It’s a bitter cold afternoon in late February. The door to the Gaelic League swings open with a telltale jerk, nearly blowing the light outer door backwards. Stepping off Michigan Avenue and into the vestibule, I lean over to press the buzzer, alerting longtime bartender Patrick that a member is at the entrance. He releases the lock and I yank the door open a little too forcefully.
I’ve been coming to the Gaelic League longer than I can remember. My parents were members, and for all I know my grandparents were, too. They were of the fair-weather variety who approached their occasional appearances at the communal pub with all the fervent enthusiasm of a Catholic who attends Mass only at Easter and Christmas. We came on the city’s annual parade day, celebrated the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day, and on occasional game days before heading over to Old Tiger Stadium. Visiting the club was a sort of exurban, old-country pilgrimage repeated by many descendants of Irish immigrants in the city.
For 100 years now, the Gaelic League has brought together Detroit’s Irish-American community for beers, whiskey, and events celebrating shared cultural heritage. The Gaelic League is a fighter. It’s watched its numbers balloon and shrink over the years with the changing demographics of the city and yet has sustained itself, outliving many of its Corktown peers over the last century.
These days, things appear to be on the upswing. During my visit, the building is anything but desolate. Two men in their 70s hug the front corner of the rail, sipping Guinness and chatting quietly. At the far end of the dark wooden bar, bartender Patrick murmurs to club president Theresa Anaya and a few friends. A cluster of men in their 30s, visiting Detroit for the first time, engage a pair of regulars in conversation about the best restaurants in Corktown. A couple in their 20s, who recently moved to Midtown, have just proudly purchased their first annual membership cards. In other words, it’s a typical non-music night at the Gaelic League.
The prints behind the bar still depict rural farming and fishing life. In a place of pride at the center of the back bar is a group portrait of the men who led the Easter Uprising of 1916. Above that hangs the Gaelic League crest, declaring “Conradh na Gaeilge, Tír Is Teanga”: League of Gaels, Country and Tongue. A “Céad Míle Fáilte” sign proclaims “Ten Thousand Welcomes.” Along the hallway past the bar, the clocks lined up on the wall next to the performers’ stage still faithfully show the time in Detroit and Dublin. The dark wooden ceiling beams contrast with the white popcorn ceiling; the lighting is warm but dim. It’s less “Galway pub assembled in Ireland and shipped to the U.S.” and more “Grandpa’s basement circa 1960.” The decor in the club has been the same for so long that it’s cycled through popular bar fashions and its retro charm is almost in fashion again.
The league itself is an international organization with its roots in 1893 Dublin. After the mid-19th-century famine led to a worldwide diaspora, preserving Irish culture became the central mission of Gaelic League branches all over the world. Here in Detroit, Corktown — so named because of the area’s earliest settlers’ County Cork origins — was the natural spot for the branch named after recently deceased Terence MacSwiney. MacSwiney was a crucial figure in the Irish struggle for independence, dying on hunger strike in October 1920 in protest of British atrocities against the Irish. On December 9 of that year, around 50 men of Irish birth met in Detroit and formed the city’s Gaelic League.
Membership in the Gaelic League and Irish-American Club is much like that at other cultural clubs in Detroit: Dues are minimal and the emphasis is on shared heritage and community rather than money making. The club functions as a members-only organization and benefits from a state liquor license based on that. In fact, there are two club levels: the Irish-American Club and the Gaelic League. The vast majority of members are part of the Irish-American Club, while the official Gaelic League functions as the governing board.
In its first 30 years or so of existence, the club rented quarters at 12th Street and Grand River in Woodbridge. But by 1951, the League was finally able to purchase its own headquarters in Corktown at Michigan Avenue and Wabash from Ford Motor Company. (Fitting, since Ford himself was the son of an Irish immigrant.) Three years later, the club added an annex for dancing and music performances. During those years, membership grew steadily from the initial 50 founders to tens of thousands. Irish bands played six nights a week and the club’s 1940 ball at the Book-Cadillac Hotel hosted more than 5,000 attendees.
