Chicago Calling: Irish Fest is back with President Bill at the helm

Who speaks for the Irish community of Chicago?

Are the potatoes in this stew more vocal than the carrots or the chunks of meat? Hard to say. The Irish of Chicago are no longer the monolith they were when Richard J. Daley was Mayor.  

Back then the Irish owned city hall and most of the cops on the street were Micks and the parishes on Sunday were filled with God-fearing sons and daughters of Éire.

Those days are over.  

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Occasionally we get to see the vestige of the old Irish community en masse. The annual Irish Fellowship Club Christmas luncheon at The Hilton Chicago in December puts over a thousand of us all together. But if you jump from table to table it’s easy to sense the bubbly cauldron of politics simmering underneath, where nothin’s on the square and old grudges give way to faux polite holiday cheer in Kitty O’Shea’s downstairs.

Today, Chicago’s Irish community is represented by a few singular institutions like the Irish Fellowship Club, The Young Irish Fellowship Club, the Ireland Network, The Emerald Society, Irish American Heritage Center, and the esteemed Gaelic Park. 

“It was heavily Irish born, some Irish Americans, but it was a drive by the Irish born to have a place to play. And I think part of the genius of that group is that they decided they wanted more than just an athletic facility.”

Three years of Covid was tough, but slowly, assuredly, we’re coming back.

The best sign of that this summer was the return of Gaelic Park’s Irish Fest on the last weekend in August.  Canceled for the last three Memorial Day weekends after many rainouts and now reborn in a sunnier climate — and above all with a steady hand at the helm. 

I was there myself and I’m telling ya, Irish Fest is back!

“And Praise the Lord!” echoes the current Gaelic Park President Bill O’Sullivan.

Bill has been President for over eight years and was there at the birth. “We started as a place the lads wanted to play their sports," he recalls. "They wanted to play Gaelic football and hurling. And it was the late Michael Flatley Sr. that found this piece of land. He found these first nine acres and they raised some money and Gaelic Park grew bit by bit.”

It was 1982. “We were nine acres then and we’re at about 55 acres now.”

“It was heavily Irish-born, some Irish Americans, but it was a drive by the Irish-born to have a place to play. And I think part of the genius of that group is that they decided they wanted more than just an athletic facility.

“There were a lot of Irish builders in the group, and our first structure looked like some kind of glorified house. They knew how to build houses.”

More like a state-of-the-art county club, if you ask me. The original building has grown to a sprawling complex containing sports playing fields, locker rooms, three banquet halls, meeting rooms, a variety of al fresco dining and patio watering holes, including The Carraig traditional Irish pub. It’s a first-class, cutting edge cultural center. 

Bill O’Sullivan’s family has grown as Gaelic Park has grown as well. He and his wife Tricia are parents to Nora, Mary, and Tom ranging in age from 25 to 30. He’s an accountant by trade and while working with lots of Irish builders, started volunteering at Gaelic Park and digging the music. Next thing you know he’s on the board, then Treasurer, and now re-elected for his eighth term as President. 

Bill O’Sullivan is what grounds this institution and that pattern of resilience is characteristic to all the folks who have built Gaelic Park. My pal John Griffin was president for over 20 years and my late friend Mary Riordan spent over 30 years here doing her weekly radio show with Harry Costello above the pub on Sunday nights.  

You don’t see the petty sniping or political back biting that corrodes rival Irish centers.  “We’re blessed with great volunteers throughout and several of them show up here almost every day and they are amazing. Like any festival, it not only brings in the outer community,  but it brings our volunteer group to the forefront. We get together, we pitch in, we work together and have a great time, and it really thrills us when we see all the people show up and have a great time.” 

Bill reminisces, “I think back to a certain Sunday, I can’t remember which year, but we had the Saw Doctors and Black 47 were both playing on the same Sunday. We had 25,000 people through here.”

Irish Fest is back at Gaelic Park…praise the Lord!