Downtown Phoenix’s Irish Cultural Center prepares for expansion

[Source: Connie Cone Sexton, The Arizona Republic]

Joe Beringer plays Irish music on a guitar with other musicians at the Irish Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix
Pat Shannahan/The Arizona Republic

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t for another three weeks, but the spirit of the day runs year-round at the Irish Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix.

Since opening in 2002, Valley residents have flocked to the center, 1106 N. Central Ave., to discover all things Irish. Dozens of music, dance and language classes are offered during the year as part of the center’s Academy of Irish & Celtic Studies. Now, with construction under way on a $3.5 million, 15,000-square-foot research library at the site, center officials anticipate the request for more classes will only grow.

Maria Elena Rodriguez, 34, has been a regular for more than four years. She initially came to take language classes.

“I had a trip to Ireland planned and thought it would be fun to read the language when I got there,” she said. “I took a couple of classes. They really helped with pronunciations, which can be so difficult. For example, the word “bhfuil” is pronounced “will.”

She made her dream trip and was thrilled to be able to read menus and street signs.

Rodriguez, who is of Mexican descent, speaks English and Spanish and has a good grasp of Italian and French. “I wanted to learn the Irish language, too,” she said. Her ability has progressed, and today she even teaches language classes at the cultural center.

Peoria resident Michelle Campbell, 44, another longtime regular, embraced her father’s Scottish side of the family long ago but more recently discovered her mother’s Irish heritage.

The love affair for the culture has trickled down to her adopted daughter, who is of Hispanic heritage – “but she has a face full of freckles,” Campbell said.

Gabby Campbell, 10, takes piano lessons at the center. “I was interested in learning about my family’s culture and I realized I like Irish music.”

She has come to love playing Irish jigs. “They’re so quick that you have to learn them slower and then change up to be faster,” she said.

Pat McCrossan plays the guitar in a music group with Gabby. He’s a veteran at the center.

He is excited about the upcoming library, which will help people with genealogical research.

That building should bring a wave of newcomers to the center and will accommodate many of the academy’s classes. McCrossan, who is the director of studies, hopes people will be so intrigued they’ll sign up for a class.

“Our idea is to pass on the language, music and dance to all kinds of people, regardless of age or culture or creed,” he said.

McCrossan was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and has been in the Valley for 15 years. The center teaches a variety of instruments used in Irish music, including the fiddle, banjo, whistle, guitar, piano and the bodhrán drum. “We don’t have an accordion teacher,” he said. “That would be nice.”

McCrossan said the library, designed to look like a castle, will include enough room to hold recitals. The library will feature more than 6,000 books, including masterpieces by Irish poets and authors as well as important periodicals, traveling exhibits from Ireland, movies, music and genealogical tools to provide visitors with opportunities to research their family history.

Groundbreaking began this month, and the building is expected to be open by January.

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