But by the 1960s, numbers began to dwindle as suburban populations grew and the city itself lost residents, especially white residents. Coupled with that, Irish emigration to the U.S. in general, and Detroit in particular, shrank drastically. The once-thriving center of Irish culture in Corktown scattered to suburbs like Redford, Farmington, and cities downriver. The club tapered back some of its activities, but Irish language lessons, dancing, and lectures remained a central part of the annual calendar.
Kathleen O’Neill, board member and unofficial historian of the Gaelic League in Detroit, meets me at a table in the library-cum-lounge area. The warm glow of the electric fireplace, installed in the 1950s, casts shadows over antique farm implements on the way, more portraits of Irish revolutionary heroes, and dozens of antique books on Irish history and language. O’Neill is the host of Detroit Irish Radio, a weekly broadcast on Sunday afternoons from WNZK 690 AM and an important promoter of local Irish cultural events. She’s been coming here since she was a child, and was the League’s first female president. O’Neill is a petite and energetic woman with a cloud of fair hair and keen eyes that never cease scanning the club room; she knows every inch of the place, having been a regular for nearly 50 years. In fact, she met her husband — and had her wedding — here.
For O’Neill, the allure of the Gaelic League has always been the sense of shared community, and most especially the impression that all are welcome. She’s proud of the fact that the Irish-American Club is welcoming to so many. Unlike many other Irish-American heritage clubs open only to Catholics, or to men, or to Catholic men, the Gaelic League’s Irish-American club has always held just two requirements: Members must pay annual dues, currently $20, and they must be Irish or Irish-American or simply American.
And everyone in America, stresses O’Neill, is American. “Everybody’s welcome,” she says. “We aren’t limited on who can join. It’s non-sectarian, non-political. Everyone has a voice. Everyone is welcome. If you live in America, you’re American, so you can be a member. It’s not just about charity and it’s really not about exclusion.”
She’s seen the importance of this over the years, as the city’s population has changed and people from different parts of the world have made Corktown their home. The “experience of discrimination,” says O’Neill, is an unfortunate commonality among people from different backgrounds in America. “And we’re all Americans. But I think it’s important to keep your culture,” she says. “Because that makes you what you are.”
The club considered moving during the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s, both in the aftermath of the 1967 uprising and in the face of many members’ flight to the suburbs, but decided to remain in its Corktown location. The building was paid for, and it was centrally located for many members. Proximity to Tiger Stadium brought an influx of visitors on game days, giving a jolt of much-needed cash to the neighborhood. With many Irish-American Detroiters moving to the suburbs, says O’Neill, “many Irish organizations settled in the suburbs, so people didn’t come down here” as much as they once did. The club toughed it out, though. As O’Neill says, “We’re an Irish club, and if we have to depend on a baseball team to keep us alive, there’s a problem here.”
The past three decades have been a dynamic period for the Gaelic League. The Tigers moved away from the baseball stadium right up the street in 2000, but the predicted doom for Corktown never happened. The old Irish-American Club carried on steadily, hosting Irish language nights on Wednesdays and traditional music sessions on Fridays, and bringing the faithful to special events like the Wolfe Tones concerts and fish fry nights.
Surprising national and international trends also boosted the club’s profile, like the Irish step-dancing mania brought on by the popularity of Riverdance shows in the 1990s. More recently, DNA testing services and the proliferation of sites like Ancestry.com have brought newcomers in search of their unexplored heritage. Corktown has also seen a boost since the mid-2000s, driven in part by the historic value of the beautiful Irish cottages and Victorian homes that comprise Detroit’s oldest intact neighborhood.
Today, most of the club’s members are second- or third-generation Irish, rather than the immigrants who formed the earlier core of the club’s members. “You’re not getting the influx from immigration,” O’Neill says. “You’re not getting it from your sweet little grandma that talked with a brogue. It’s still something that people are very interested in, though. Genealogy has brought in some interest and attention.”
