In 1988 the first annual Fairfield County Irish Festival was held at Roger Ludlowe Field in Fairfield. In addition to an enthusiastic sharing of all things Irish, its stated goal was to raise funds to benefit the Gaelic-American Club Building Fund. Dreams were for this building to come alive as a social and cultural center to celebrate Irish music, dancing, drama, history and art.
In reality, the origins for the festival actually began forty years earlier when a group of nine – some say eleven – Irish-born Bridgeport citizens got together to found the Gaelic American Club. Dances, picnics, Gaelic football matches and other Irish events attracted scores of new members. For a decade beginning in 1955 the Club held an annual outdoor Feis at Fairfield University. Through the ensuing years membership rose to five hundred and the Club found homes in various rental locations in Bridgeport. In 1986, with a dwindling membership, the Club moved to space in Fairfield and, with the surge in interest about Irish history and life, membership soared to over one thousand. Thoughts of a place of our own now started to surface.
We Irish have a great respect for the land. The dream of ownership runs deep in the Irish psyche. Tenant farmers in Ireland for so long, immigrants to this country worked hard to put down roots quickly. So it was only natural for the membership to want to actively pursue this dream of our own home. As with all good histories, there are several highly debated stories about who first expressed the idea for a festival, but the time was right, and working together, the first Festival was brought to fruition.
From its inception, the Fairfield County Irish Festival has been a huge success and has become the premiere showcase of the best of Irish entertainment, food and a special hospitality that welcomes all who come during the weekend. With its success it became evident that the hospitality of the Festival should be extended to an organization dedicated to education and the generosity of charitable works. To that end, FEILE, Incorporated was formed in 1989 and recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) to continue the Festival, to promote an appreciation and awareness of Irish culture and to work, in concert with the Gaelic American Club, for the establishment of an Irish Cultural Center . “Feile” is an Irish word (pronounced FAY-luh) that originally meant “feast” and was chosen as the name for our charitable organization because the word now has multiple meanings connoting “festival”, “generosity” and “hospitality”, the characteristics of our heritage so prominently on display at the Festival that could be taught, enjoyed and promoted throughout the year at such a home for our heritage.
With the consistent success of the annual Festival, plans were put into motion to explore the building of the permanent home. After an extensive search and several options, the prized land was purchased on Beach Road in Fairfield. Mark Halstead and Stuart Sachs, architects, went to work on a design that “expressed itself externally as one wing for social activities and one wing for cultural activities in the familiar setting of an Irish cottage.” Through memorial gifts, bonds, a construction loan from the Bank of Ireland and, of course, the revenues from our annual Festival we were able to break ground in August 26, 1992. Our dream of a home became a reality when the Gaelic American Cultural Center celebrated its grand opening on May 15, 1993 as home to both the Gaelic American Club and FEILE, Incorporated. Year round it is a leading venue for Irish culture and “a second home to go to” for Irish men and women and people of Irish descent.
The site of the Fairfield County Irish Festival for the first thirteen years was on the grounds of the former Roger Ludlowe High School. When construction of a new school complex began, the Festival assumed the role of Ireland’s fabled traveling people, its “tinkers”, and staged the Festival in subsequent years at Jennings Beach, Seaside Park and Indian Ledge Park before returning “home” to Fairfield on the campus of Fairfield University, where the Feis had been held two generations earlier. This beautiful site has allowed us to expand the displays of Irish sports at the Festival, as well as increase the entertainment, cultural displays and vendor offerings resulting in a resurgence in interest in our showcase of Irish culture. To a great degree, this is because the Festival operates only through the generosity of volunteers – thousands upon thousands of volunteers over the years – volunteers who are primarily members of the Gaelic American Club, but also other people interested in this celebration of Irish culture, who gladly give of their time and talents. You will meet many of these wonderful people this weekend as they return year after year to give and to enjoy the generosity and hospitality for which the Festival is renowned.
In the over twenty-five years of our Festival, we have seen the realization of our dream with the establishment of a beautiful permanent home. The Gaelic American Club is thriving with over five thousand members and a beautiful new addition to accommodate all our activities. FEILE is continually promoting Irish culture with ever-widening charitable, educational, scholarship and literary pursuits. We enthusiastically look forward to the future and, in particular, we look forward to greeting you at the Festival over Fathers’ Day Weekend and hope to see you for many years to come!
With special thanks to Pat Boland, Maureen Corcoran, Mark Halstead, Jim O’Donnell and Patrick Speer for their history recorded in past journals and to Ed Hagerty for contributions from the Festival website.