How 8,000 Irish books found a home in the Arizona desert

The Valley of the Sun is a unique location for an Irish library, modelled on a Norman castle

With family and friends just a mouse-click away, we might be forgiven for believing we can feel at home wherever we are in the world. Migration seems less complex and consequential given the abundance of opportunities for virtual connections to home, but “the ache of the uprooted plant” persists, reminding us that sometimes there is no substitute for a real social network in a physical space.

For the Irish diaspora, or for anyone seeking to connect with Ireland, an unlikely opportunity exists in Arizona's Valley of the Sun, best known for its 299 days of sunshine each year and its multi-city sprawl - each of which boasts a sister city in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Just north of downtown Phoenix stands the McClelland Irish Library, in the form of a latter-day 12th century Norman castle. Such an architectural juxtaposition may seem incongruous in other urban landscapes, but not in Phoenix, a metropolis that is barely 150 years old.

Although considered a new city, its network of canals - more miles of waterway than Venice and Amsterdam combined - is a reminder that Phoenix was built on the ruins of the ancient Hohokam civilization. With sticks and stones, the Hohokam carved almost a thousand miles of canals into the desert, creating the most advanced irrigation system in the New World to deliver water from the Salt Water river to their crops.


After tending fields in their desert oasis for more than a millennium, the Hohokam civilization disappeared in circumstances that remain a mystery for archeologists. The Valley of the Sun lay empty for 400 years, just waiting for European settlers, the pioneers who would uncover the ancient Hohokam water routes to shape the canal system and the city that continues to rise from the ashes of its mythical namesake: Phoenix.

Phoenix is a big city, the fifth most populous in the United States with more than 1.6 million people, 10 per cent of whom claim Irish ancestry. Surrounded by mountains, the neighbourhoods of Phoenix are various and distinct, some separated by more than 30 miles and more than one freeway, some sprawl across acres where citrus groves, horse pastures, farms, and fields of flowers once flourished, all coaxed by canal waters.

Phoenix is also a city of newcomers that, according to US Census Data, added 220 people a day in 2017. Downtown Phoenix Inc, a think tank established to encourage more businesses, residents, and visitors, reports that in 2018 Phoenix has already seen an 85 per cent spike in its downtown population.

People want to be less dependent on their cars; instead walking or taking the light rail to restaurants and cultural destinations. This bodes well for recent Irish emigrants in search of the craic; which they might just find in the Irish Cultural Center and the McClelland library, a bold expression of Irishness in the heart of a desert city.

Inside the library

The library bears the family name of Norman P. McClelland, who passed away in 2017. The son of Co Down immigrant W.T. McLelland, who settled in Tucson in 1912 about a month before Arizona became a state, Norman McClelland was a tenacious genealogist. He envisioned a library that would also provide access to dynamic Irish culture, arts, and education for the entire community.

“Norman researched and published four detailed family history volumes, one on each of his grandparents who grew up within a ten-mile radius in Co Down,” explains head librarian Chas Moore.

“His dedication to family and helping others discover their roots and write their family histories is what guided his huge investment of the library that bears his family name.”

The three-story library is the largest of its kind in the Southwestern United States, housing 8,000 books from Irish authors, poets, and genealogical sources, as well as a permanent exhibit on The Book of Kells, several reading rooms, and computer access to various disciplines of Irish and Celtic studies, including genealogy.

While conducting his own genealogical research, McCelland met Brian Trainor, former research director of the Ulster Historical Foundation, director of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission. Dr Trainor died in Belfast in August, and as testament to McCelland's work, has bequeathed his personal collection to the McClelland Library, helping realise what librarian Chas Moore says was McLelland's greatest hope, "to have an entire bookshelf lined with Irish in Arizona family histories. We are well on the way to achieving that goal with our new Irish in Arizona project."

Connections between Arizona and Ireland

Impressive and imposing against the desert sky, the McClelland Library is modelled after an ancient Norman castle. It stands on the campus of the Irish Cultural Center along with a cottage, An Gorta Mor Great Hunger Memorial, and the Great Hall, which has hosted an impressive trail of ambassadors, academics, historians, poets, and politicians.

Last autumn, John Deane gave a poetry reading at the centre, and next January, Jim Rogers, editor of the premier Irish Studies journal in the US, New Hibernia Review, will deliver a lecture.

Diverse programming such as this resonates with Phoenix resident and publisher of Reading Ireland, Adrienne Leavy, who became involved when her daughter Niamh began taking Irish language classes there. She became part of the creative team that organized the 1916 Centenary exhibition, in collaboration with the Louth County Museum in Dundalk.

Leavy praises the staff “who take their stewardship of Irish culture very seriously,” and the centre’s impressive programming, “whether it be lectures and exhibitions, or the various language, music and dance classes offered”.

This year, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the ICC and McClelland Library presented a series of lectures, book discussions and events exploring the theme of Peace and Reconciliation.

Back home

My parents still live in rural south Derry, but my father would be right at home in the McLelland Library. He would survey the arch above the doorway, calculating how much limestone and labour went into it, marvelling when I told him the Irish blue limestone was quarried in Co Galway, then cut and carved in a Co Clare workshop by master stonemason, Frank McCormack.

Three tonnes of limestone were shipped to the US by boat through the Panama Canal, and after arriving in Los Angeles, were transported by truck to Phoenix, where McCormack and one of his finest master stone masons flew to fit the pieces of stone in layers.

His wife Mary describes the difficulty of working in the Phoenix heat, “They were on site at dawn ready to work and had to leave at the height of the sun and then work again as the day cooled down. Should a mistake be made and a tool left in the sun, hands were burnt and this slowed work.” It took a month for the team to recreate in the desert a masterpiece of ancient Irish civilization.

“If you look at that doorway, you’ll see old history,” McCormack says. “You’ll see we used the chisel the same way stonemasons did 1,000 years ago. It’s the real deal.”

The inspiration for the doorway came from library architect and president of the Irish Cultural Center, Paul Ahern. He had visited Ireland in 2005 “to see the churches, monasteries, and castles in order to absorb some of the design character of these old, old stone structures”.

While the basic conceptual design was completed before Ahern began searching for a specific historical reference image for the doorway, he knew what he wanted - relatively simple geometric shapes without religious figures or Celtic crosses. He focused an internet search on Co Clare, because of the relationship between Phoenix and her sister city, Ennis, and discovered a photo of the former St Brigid’s church on Holy Island on Lough Derg.

A 10th century structure, “St Brigid’s arched entry seemed to have the right character, so I developed the design by scaling up the original to fit our library”.

Towering over me as I enter the courtyard is the McClelland Library and McCormack’s impressive handiwork. Under my feet is a map of Ireland, each of her counties set in brick and etched with the names of donors. Around me, the echoes of two ancient civilizations, and I find myself recalling five years after his death, Seamus Heaney, a man who loved libraries, once exalting them and their librarians with these lines from one of his favorite poems by Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz:

“I imagine the earth when I am no more . . . Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born, Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.”

Yet the books will be there.