I got my first impressions of Kansas City through music. I can still remember belting out: “Well I might take a train, I might take a plane, but if I have to walk, I’m gonna get there just the same.”
Sounded like a hell of a place and it didn’t disappoint. But whereas I visualized stockyards full of baying cattle and cowboys chatting up floozies in saloons, instead Kansas City had more fountains than any city this side of Rome and was intensely Irish to boot.
Then again, the Irish seem to end up everywhere. They had already reached the town of Westport on their way to the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, but it was a priest from County Cavan who single-handedly turned KC into an Irish town, proving once again that it’s hard to beat a Cavan man when he has his mind set on something.
Before his arrival in Missouri, Fr. Bernard Donnelly had worked as a stonecutter in his native Kilnacreeva and as an engineer in the shipyards of Liverpool. He intrinsically understood that if his Kansas City parish were to flourish, roads would need to be cut through the bluffs that bordered the river’s edge.
What better men to do it but the boys from home. He recruited 300 Irish day-laborers to not only slice the bluffs, but level the ground and establish a brickworks. Thus was modern Kansas City born.
It’s interesting how the lie of the land affected the Irish that settled near the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw rivers. Say what you like about the merits of the East Coast Irish, it would be hard to argue that we haven’t been affected by close contact and the general lack of space in our cities. There’s a scrappiness to our nature and long may it live.
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Likewise, there’s a natural expansiveness to the Kansas City Irish. And why wouldn’t there be? On the ride in from the airport you can’t help but be struck by the broad landscape and the sight of one beautiful fountain after another. The Van Wyck Expressway may have its charms, but beautiful it ain’t!
Though it must be tiresome getting whipped by the Yankees on a regular basis – and I’m a Mets fan – Kansas City has its compensations. They’re mad about music. This is not surprising in a city that fostered Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Big Joe Turner.
It doesn’t take more than a couple of pints to see horn-carrying ghosts in Zoot suits glide by, for if jazz was born in New Orleans, it grew up around 12th Street in this “Paris of the Plains.”
The fact that local Irish political boss, Tom Pendergast, allowed liquor to flow during prohibition didn’t hurt when it came to attracting top-flight musicians.
When I first played the local Irish festival it seemed as if it was being held in someone’s back yard, but you could sense the enthusiasm and spirit of both organizers and patrons. Now the Kansas City Irish Festival draws over 100,000 people to Crown Center Square, usually with their own Celtic Rock phenomenon, The Elders, topping the bill.
But you can always measure the vibrancy of Irish culture by the strength of its Irish center and how involved the local people are in its doings. With concerts, book clubs, dance and language classes, the KC Irish Center, located at historic Union Station, is on a roll.
Having the vivacious and enterprising Nancy Wormington as executive producer doesn’t hurt. When I ran into her in New York last year she insisted I come down and do a Rock & Read solo show.
How could I resist? Fountains are good for the soul anytime of the year. Besides, Kansas Citizens make for a lively audience, especially when they have a drink or two taken.
Though, no doubt, the teetotaler Fr. Bernard Donnelly, would turn up his nose at the mere sniff of alcohol, I bet his ghost is never far from the Irish Center, seeking recruits for his brickworks.
I’ll keep a weather eye out for him this coming Saturday night. Rockin’ & Readin’ is one thing, cutting through bluffs is quite another.