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Irish Fest Center a bridge to history

James Linn (left) and his cousin, Anna Zeidler, 1 dance at the Irish Fest Family Day in the Village event held on St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Fest Center.

James Linn (left) and his cousin, Anna Zeidler, 1 dance at the Irish Fest Family Day in the Village event held on St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Fest Center. Photo By Mary Catanese

March 19, 2013

More than green beer and "Kiss me I'm Irish" buttons, Wauwatosa's own Irish Fest Center is a bastion of Irish culture.

Hosting year-round events including a family fest in the village for St. Patrick's Day, housing North America's largest Irish music archive as well as a plethora of artifacts and offering tours to whoever wants to know more about Irish culture, the center is a piece of history in the heart of the Wauwatosa village.

Beyond the festival

The center, located at 1532 Wauwatosa Ave., opened its doors in 1998 to help bolster the annual three-day Irish music festival that takes place in Milwaukee. The location was previously the Sauk Lodge owned by the Masons.

With the help of volunteers, the Irish fest center was completely redecorated.

Originally an office center for the festival, it wasn't until their last strategic plan that they decided to open their doors for year-round events.

"Our mission is to celebrate all aspects of Irish culture and instill future generations an appreciation of Irish heritage," Irish Fest board member Cathy Ward said. "You can't do that in three days. You have to have a year-round presence and to have that, you need to ground yourself."

What followed was a plethora of events and a semester-long Irish Fest School of Music. All events are centered on Irish culture, with their last event being Family Day in the Village, a celebration of St. Patrick's Day complete with Irish music, crafts and tours.

The center is also home to the Irish Fest Center Foundation, which uses funds from Irish Fest to award grants to charitable causes with an Irish connection. The foundation also awards grants to disaster relief and has donated over $500,000 since 1994.

Irish connections in Tosa

Among the 4,000 members is Tom Cannon, who is active in the Irish community and has extensively studied Irish History in the Milwaukee area.

He said that while the Irish have a rich history in Wauwatosa, the culture at large assimilated so fast that no one alderman or mayor represented the Irish as they would have in areas like Boston, Philadelphia or New York.

"I think that the Irish did not have the ethnic cohesion that a lot of other immigrant groups had because when they first arrived in the U.S. they were already bilingual and bicultural," Cannon said, "plus they had the significant advantage of experience in mass participatory democracy through their involvement in Daniel O'Connell's campaign for catholic emancipation, which was achieved in 1829."

He added that most Irish immigrants coming to Wisconsin were looking specifically to buy farmland, which dispersed them across the state. There is Irish influence in all 72 counties, whereas there may not be Scandinavian or Italian influence throughout the state.

Another contributing factor as to why the Irish culture assimilated so quickly in Wisconsin was their inclusivity, Cannon said.

"If you look at the first St. Patrick's Day in 1843, there were German units marching with Irish units," he said. "St. Patrick's day has become an American celebration more than a specific or exclusive Irish celebration."

Cannon added that the Irish example of assimilation paved the way for other ethnicities to follow their path.

To learn more about Irish history or to schedule a tour of the center, visit irishfest.com.

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