Go & Do: The Maine Irish Heritage Center

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The Irish have had a huge influence on Maine, and we’re not talking green beer, potatoes and Irish whiskey.

They have founded our communities, built our ships, organized our churches, led our government, run our factories and pioneered our arts.

And no better place to discover or expand your appreciation for the Irish influence in Maine than at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland.

“Park behind the church and come in the back door,” Mary McAleney told me.

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There are few pretenses here, clearly. Instead, a very dedicated all-volunteer staff and their many supporters have created a place that not only celebrates the Irish in Maine, but offers a place to celebrate all cultures.

I pulled open the steel door at the back of the center — which until 1997 was known as the beautiful St. Dominic Church, at the corner of State and Gray streets — and a lady holding a carpet sweeper said, “Hi, I’m Mary.” Thus began a delightful two-hour visit with the center’s chairman of the board.

The structure seems a perfect home for the center: Built by the Irish and finished in 1893, St. Dominic is considered Portland’s first Catholic church and the state’s second. (The first was built in Damariscotta, according to McAleney, and also constructed by the Irish.) It was purchased from the city of Portland in 2003, following the Catholic diocese’s decision to close it, renovated and re-opened for good in 2008.

“It was the sheer will and determination of all the volunteers and the board members that kept this place going,” McAleney said. “We would be at a board meeting, and someone would say, ‘We need 150 bucks for the phone bill.’ … It was an amazing human effort, just like it was in the beginning,” she said, referring to the first wave of Irish immigrants who began “saving their pennies” in the 1820s and 1830s to build the first St. Dominic Church, which was razed in 1888 to make way for the current building.

The Irish came to Maine long before the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s and ’50s — many coming from Canada — beginning the process of integration as early as the Civil War. But the wave of Irish immigrants resulting from the famine greatly enhanced the influence of the Irish in Maine. McAleney says they were farmers and weavers, boat builders and shoemakers.

In Bangor and Lewiston, they built and ran the mills. In Portland, an urban hub for many of Maine’s early Irish, they worked the docks; they engineered improvements (the Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street in Portland houses a McCann wagon, a once-cutting-edge firefighting pumper); they erected significant buildings (the contractor for the former Lafayette Hotel was James Cunningham); they became world-famous movie directors (John Ford was actually a Feeney, raised on Munjoy Hill).

The progeny of Maine’s early Irish have influenced and continue to influence the state, particularly politically. McAleney quickly reels off the names. In Lewiston: the Delahantys and Cliffords (who have held a host of judicial seats in Maine), Greg and Phil Nadeau (brothers in public service whose grandmother was a McCarthy) and former Gov. James Longley. Statewide, Irish pride extends to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, lobbyist-to-the-stars Severin Beliveau (Rumford native whose mother was a McCarthy) and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (whose biological father was a Kilroy).

All of that Irishness and more is celebrated at the Maine Irish Heritage Center. The center has three missions:

• Protect, preserve and restore the historic landmark that was formerly St. Dominic Church, a hub of the early Irish community in Maine;

• Provide a center for Maine’s diverse communities to share their cultural experiences through educational programs and community events;

• House Maine’s Irish Genealogy Center and library, preserving the story of Irish history in Maine.

The center works in a variety of ways to those ends. In what was once the church sacristy, the lending library and genealogy center are housed, providing a professionally cataloged collection of books, tapes, periodicals and documents. A beginner’s course on genealogy is offered and on the first Tuesday of each month you can “Meet the Genealogist.” 

The Irish American Club is a partner in the center and offers Irish language lessons, dance workshops and Bodhran and tin whistle lessons, as well as many social events, while the center offers a weekly practice place for the Claddagh Mohr Pipe Band, among many other activities.

“This is a hopping place,” says McAleney

Income generators for the center include banquet space for up to 300 people, and the sanctuary on the upper level is available for special events. While the center is Irish-centric, it is open to any and all as a resource.

“We have 10 weddings scheduled for this year,” said McAleney, as she entered a small room off the main entrance called the Bride’s Room. On this day it was lit by rose-colored sunlight filtering through two stained-glass windows.

In what was the sanctuary on the main level, she points out the largest of the stained-glass windows, facing Gray Street.

“This is probably the most shining example of stained-glass artistry in New England,” she said with unabashed Irish pride. A harp, flute, horn and drum are all woven into the design. “Notice the angels – aren’t they gorgeous?”

She added, “This building is a beacon – you see it coming across the bridge from South Portland, and you see it coming into the harbor. It’s a symbol of why people came, and still come to America, because you can dream … and do.”

— Mark Mogensen, news editor, contributed to this story

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The center

The Maine Irish Heritage Center

Type of organization: 501(c) 3 nonprofit, listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Location: Portland, corner of State and Gray streets

Mailing Address: PO Box 7588, Portland, ME 04112

Phone: 207-780-0118

Web site: www.maineirish.com

Open: May through October, hours to be determined; off season, on Tuesdays from 4 to 6:30 p.m. the genealogy center is open.

Tours: By appointment

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Upcoming:

March 14, noon, parade on Commercial Street, sponsored by The Irish American Club of Maine (assemble at the Fish Pier, goes to Maine State Pier, where closing ceremony is held)

March 17: open at 11:45 a.m. for Irish bread, coffee and tea

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Join the club

The Irish American Club of Maine

Founded: 1973

Type of organization: social club

Web site: www.irishofmaine.org.

Address: PO Box 1683, Portland, ME 04104

Phone: 780-0119

Monthly meetings: September through May, third Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., Maine Irish Heritage Center

Eligibility for membership: You need not be Irish or even part Irish, according to the Web site. “We are a social club designed to enjoy and pass on Irish culture, not hoard it.”

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