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Photograph: Shaye Weaver/Time Out New York

Irish culture is alive and thriving at NYC's dynamic new Irish Arts Center

The massive new space has a theater experience that rivals NYC's big-league performing arts centers.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

St. Patrick's Day will be more joyful than ever this year at NYC's Irish Arts Center. The Hell's Kitchen cultural center will be celebrating its first St. Paddy's Day in its brand new facility and it's going to be one for the books.

The center had outgrown its three-story tenement at 553 West 51st Street, where it had been since the early 1970s, and has had to hold some of its events off site in recent years. The tight space only had 99 seats in its theater and really nowhere to welcome people in for conversation and that good old Irish hospitality. 

In the words of Aidan Connolly, the center's Executive Director, the space couldn't house their ambitions.

RECOMMENDED: The best St. Patrick’s Day events in NYC

But now, with an extra 21,700 square feet just around the corner on 11th Avenue, Irish hospitality, culture and festivity can blossom. With St. Patrick's Day coming up next week, we got an in-depth tour of the new center and learned what having this new space means for its visitors and the community at large.

Here's what you can expect when you visit:

Irish Arts Center
Photograph: Albert Vecerka:ESTO

When you walk into the Irish Arts Center, you'll now be greeted by a gorgeous café and lounge with plush couches and chairs from Orior made with authentic Irish materials, including a bar counter that's made from a century-old walnut tree. Yes, there's beer on tap, but also bites and drinks by Hell’s Kitchen's Ardesia. It's so welcoming that you may want to sit for a couple of hours, but that's the point.

"Irish hospitality is one stereotype we embrace," Connolly tells us. "We encourage people to come early and stay late [to events]."

To amplify that it's a space for comfort and conversation, the center's Visual Arts program has a wall dedicated to displaying works of art in the café, as well as other walls and areas around the building, as another springboard for conversation.

Right now, a group exhibition called "The Space We Occupy" is on view in the café and within the building's three-story atrium at the front of the building, which features Cybert Tire building’s interior historic brick façade and artist George Bolster's "You Are Made Of Stardust" kinetic sculpture.

"The statement we wanted to make with the first show is to open up the possibilities of what a show might be," says Rachael W. Gilkey, Director of Programming and Education. "And it's part of your experience...if you're coming here to see something at the theater, we let you know about it and tell you to come early to the café, come early to experience the visual arts exhibitions. You're never just here to just see something in the theater. There's always a whole experience."

Irish Arts Center
Photograph: Albert Vecerka:ESTO

Of course, the theater is one of the center's biggest draws, and even more so now. It's a completely flexible space, meaning that its ceiling, lights and configuration can change for every single show, whether it's a folk music concert or a traveling theater production. Whatever is needed can be done much like at The Shed and the Park Avenue Armory, which were designed by the same firm—Fisher Dachs Associates. Even the acoustics can be changed in an instant thanks to banners that can be dropped to absorb sound—a design from Jaffe Holden Acoustics (known for their work at Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center and The Juilliard School). The comfortable seats, which are slightly wider and set apart than average, can actually be moved and reconfigured much like bleachers in a gym.

Already shows like "Camille O’Sullivan: Where Are We Now?" and "Muldoon’s Picnic" have taken the stage, with much more scheduled coming up, including a full weekend of St. Patrick's Day concerts. According to Connolly, the seats and theater are so comforting that people end up staying in their seats to discuss the show they just saw or even as questions of the performers.

"We're really looking to build a relationship with audiences who may have known the Irish Arts Center as a theater enterprise over the years but we really want to excite them with the increase of artistic scale that's possible (the shows that we'll be doing will really reflect that), but also show the hyper intimacy of the same can be achieved," Connolly says.

There's also a new studio for classes, rehearsals, and community gatherings, an intimate, "warmly appointed" library classroom and patron lounge. The library and studio spaces will mean that students of the center's language classes, playwriting and storytelling events can finally learn under the center's roof. For years, these classes have had to be held elsewhere because of the lack of space.

The inability to gather and meet has hindered the Irish Arts Center for years, but now, the new building is finally bringing that lost piece to the center and the community that visits it.

"This whole sense of interlocking relationships...that's what ultimately is the rocket fuel that builds community and you've gotta build a space for that if you want that to happen," Connolly says.

And that's precisely what they have done.

Irish Arts Center
Photograph: Albert Vecerka:ESTO

The Irish Arts Center has a slew of events coming up for this St. Patrick's Day. Don't miss the following:

Open Day
March 13, 2022

On this year’s annual, free Open Day, visitors can enter a whole new Irish Arts Center: an institution transformed, with their new building, in its capacity to entertain, inform, explore, and amaze, but still to its core the same warm, hospitable center. Join IAC this St. Patrick’s season for this special Open Day, activating its space through live music and dance, crafts, educational workshops, and more—to get a sample of its bounteous new possibilities for celebrating Irish and Irish American culture. 

The St. Patrick's Festival
The Bluegrass Situation presents a three-night celebration of Irish American musical traditions with headliners Jake Blount, award-winning banjoist, fiddler, singer, and scholar specializing in the music of Black and Indigenous communities in the southeastern United States; Nic Gareiss, acclaimed for his "dexterous melding of Irish and Appalachian dance" by the New York Times; Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves, whose self-titled collaborative debut won the Independent Music Award for Best Bluegrass Album; and special guests Tim Eriksen, Ebony Hillbillies, Hubby Jenkins, Megan Downes, and others. You can see the full schedule here. Tickets begin at $20.

10th Annual Book Day
March 17, 2022

Take part in Irish storytelling on St. Patrick’s Day this year with Book Day, which will be devoted to James Joyce’s singular, and singularly influential, novel Ulysses. Celebrating the tome’s 100th anniversary, and continuing Book Day’s tradition of recognizing the breadth of Irish literature alongside that of other cultures, this year’s event will also honor Jewish authors from around the world, in tribute to Ulysses’ iconic Jewish protagonist, Leopold Bloom. As always, IAC’s volunteers and staff, sponsors, and supporters—along with its partners at the New York City Council—across all five boroughs will hand out thousands of free books. Books in Spanish and other translations provided by partners Literature Ireland.

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