‘Great things can happen when the Irish come together’
This weekend the Irish-born population in Kansas City will collaborate with locals for the 11th annual Irish Fest, writes Rory O’Connor
It seems like a long time ago that I left Ireland, probably only because it was. I left for the first time in 1978. We grew up very much middle class, had all we needed and most of what we wanted. We were given the opportunity of a very good education, and although I chose the “scenic route”, my four sisters all earned their bachelor degrees in the usually allotted time.
My scenic route included a bit of wanderlust. From early days I could hear the fog horn at Dun Laoghaire and felt it was calling me away. I had an uncle in San Francisco and many of his generation had made their way to the west coast of America, probably typical of most families at the time.
It was, however, by great fortune and complete lack of planning I wound up in Kansas City. I was involved with the student union at Bolton Street, and, by virtue of this esteemed position, managed to get my hands on the “job box” before others could. I had three friends, and the only instructions I received from them was to select from the box four jobs at one company in the one town. Our lack of planning was aptly displayed when we were buying bus tickets in New York and did not even know which state Kansas City was in. (There are two Kansas Cities, one in Kansas and the other in Missouri, each having their own political structures. Most citizens in each state are proud of their different histories, including each having fought on different sides during the Civil War.)
After my summer job I returned to Europe and travelled a bit. I worked in Germany and again in the United States, always managing to find work in construction. After four years I thankfully realised I did not want to be driving nails in concrete formwork when I was 50, so found my way back to Kansas City and enrolled in the university to pursue civil engineering. This time, more focused on studies rather than distraction, I did much better, managing to earn a full scholarship to do my Masters. Again I travelled around the US, married a girl from California, and after a few years even convinced her to leave the Golden State and move to Kansas City.
The Irish have a strong history here. During Prohibition, Kansas City was known to be wide open thanks to Boss Tom Pendergast and his political machine. Other great Irish contributors were Fr Bernard Donnelly, Charles Kearney and more recently John Sullivan, all remembered in a fabulous history of the Irish in Kansas City From the Bottom Up written by a local author Pat O’Neill. The account clearly points out how far an immigrant population can come in a short time. It is because of the resolve of a previous generation of Irish that the opportunity was made available for my generation to succeed here.
When I came over the summer of 1978 on my student work visa there were around 10 Irish-born here, most of whom arrived in the 40s. They had their Irish traditions, held Sunday gatherings in Tower and Holmes Park and were generally a close knit group. After I came back married in 1989, the numbers of Irish-born had increased to close to 100. A few had come with ties to someone here, but most arrived chasing work or someone of the opposite sex, probably thinking they would be the only Irish-born person in the whole of Kansas City.
When you have enough young expats in a place, and if they have a mind to do so, great things can be accomplished. The older generation had their own clubs, but we had philosophical differences with them and so started our own. Over the years, Celtic Fringe has provided a place where friendships and bonds can be formed between people with a common history.
In the early days we also had two small neighborhood Irish festivals generally attended, staffed, and promoted by members of the Celtic Fringe. Ultimately it made more sense to combine them, resulting in the Kansas City Fest, now is in its 11th year. We now have over 100,000 attendees, great bands on eight stages, comedians, artists and vendors who travel in from the four corners. The Fest is supported by over 1,000 volunteers, 30 committee chairs, a board of directors and a part-time executive director. We support local parishes who provide staff for the bars and have contributed almost $200,000 in grants and sponsorships back to the community.
Our Fest is really something special. In the US, Kansas City is regarded as “fly over” country and we like it that way. Like in Ireland, however, when someone does take the time and effort to come here we go out of our way to welcome them and make sure we can do all we can to make their visit enjoyable. Our KC Fest embodies this core philosophy.
All of this is a long way to get to the point. Now that emigration is again a necessity in Ireland I would offer to people leaving – do not go to big centres of other Irish communities. Go someplace that is big enough for you yet small enough where you can make your own reputation. Find other like-minded people and get behind something. The Celtic Fringe started up as not much more than a place you could count on for a few jars with one another once a month. Sure it’s all grand here.
This year’s Kansas City Irish Fest takes place next weekend, August 30th to September 1st. See kcirishfest.com.