New people flowing into the city bring greater membership opportunities for the club, but there’s also a danger that things will change. With a younger generation of visitors to the spot, O’Neill does worry a bit that the club’s traditions might not translate easily to a more youthful crowd. “Now Corktown is booming,” she says. “It’s great to have all this influx of people. But I don’t know if we’re with the times. We’re a quaint little place, you know? But how do you nicely blend in the new with the old without losing what the aims and objectives are?
“We’ve been here for a hundred years and some people haven’t heard of us,” she says. “But it’s nice to be able to help people reconnect” to the history of Detroit, of Corktown, and of Irish Detroit. These days, a younger generation of Detroit Irish bands like the Codgers, and like Stone Clover, who proudly describe themselves as a “Paddy Slag” band, ensure that the Gaelic League bar continues to host raucous parties week after week.
After a couple of hours, as we’re winding down our chat, Gaelic League president Theresa Anaya stops by to talk plans for the year’s 100th anniversary events. She’s thrilled that the club is continuing what she calls “this amazing story of the people, the history, the music, the ambience, the community.” Already this year the Gaelic League has hosted women’s wine nights, traditional céilí dances, and history lectures to celebrate the anniversary. They’ll cap off the centennial celebration with a major event in December.
For weeks now, they’ve been focusing on getting through parade season — the highlight of the Gaelic League’s annual event calendar. As a cornerstone of the United Irish Societies of Detroit, a group of 32 member organizations that make up the St. Patrick’s Day Parade committee, the Gaelic League holds a party every year on Parade Day and on St. Patrick’s Day itself. It’s usually a madcap celebration of Irish heritage and a testament to (and test of) the tradition of Irish hospitality as thousands of visitors from across the region flock to the club quarters.
For the groups that make up the United Irish Societies, it’s a week that’s about far more than a parade and some beers. It’s about an ancient shared culture and language, a strong literary tradition of poetry and drama, and an arts history that most visitors remain unaware of. It’s about contributing to charities such as the UIS scholarship fund, or raising awareness and recruiting new volunteers for genealogical societies, fraternal police groups, and firefighters’ orders. The donations and bar income from paradegoers and visitors on St. Patrick’s Day fund many of the club’s nonprofit programs throughout the year.
At the time of our interview, Kathleen O’Neill and Theresa Anaya were looking forward to the frenetic activity of Parade Day and St. Patrick’s Day. Unfortunately, the event was canceled just days beforehand in an effort to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some version of the traditional activities will move forward in the neighborhood. Still, O’Neill and Anaya retain a keen eye toward the rest of the year’s events, and to what O’Neill calls “our next 100 years.”
“It’s not the immigrant base that’s helping to reinforce the culture,” she says, “It’s the second generation keeping the history alive.”
The next few years are sure to see major changes to the neighborhood as Ford Motor Company moves personnel to Corktown’s Michigan Central Station. There’s a sense of achieved destiny, of coming full circle, that is in keeping with the storytelling history of the Gaelic League. Henry Ford’s grandfather and father were born in County Cork and moved to Detroit in 1847 at the height of the famine. Henry Ford, like many Irish Detroiters, was a product of Ireland, of Cork City, and of Corktown.
Now that the car manufacturer has ended up here in Corktown, in the same few blocks that have defined Irish Detroit heritage for nearly 200 years, the Gaelic League and Irish-American Club are poised to welcome them back with open arms and a properly poured pint.
I’m sure they’ll figure out the door and the buzzer quickly enough, too.
Mickey Lyons is a Detroit-based researcher and writer. She holds a master’s degree in Irish studies from Boston College. She speaks a tiny bit of Irish with an atrocious accent, and is a proud member of the Irish-American Club at the Gaelic League.
Michelle Gerard and Jenna Belevender are freelance photographers living and working in the city of Detroit.