'A little piece of Ireland:' Gaelic League marks 100 years with exhibit

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Wander into the exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of Detroit's Gaelic League at the Detroit Historical Museum and you'll find a large black and white photo on one wall that speaks to the size at one time of the city's Irish community.

The photo depicts thousands of men and women, dressed to the nines in suits and dresses, packed into a ballroom at the Masonic Temple for an event for the Gaelic League. In the 1930s, the Gaelic League used to host regular Saturday night dances as one of its many social activities.

It's just one of part of an interesting new exhibition, "The Gaelic League of Detroit: Proud Past, Promising Future" at the Historic Museum that runs through March 27 and tells the story of this social club and why it's still the epicenter of Detroit's Irish community.

"The Gaelic League of Detroit: Proud Past, Promising Future" at the Detroit Historical Museum includes photos, artifacts and club memorabilia from the Gaelic League and Irish American Club of Detroit.

Put together by a steering committee of the Gaelic League and presented in the Historical Museum's Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery, the exhibit, which features historic photos, letters and other artifacts, was actually supposed to debut in 2020, the Gaelic League's centennial, but was pushed back two years because of COVID-19.

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It tells the story not just of Irish immigrants in Detroit but social clubs, or fraternal groups, that began popping up in the 19th century as a place for people to connect and find belonging. Detroit's oldest fraternal organizations are actually the Detroit Boat Club Crew, founded in 1839, and the Detroit Yacht Club, founded in 1868.

Few of those clubs still remain today, especially their clubhouses. But the Gaelic League is still in the same nondescript building on Michigan Avenue that it purchased from Ford Motor Company in 1951. 

The Gaelic League was formed in December of 1920 by a group of Irish-born men. It was originally located in McAllister Hall at Sixth and Michigan Avenue in Corktown.

Tracy Irwin, the Detroit Historical Museum's chief exhibitions and enrichment officer, believes one factor behind the Gaelic League's continued longevity is because it's a place that has meaning to multiple generations.

"The Gaelic League really served as the backbone of the Irish community," said Irwin. "It's there for you, it's an extended family. If you're new to Detroit, it's a place you could go to find friendly faces. It supports the community in ways a lot of people don't know about."

According to the exhibit, Irish immigrants came to Detroit in three waves, the first of which was prior to 1700. Corktown became "a miniature Ireland" by the 1830s as Irish migrated from Boston and New York. Detroit, with its large Catholic French population, was more hospitable to Irish Catholics than more predominantly Protestant cities.

A video created by Kevin Steen includes interviews with Irish immigrants and Gaelic League members, calling it a "little piece of Ireland."

"The exhibit is about making sure Irish culture doesn't go away," said Irwin. "There are so many people, whether you're Irish or not, you're welcomed into the Irish community. And I think this exhibit is trying to embody that spirit."


'The Gaelic League of Detroit: Proud Past, Promising Future'

at the Detroit Historical Museum, Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery.

until March 27.

For ticket prices and hours, go to //detroithistorical.org.