uch like their Irish ancestors who immigrated to America before them, husband and wife Kent Covey and Maureen Kennedy were immigrants in their own right when they moved to Cincinnati from New York and California, respectively. And in 2009, after many trips to Ireland to visit relatives and learn about their heritage and traditions, the couple decided to found the city’s Irish Heritage Center. They felt the Irish way of life was lacking in Cincinnati, even though the city’s Irish population isn’t much smaller than that of its German descendants (not to mention the city hosts one of the largest Saint Patrick’s Day Parades in the country).
“There’s something about the Irish people,” Kennedy says. “Their hospitality, their inclusiveness, their love of life and laughter and their easygoing way.”
Kennedy, who spent much of her adult life making a name for herself as a dancer and actor in California, says she felt a deep connection to Ireland’s emphasis on the arts. When she married Covey and joined him in Cincinnati in 1999, she attended Cincinnati’s Celtic Festival and was shocked to learn that there weren’t any Irish theater companies in the area — so she decided to form her own. Upon founding the award-winning Irish American Theater Company in 2004, the need for a home for all things Irish in Cincinnati was even more important, she says.
After looking at more than 100 buildings over the course of seven years, the couple came across the historic McKinley School building in the East End. The building was in tatters, lacked air-conditioning and had to be completely restored, but Kennedy says she knew it was meant to be theirs. When she walked into the old high school gym, she saw a band of Celtic knots etched into the trim around the stage and an “M” (for “Maureen,” she says) painted on its curtain.
“After purchasing the school, we began the restoration project one room at a time. We called it the Great Dustbin Cleanup,” Kennedy says. “So many people volunteered right from the start. The entire community banded together and got it done. And that’s still how we operate today. The level of support has been nothing short of a miracle.”
The Irish Heritage Center has received grants here and there, but everything else has been financed by funds raised through the center’s theater performances, Irish teas, concerts, events and pub nights.
“It shows you what a community can do,” she says. “Just as the Irish persisted when they came to America, so has the community as they rally around this center.”
All the hard work makes celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day even more exciting, Covey says, as the Irish Heritage Center is the official downtown Saint Patrick’s Day parade after-party stop.
The center’s authentic in-house Irish pub is popular year-round, but especially during the Saint Pat’s season, adds Covey, who is certified by the Guinness brewery in Dublin to pour “The Perfect Pint” and heads the staff of volunteer bartenders. Just don’t expect any green beer.
Because the tradition of Saint Patrick’s Day began to celebrate the man who brought Christianity to Ireland, the center also hosts a traditional Irish Mass every year, led by Reverend Benedict O’Cinnsealaigh, a Dublin native. Afterward, the theatrical and musical festivities begin.
Live music can be heard throughout Saint Pat’s weekend at the center as volunteers serve up authentic Irish dishes like Guinness stew, soda bread and shepherd’s pie. Museum exhibits such as The Irish in Cincinnati can be found in the center’s museum and library, as well as along the walls of every hall. This year, Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett’s work will be on exhibit, which is on loan from the National Library of Ireland. All ends of the Irish music spectrum will be represented as the center welcomes groups of harpers, a pipe band and harmonica players.
“There’s always a lot of good-hearted celebrations, and not just on Saint Patrick’s Day, but year-round,” Kennedy says. “We get calls from musical groups, performers, writers and artists from across Ireland, asking if they can visit the center and present their work here. We find many times throughout the year, all year round, to celebrate and share Irish tradition through story and song.”
Covey and Kennedy hope to expand the ways they educate the community about Cincinnati’s Irish heritage with workshops, classes and even an upcoming Irish sporting league where local children can play Irish football, hurling and other Irish sports.
Although they still are working to raise funds, grow and renovate, Covey says the response the center has received on local, national and international levels has been inspiring.
“When we go to Ireland every year, we find the up-and-coming theater or musical groups and invite them to the United States,” he says. “We’ve met with the Northern Ireland minister of arts and culture, as well as the Irish Republic minister for arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht. It’s been a dream come true to develop such strong connections and friendships with the Irish people.”
They even received a letter from Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins after meeting him during a visit to the Emerald Isle.
“He told us that even though we’re running the youngest Irish center in the world, we’re by far the most enthusiastic,” Kennedy says.
But even after rubbing elbows with the Irish elite, the couple’s true focus and sense of purpose stems from their roots and their family.
“We’re continuing to keep that enthusiasm and that Irish spirit alive for Cincinnatians no matter what time of year it is, and no matter whether you’re Irish or not,” Kennedy says. “We want to pass the Irish spirit along to everyone who enters our center. We’re creating history of our own while preserving history, and that’s beyond precious to us. We want to pass that down through generations of our family and through every family in Cincinnati. Allowing generations to connect with their ancestry and their hometown’s heritage is a dream come true.”
The IRISH HERITAGE CENTER (3905 Eastern Ave., East End) hosts various Saint Patrick’s Day events Saturday through Monday. Visit irishcenterofcincinnati.com for details.