By Annie Delfosse
Nestled in an old Chicago Public School building on the Northwest Side stands the Irish American Heritage Center, a lively site for year round Irish happenings. The center is a non-profit, and a member organization of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, that functions to maintain and enhance Irish culture. Locals can participate in classes centering around Irish dancing, music, literature and even genealogy opportunities in which one can trace back their Irish heritage. The center hosts year round events, as well as Trinity Academy of Irish Dance, Irish Heritage Singers (who regularly perform at various venues), and the Nimble Thimbles– a quilting, sewing and crafting sector of the center which offers its raised funds towards the organization.
The three-story brick building, once known as Mayfair School, stood empty for several years in the 1980s before the Irish American Heritage Association bought it, finally securing a site for the organization. The association was founded in 1976, but it was not until 1986 that the center opened its doors in the Mayfair neighborhood. Members as well as local volunteers worked hard to convert the rundown building into what it is today. The center, especially the foyer, boasts of orange and green traditional Celtic designs painted by volunteer Edward Cox. Cox has painted murals in the heritage center for over 30 years now– he spends time on his painting every weekend.
Calendar showing the building back when it was still a CPS school
Some of the center’s stunning murals
An area of the center trimmed with many of these stunning murals is the library. The center opened the library to the public in 2006, and is filled with collections of books, cassettes, CDs, sheet music, and pamphlets. The library also offers public access to the world’s largest and oldest database of Irish newspapers– dating back to 1738 up to today! Ed Cox painted the literary border that runs along the library, as well as a mural in the children’s section.
Shot of library showing Ed Cox’s painted literary border
In addition to the library, the center houses a pub, theater, museum, art gallery and gift shop. The Fifth Province is designed as a traditional Irish pub and serves as a gathering place for the community to mingle, and have a drink! The pub was designed using materials from the school building, meaning the countertop of the bar is made from chalkboard. If it was not already cozy enough, there is even a fireplace. There is often live entertainment, trivia nights, and more.
The Fifth Province Pub
The Mayfair Theater displays historic decor in its design, and often hosts exciting live music events. The theater can be rented out for events. Don’t forget to stop at the gift shop for favorite Irish treats, candles, Nimble Thimbles quilted goods, and more.
Seating in the Mayfair Theater
View of the Mayfair Theater stage and stylish design
The theater is not the only section of the center that can be rented. The building has many private rooms, and even a ballroom, that can be rented for large or small events. Many of the rooms feature a bar and vary in sizes.
One of the center’s rooms decked out for a wedding
Perhaps one of the most well known organizations who utilizes the heritage center’s space is that of Trinity Academy of Irish Dance. The progressive dance company was founded in 1982 by artistic director Mark Howard, who has carried the academy throughout the past three decades and made a significant impact on the direction of Irish Dancing culture. The dancers have performed sold out tours in Europe, North America and Asia– as well as having traveled to entertain royalty and the like.
A classic shot of Trinity Irish Dancers, Photo: Trinity Academy of Irish Dance
Upcoming events at the Irish American Heritage Center include: live music at the Fifth Province, creative writing workshops, genealogy journey classes, an Irish book club, art exhibitions, trivia nights, Celtic art workshops- and more. The center regularly gives group tours, and is always seeking volunteer opportunities.
Quilt crafted by the center’s Nimble Thimbles
To learn more, visit: https://irish-american.org/
Photo Credit: The Irish American Heritage Center