Irish culture is alive and thriving at New York’s vibrant new Irish Arts Center

St. Patrick’s Day will be happier than ever this year at the Irish Arts Center in New York. Hell’s Kitchen Cultural Center will celebrate its first St. Patrick’s Day in its brand new facilities and it will be one for the books.

The center had outgrown its three-story building at 553 West 51st Street, where it had been since the early 1970s, and had to hold some of its events offsite in recent years. The tight space only had 99 seats in its theater and really nowhere to accommodate people for conversation and that good old Irish hospitality.

In the lyrics of Aidan Connolly, executive director of the center, space could not shelter their ambitions.

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But now, with an additional 21,700 square feet just around the corner on 11th Avenue, Irish hospitality, culture and festivities can flourish. As St. Patrick’s Day approaches next week, we took an in-depth tour of the new center and learned what this new space means to its visitors and the community as a whole.

Here’s what you can expect during your visit:

Photography: Albert Vecerka:ESTO

When you enter the Irish Arts Center you will be greeted by a magnificent coffee and living room with plush sofas and chairs by Orior made with authentic Irish materials, including a bar counter made from a century-old walnut tree. Yes, there is draft beer, but also bites and drinks by Ardesia from Hell’s Kitchen. It’s so inviting you might want to sit down for a few hours, but that’s the point.

“Irish hospitality is a stereotype that we embrace,” Connolly tells us. “We encourage people to come early and stay late [to events].”

To amplify that this is a space for comfort and conversation, the center’s visual arts program has a wall dedicated to displaying artwork in the cafe, as well as other walls and areas around the building, as another springboard for conversation.

At the moment, a collective exhibition entitled “The space we occupy” is featured in cafe and inside the building’s three-story atrium at the front of the building, which features the historic brick interior facade of the Cybert Tire building and the kinetic sculpture “You Are Made Of Stardust” by artist George Bolster.

“The statement we wanted to make with the first show is to open up the possibilities of what a show could be,” said Rachael W. Gilkey, director of programming and education. “And that’s part of your experience…if you come here to see something in the theater we let you know and tell you to come to the cafe earlystar, come early to discover the visual arts exhibitions. You’re never there just to see something at the theater. There is always a whole experience.”

Irish Arts Center
Photography: Albert Vecerka:ESTO

Of course, the theater is one of the center’s biggest draws, and more so now. It’s a completely flexible space, which means that its ceiling, lights, and layout can change for every show, whether it’s a folk music concert or a traveling theater production. Whatever is needed can be done like at The Shed and Park Avenue Armory, which were designed by the same company, Fisher Dachs Associates. Even the acoustics can be changed in an instant with banners that can be dropped to absorb sound – a design by Jaffe Holden Acoustics (known for its work at Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and the Juilliard School). The comfortable seats, slightly wider and spaced apart than average, can actually be moved and reconfigured much like the bleachers in a gym.

Already shows like “Camille O’Sullivan: Where are we?” and “Muldoon’s Picnic” took the stage, with much more scheduled to come, including a full weekend of St. Patrick’s Day concerts. According to Connolly, the seats and the theater are so comforting that people end up staying in their seats to discuss the show they just saw or even ask the performers questions.

“We are really looking to build a relationship with audiences who may have known the Irish Arts Center as a theatrical enterprise over the years, but we really want to excite them with the increased artistic scale possible ( the shows we’ll do will really reflect that), but also show that the hyper intimacy of the same can be achieved,” Connolly says.

There’s also a new studio for classes, rehearsals, and community gatherings, an intimate, “warmly appointed” library classroom, and a pattern lounge. The library and studio spaces will allow students at the center’s language classes, playwriting and storytelling events to finally learn under the center’s roof. For years, these courses had to be held elsewhere due to lack of space.

The inability to congregate and connect hampered the Irish Arts Center for years, but now the new building finally brings that lost piece to the center and the community that visits it.

“All that sense of intertwined relationships…that’s what ultimately is the rocket fuel that builds community and you have to create space for that if you want that to happen,” Connolly says.

And that is precisely what they did.

Irish Arts Center
Photography: Albert Vecerka:ESTO

The Irish Arts Center offers a host of St Patrick’s Day events. Don’t miss the following:

Open day
March 13, 2022

At this year’s annual free open day, visitors can enter a brand new center for the arts in Ireland: an institution transformed, with their new building, in its ability to entertain, inform, explore and amaze, but still to base the same warm, hospitable center. Join IAC this St. Patrick’s Day season for this special open house, activating its space through live music and dance, crafts, educational workshops, and more, to get a sample of its many new opportunities to celebrate Irish and Irish American culture.

Saint Patrick’s Day
The Bluegrass Situation presents a three-night celebration of Irish American musical traditions headlined by Jake Blount, award-winning banjoist, fiddler, singer and scholar specializing in the music of the black and indigenous communities of the Southeastern United States; Nic Gareiss, acclaimed by the New York Times for his “deft fusion of Irish dancing and Appalachia”; Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, whose self-titled debut collaborative album won the Independent Music Award for Best Bluegrass Album; and special guests Tim Eriksen, Ebony Hillbillies, Hubby Jenkins, Megan Downes and others. You can see the full program here. Tickets start at $20.

10th Annual Book Day
March 17, 2022

Take part in Irish storytelling on St Patrick’s Day this year with Book Day, which will be dedicated to James Joyce’s singular and uniquely influential novel, Ulysses. Celebrating the tome’s 100th anniversary and continuing the Book Day tradition of recognizing the breadth of Irish literature alongside that of other cultures, this year’s event will also pay tribute to Jewish authors around the world, homage to the iconic Jewish protagonist of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. As always, IAC volunteers and staff, sponsors and supporters, and partners in the New York City Council in all five boroughs will distribute thousands of free books. Books in Spanish and other translations provided by our Literature Ireland partners.

Corina C. Butler