As St. Patrick's Day approaches and the annual bloom of shamrocks and emerald emblems materializes around town, Aidan Gill finds more occasions to dispense a favorite motto.
"It's 365, not just 3/17," he says, explaining that the seasonal upwelling of Irish pride around St. Patrick's Day (or 3/17) should be something people embrace year-round. "There's a lot of good energy and good feeling about the Irish in March, when all the flags are out and the parades are rolling, but then by tax season people seem to forget about it," says Gill, a Dublin native and owner of two Aidan Gill barbershops in New Orleans. "The point is to galvanize that energy and put it to good use throughout the year."
That point will be in focus as the countdown to St. Patrick's Day brings attention to Irish heritage in ways that go far beyond the traditional parades and block parties. This week, New Orleans welcomes a landmark conference on Irish cultural matters that is drawing Irish scholars, experts and cultural ambassadors from around the globe. At the same time, a new grassroots Irish cultural organization is using the conference and the upcoming holiday to introduce itself to the broader community.
Organizers of that conference, the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS), and leaders of the new organization, Irish Network-New Orleans (IN-NOLA), are working together to raise awareness of the city's strong Irish heritage, to tap that heritage as a hook to promote the city and to unite the local Irish community and those interested in it for networking and common causes.
"It's a new way of thinking about Ireland," says Pauline Patterson, a Belfast native and IN-NOLA board member who owns Finn McCool's Irish Pub in Mid-City. "This conference is just such a massive assembly of Irish scholars, of people who are interested in Ireland and what it means to be Irish across the world, and combined with what we're doing with Irish Network, I think it's a chance to move us away from the stereotypes you always see around St. Patrick's Day."
The ACIS is the annual meeting of a multidisciplinary scholarly organization of the same name, and it's shaping up to be a one-of-a-kind event for New Orleans.
The conference, which runs from March 14-17 and is held at the Hotel Monteleone and the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception, takes in history, literature, film, theater, anthropology, politics, economics and other topics related to Ireland and that nation's global diaspora. About 475 presenters are on the schedule, and they're coming from all points of the compass, representing 46 states and 16 foreign countries. More than 80 of the presenters are coming directly from Ireland.
Plans for the conference have been in the works since 2009, when Tulane University history professor Laura Kelley presented some of her own work on the Irish presence in New Orleans at an earlier ACIS event. The group's leadership took a shine to holding a future conference in New Orleans, and Kelley eagerly agreed to coordinate the effort.
"It was this desire to show New Orleans to as many people as possible and to tell the story of the Irish in New Orleans," Kelley says. "As a historian, I'm always studying Irish identity and Irish history, and of course it's in the past. But what I've found is this resurgence of Irish here, people born on that tiny green island coming to New Orleans. It's not just in the past, it's in the present and it's continuing."
Kelley began working with Tulane dean and fellow Irish studies researcher Terrence Fitzmorris and Tulane provost Michael Bernstein, and the call went out for prospective presenters. Kelley says the invitation to come to New Orleans proved magnetic, and this year's conference is the largest in the 50-year history of the ACIS.
Normally, the conference is held later in the spring, but with the NCAA's Final Four tournament beginning in New Orleans at the end of the month and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicking off in April, Kelley says the schedule was moved to mid-March. That it happened to fall on the week leading to St. Patrick's Day was a coincidence, she says, and a happy one at that.
For Adrian D'Arcy, however, it was more like a sign from above. Raised in Ireland's County Kerry, D'Arcy emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s, put himself through law school and is now a partner with the New Orleans firm of Shields Mott Lund LLP. Last year, he took the lead in forming IN-NOLA as the local chapter of Irish Network USA. When he learned ACIS was coming to town, he knew his new organization had to get involved.
"I was just blown away, it's the most important Irish cultural event to ever be held in New Orleans, and it's happening the week of St. Patrick's," D'Arcy says. "I just thought, what an incredible opportunity. When everyone is focused on Ireland and talking about Ireland, you can come and learn about Ireland right here at home."
IN-NOLA has been actively promoting the conference, along with sponsors that include the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, the Murphy Institute and the Lurcy Fund. Anyone who joins IN-NOLA gets a deep discount on registration to attend any of its events, including an opening reception with Jimmy Deenihan, the Irish government's Minister for Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht Affairs (or Irish language-speaking regions).
The working relationship between ACIS and IN-NOLA leaders has already sown the seeds for future cultural happenings. For instance, based on the number of film projects submitted for the conference, IN-NOLA is planning an Irish film festival for September, and Kelley says an art exhibit is in the works too. IN-NOLA also is establishing a scholarship to send a New Orleans student to an Irish university, and plans are under way for a culinary exchange program to swap chefs between New Orleans and Ireland.
The city has long fostered a number of Irish cultural groups, like the Irish Channel St. Patrick's Day Club, the Downtown Irish Club and the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic organization started in New York in 1836. But IN-NOLA leaders say their group represents a new approach to Irish culture, one that's more diverse and more accurately reflects modern Irish society.
"It's Irish people, Irish-born, Irish Americans and friends of Ireland. It's like what you see along the parade route," says Gill, an IN-NOLA board member.
The group has grown to more than 300 members since its official launch five months ago, and Patterson says that's a credit to its inclusive nature and the generosity of people who associate themselves with Irish culture.
"Irish people are just very, very social, they're always getting together, interacting, they want to help each other," she says. "If you harness that with an organization you can accomplish a lot. The Irish Network has consolidated the Irish community in New Orleans and expanded it, actually, by inviting everyone in."
American Conference for Irish Studies
Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St., 523-3341) and the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception (130 Baronne St., 529-1477)
Registration for all events is $168.50 ($118.50 for students). For details, visit www.acisnola2012.org.
Members of Irish Network-New Orleans may register at the discounted rate of $50. Individual memberships cost $50 ($30 for students and seniors). For details, see www.irishnetworkneworleans.org.
Jimmy Deenihan, the Irish government's Minister for Arts, Heritage & Gaeltacht Affairs (or Irish language-speaking regions), will address an opening reception for ACIS members and Irish Network members. March 14, 7 p.m.-8 p.m.
Dan Barry, New York Times columnist and author, gives a talk titled "The Unquiet Man: a Homeric Struggle for One Irish American Soul." March 16, 11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Irish scholars Cormac O Grada of the University of Dublin and Christine Kinealy of Drew University in New Jersey discuss the legacy of the 19th-century Irish famine. March 15, 6 p.m.-8p.m.
Acclaimed Dublin-based theater group Ouroboros presents a reading of Brian Friel's Making History, a play about Ireland's greatest hero, Hugh O'Neill, the chieftain who led the resistance to English conquest in the late 16th century. March 14, 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.