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Wauwatosa home to country's largest public collection of Irish music

Few know of Tosa's hidden treasure

March 13, 2012

Jane Mullaney Anderson took the helm of Milwaukee Irish Fest in 1992. One of the first directions given to the new executive director was to find a headquarters.

"We were operating in our basements and garages and dining rooms," she recalled.

For six years, the festival organizers called a building at 84th Street and Bluemound Road home. The front was sublet to an Irish import store. But it soon became evident that more space was needed.

Fest officials in 1998 purchased the former Masonic lodge at 1532 Wauwatosa Ave., which had been built in 1918. Nearly the entire structure was renovated.

The new building provided space for instrumental music lessons, planning meetings and staff offices, as well as a performance hall for concerts. But the new home also needed to be more.

"We really wanted something to house the Irish music archives," she said.

A true cultural gem

Mullaney Anderson is referring to the Ward Irish Music Archives, the largest public collection of Irish music in America. The collection of more than 40,000 Irish recordings and pieces of music memorabilia was named after John J. Ward Jr., father of Irish Fest founder Ed Ward.

During a trip to Ireland to scout musical acts in the early 1990s, Ed Ward visited the Irish Music Archives and found music books created by his grandfather.

"That was his moment of inspiration," said Barry Stapleton, archives director. "He said, 'If they're collecting this stuff in Ireland, who's doing it in the States?' "

The entire upper level - 2,500 square feet of space - is dedicated to housing the collection that includes sheet music, music boxes, photographs, gold records, concert memorabilia and much more. The archives are open to tours by appointment and some people have come to conduct research, but for the most part Stapleton works to disseminate the information to the public.

"We need to be more proactive," he said. "We're trying to work on a digital database. There's a lifetime of work here."

While the primary focus remains collecting and preserving Irish music there's been some expansion into general entertainment.

"Ireland is a producer of entertainers," he said. "For a country half the size of Wisconsin, it's very strong in this area."

For instance, Stapleton is preparing two exhibits - one on movie posters and one on posters of Irish boxers - to be shown at festivals around the world.

Treasures abound

Donations of music-related items come in weekly from people cleaning out their basements or entertainers connected through Irish Fest. Records of various size and thickness, photos of musical jubilees held after the U.S. Civil War, the second-largest collection of Bing Crosby items and early wax cylinders that were thought long lost are some of the pieces that can be found in the archives.

Donated by David K. Dunn, the collection of 32 wax cylinders contain music recorded between 1902 and 1905 of piper Patrick Touhey, as well as Chicago musicians James Early, Bernard Delaney, John McFadden and Edward Cronin. Dunn discovered them in his home in 2003 and gave them to the archives, but they aren't displayed because they are far too rare and fragile, Stapleton said.

He worked with University of California-Santa Barbara and the Library of Congress to digitize the music on the cylinders so people can enjoy them.

The archives also have a Hall of History featuring Irish Americans who have contributed to popular music, such as Crosby and the Dorsey Brothers, along one wall and artists from Ireland who have received gold records in United States, including Enya and U2, on the opposite wall.

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