Gaelic Park has seen a wee bit of growth itself in 25 years
BY DANIEL P. SMITH For Sun-Times Media
For a facility initially designed to be little more than a home base for local Gaelic football and hurling teams, Gaelic Park in Oak Forest has evolved into a cornerstone of Irish culture for the Southland and beyond.
Today, a quarter-century after its low-key opening, the now 50-acre complex located on West 147th Street hosts Ireland’s native sports as well as a comprehensive array of Irish cultural arts, including theatre, music, dance, and culinary, every day of the year.
As Irish Fest celebrates its 25th Anniversary in 2011, a monumental mark for an event originally patched together by a group of inexperienced volunteers, Gaelic Park’s evolution stands just as tall.
“Gaelic Park has become a true Irish cultural center for people who had vision and purpose to see a central gathering place for Irish drama, song, dance and sport,” said John Devitt, the current Gaelic Park president who’s been involved with Gaelic Park since its conception in 1979.
In June 1983, after nearly four years of planning and discussions, 15 men formed Gaelic Park’s initial board of directors, securing a plot of land on 147th Street in Oak Forest and breaking ground in the fall for a building to feature a 150-seat banquet hall, kitchen, two locker rooms, and meeting hall. Their vision came to reality two years later when Gaelic Park opened its doors to the public in June, 1985.
That same year the Gaelic Park board expanded to 30 members with a more aggressive strategy to develop Gaelic Park, including immediate plans to extend the original facility’s kitchen and banquet hall given growing demand.
“As people kept coming to Gaelic Park, demand for facilities, area, and activities all went up,” said John Griffin, who served as Gaelic Park president for 20 years before recently giving way to Devitt.
Over the years Gaelic Park has expanded its programming to include family-friendly holiday gatherings, prestigious athletic contests, international dance competitions and headline concert acts. New groups, such as the Gaelic Park Ladies Auxiliary, the Young Gaelic Park Association, and a theatre troupe, the Gaelic Park Players, have only further advanced Gaelic Park’s culturally minded mission.
Outreach leads to outgrowth
Gaelic Park has also branched into community outreach as well, touching many with academic scholarships and the long-running Gaelic Park weekly radio show. The 1987 debut of Irish Fest, meanwhile, has become Gaelic Park’s marquee community celebration, annually bringing up to 50,000 people from the Chicago area and beyond to the facility’s south suburban grounds.
Subsequently, all the programming and outreach additions spurred physical growth — albeit in distinct steps. In 1995, Gaelic Park added a new performing arts stage, offices and patio extension. Three years later, the facility leased an additional 25 acres and converted the excess space into overflow parking and playing fields. In 2001, leadership decided to covert the Park Lounge into a traditional Irish pub; the Carraig Pub is now one of the Southland’s prime destinations for food, drink, live entertainment, and carousing.
Meanwhile, Gaelic Park has witnessed its reputation expand locally and around the world. In 1991, Gaelic Park welcomed then-Irish President Mary Robinson, who reveled in Gaelic Park’s present accomplishments and future potential, according to Devitt.
“That was a key turning point for us because people left with a recognition of what a special, unique place Gaelic Park had become as an Irish stronghold,” Devitt said.
Now, after three decades of planning, fundraising, and voluntary labor, Gaelic Park looks toward its future with hope and promise.
“The mission of promoting and perpetuating Irish culture and heritage, specifically for the next generation, won’t change, but we’re going to remain open to new ideas and see what demands are out there that we might fill.”