’s able to give them a hand, telling them which county or part of Ireland that name is most common, or perhaps giving them a little history lesson about an antique item.
This all will become easier, though, with the addition of their new genealogy library.
Even now, the 15,000-square-foot library towers over the rest of the Center. A lot like the other three structures on the grounds, the exterior is stacked gray stones that fit together like an unconventional puzzle reaching for the sky. The library is expected to be finished at the end of May this year.
The Center was started in 1999 with the construction of a memorial to remember the lives lost in the Irish famine during the 1800s. Since then two new structures have been added, including a main hall and an exact replica of a cottage from Ireland. The interior is filled with objects and structures direct from Ireland.
“Everything is authentic,” Prior says.
Prior, who is originally from Waterford, Ireland, moved to the Valley in the early 1970s. She’s been involved in the Arizona Irish community ever since.
This year Prior and her husband Sean were voted 2012 Irish Persons of the Year by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Faire Committee. They will have a special place in the parade Saturday, March 17.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Faire is an annual event. This year marks its 29th anniversary. Along with the parade, which starts at 10 a.m., the Faire will have food, music and, of course, bagpipes, bringing a snapshot of Ireland to the desert heat. A compete list of bands and festivities can be found in this month’s issue of The Desert Shamrock.
But St. Patrick’s isn’t the only day The Irish Cultural Center offers events. The Center also participates in first Friday art walks downtown, not only displaying art from local artists of Irish decent in the main hall, but also offering a traditional Irish dinner for $10. Previous menu items have included Irish stew, Rueben sandwiches and shepherd’s pie.
As for the rest of the time, the Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with architecture, atmosphere and authentic relics that take you to another land.
“It’s calming and exciting,” Prior says. “You forget you’re in the middle of a city even though the city is growing up all around you.”
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