Pittsburgh may be most associated with black and gold, but when it comes to the Irish in the area, they’d paint the city green. Almost from its founding there have been Irish in Pittsburgh. The first arrivals were the Scots-Irish in the 1700s, and then later in the 1800s the Irish Catholics began to arrive. Near the middle of the 1800s, The Great Potato Famine brought thousands more from the Emerald Isle to Pittsburgh, many of whom found work with the railroads. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 11 percent of the city’s population claims some Irish blood, making Pittsburgh home to the ninth largest population of residents listing Irish as their primary ancestral group.
Pittsburgh’s Irish Pride
Pittsburgh is proud of its Irish heritage and celebrates it year round, not just on St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish Centre of Pittsburgh strives to educate its members and the community about the culture of the Gaelic people. It hosts lectures, classes, arts and crafts, music, drama, and dance, as well as social and athletic events to preserve the city’s Irish heritage.
Many Irish associations are also active in the area, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, as well as The Knights of Equity and Daughters of Erin. Only three cities in the nation boast chapters of the Knights of Equity: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit. The Ceili Club promotes traditional Irish dancing and folk music. On Tuesday nights, at Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle pub in The Strip District, the Pittsburgh Ceili Club hosts lessons and a dance. The Irish are known for their gift of gab, and The Gaelic League of Pittsburgh sponsors classes that promote the Irish language.
You might think the Steelers are the only football team in town, but Pittsburgh is home to two others: The Pittsburgh Celtics and The Pittsburgh Banshees, both Gaelic football teams. The Celtics is the men’s team and The Banshees, the women’s.
Local Irish Events
There are many Irish pubs in Pittsburgh where patrons can quaff a pint and enjoy conversation and Irish music. Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle holds several events that help patrons to connect to their inner Celt. There is an annual Oyster Fest and a Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Perhaps their most unusual event is the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival. It is modeled after the one held annually in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, Ireland, during the month of September. Singles come from all over the world to Lisdoonvarna, Ireland, to find their true love. Who says that Irish charm can’t cross the pond? At Mullaney’s, lads and lasses flock to the pub for its version of the Lisdoonvarna Festival, which is held twice a year. Local matchmakers work to pair up couples. To date more than 70 couples have found love at the festival.
For those who can’t wait until St. Patrick’s Day to make merry, the Pittsburgh Irish Festival’s “Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day” celebration takes place in September. For nearly 20 years, this three-day exhibition of Irish culture and fellowship has drawn more than 25,000 visitors.
The Irish Experience in Theatre and Dance
Maybe you’ve always dreamed of hoofing it like a “Lord of the Dance.” If so, there are several outstanding Irish dance academies in the Pittsburgh area where you can learn the traditional steps of Irish dancing. These dance troupes perform at various Irish gatherings throughout the area and often dance competitively.For those who like a more cerebral Irish experience, an excursion to the Irish Room at The University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms at its Cathedral of Learning is in order. The Irish Nationality Room features a replica of the Book of Kells, an original cornerstone from the Abbey of Clonmacnoise, and Celtic symbols and architecture.
The Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre is committed to producing actor-centered, language driven modern classics of Irish and world theatre and has staged acclaimed productions of The Seagull, James Joyce’s The Dead, and Jane Eyre.
St. Patrick’s Day in Pittsburgh
For the Irish, the pinnacle for celebrating all things Irish is St. Patrick’s Day. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Pittsburgh in 1869 and has been held sporadically during the first half of the 20th century.
It’s a good thing no parade was scheduled for 1936, for if one had been, it may have taken place with a flotilla instead of floats. On March 16 of that year, warmer-than-usual temperatures caused a quick thaw of the area’s snow and ice, and then heavy rains sent the rivers flowing over their banks. On St. Patrick’s Day 1936, the rivers reached flood stage and peaked the next day at 46 feet, 21 feet above flood stage. The city was devastated; 65 of the downtown businesses were flooded, and for days the area was without electricity. Damage was estimated at $250 million, which would be over $3 billion adjusted to today’s economy.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the popularity of the parade grew and attendance increased. The parade has become so popular that not even an enormous winter storm could stop it. In 1993, the worst snowstorm in 100 years struck on the day of the parade. Although you could barely see the parade participants because of the heavy blizzard, nonetheless hundreds of hearty Irish marched in the parade.
When it comes to their ancestry, the Irish are a bit like the post office. Neither flood nor snow will keep them from celebrating their rich and wonderful heritage.
By Janice Palko