WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

Conor Driscoll points to features of the upstairs room that the Irish Cultural Center of Western New England hopes to convert to a performance space.

Reminder Publishing photo by Michael Ballway

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Diners, drinkers, rugby teams, small club meetings and musicians from across the ocean playing intimate concerts, they all come to Morgan Road.

With help, even more can come, supporters of the Irish Cultural Center of Western New England said at the April 2 kickoff for their Capstone Campaign. The ICC hopes to raise $2 million to convert 5,000 square feet of space on the top floor into a performance space that could also be rented out for functions. It would mean room for larger acts and larger functions, and not having to turn those diners and drinkers away because a private party has the Trinity Pub and Irish House restaurant reserved.

ICC President Sean Cahillane said the campaign is already well on its way to meeting its first goal, a mid-May deadline to raise $200,000 to qualify for a Massachusetts Cultural Council matching grant. Cahillane said he’s applied for several other grants, and expects them to amount to about 45% of campaign receipts, with 55% from private donors.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield), honorary chair of the campaign, said American institutions like the Irish Cultural Center are both a recognition of the strong ties between the two countries and a tool to keep the dialogue alive.

“It’s hard to imagine America without the Irish,” said Neal, who himself is descended from Irish immigrants. He mentioned not only the work of Irish immigrants who built the young nation’s canals and railroads, but also their cultural contributions.

The influence also runs the other way, he said, as he and other U.S. politicians helped broker the peace talks that ended decades of armed conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants, and between the independent republic that occupies most of the island and the region known as Northern Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom: “It was the American dimension that brought about the Good Friday Agreement” of 1998, Neal said.

Cahillane said his building at 429 Morgan Rd., West Springfield, is a focal point for that cultural and commercial exchange. Politicians from the Republic of Ireland regularly travel to America, he said, and when they come to Massachusetts they stop in West Springfield. The town’s ties to Ireland began with Neal hosting his Irish counterparts at the ICC, said Cahillane, but both the center and the town have made their own connections to Ireland, including West Springfield’s sister city and student exchange relationship with Dingle, shepherded by former Mayor Edward Sullivan.

Some Irish performers touring the United States already perform at the ICC’s pub and restaurant, but the addition of a performance space on the top floor will accommodate acts that attract a larger crowd. It will put West Springfield on the “Irish circuit” that includes cultural centers in larger cities like New York, San Diego and Mexico City, Cahillane said.

“You’re going to see a really high-caliber performance,” Cahillane said, mentioning Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

The Irish Cultural Center was established 25 years ago at Elms College in Chicopee, primarily as a library and genealogical resource. It moved to the former West Springfield Elks Lodge in 2015, adding an Irish bar and restaurant, outdoor patio, museum exhibits, and an athletic field that hosts Gaelic sports, rugby and soccer.

The upper story — which is directly above the ground-level pub and restaurant, but referred to as the “fourth floor” because the library and offices occupy basement and mezzanine levels — was always intended to be converted to performance and function space, Cahillane said, but was largely set aside as the final phase of a $6 million plan.

It won’t look like the downstairs. Whereas the bar and restaurant is decorated as a traditional Irish pub, the aesthetic upstairs will be “ultra-modern European,” Cahillane said.

For the past few years, it has been used as storage and a staging area for the kitchen. As part of the renovations, the main kitchen will move to a former electrical equipment room behind the pub, and the current kitchen area will become a “caterer’s kitchen” for use during functions.

The performance space will include a 16-foot raised stage that can be folded up into the wall when not in use, yielding a wide, open room suitable for parties and receptions. A broad bank of windows overlooks the patio and sports field.

“We want this to be an active place,” said Conor Driscoll, the Irish Cultural Center’s events coordinator. He said people are interested in hosting private events at the ICC, but the downstairs space isn’t conducive to it. Anything approaching 60 people requires taking over the restaurant and shutting out public patrons for the night. Anything more than that means dividing the party among multiple rooms or the outdoor patio. With a function room upstairs, groups of up to 200 will be able to have private events while the downstairs remains open for bar and restaurant patrons.

“You shouldn’t have to rent the place out in order to be here and enjoy it,” Driscoll said.

Part of the work funded by the campaign will be a new staircase from the front door to the upstairs ballroom, and a new elevator that will serve all four levels. The elevator will make both the top floor and the library handicap accessible for the first time.

Cahillane said the Capstone Campaign will complete work on the building, but the ICC still has future plans for the property, such as a replica of a 19th century Irish cottage, to teach visitors about the Great Famine.

Mayor William Reichelt, who serves on the fundraising campaign, said reopening what was once the Elks ballroom is not just a win for Irish heritage but also the legacy of this “unique” property.

“This was the spot to have a function in West Springfield, back in the day,” he said.

For information on how to support the Irish Cultural Center, visit www.irishcenterwne.org/support.

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