Echoes of Ireland in the deep South


Mary Margaret’s simple suggestion of an event at her store to boost Irish cultural connections led to a neat five-day program in March for what it is hoped will become a regular Irish arts festival in Charleston. Her record in this area is impressive – as a resident of Dublin, Ohio, she was part of an effort that took a small Irish festival in that city from an attendance of 5,000 to more than 50,000 before it was taken over by the civic authorities and further boosted to its present mark of almost 100,000.

Much of the programming for the forthcoming ‘Festival of Ballycahill’ revolves around small-scale events using local talent. The name was chosen to suggest the Irish village atmosphere in which it is hoped to operate (the name is an anglicization of Baile Chathail, ‘Town of Charles’).

Incidentally, Charleston’s main international cultural event is Spoleto USA, named for a town in Italy where Italian-American composer Giancarlo Menotti established the Festival of the Two Worlds in the 1950s. His 1970s American replication of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston resulted in that most Irish of outcomes, ‘the split,’ in part precipitated by the involvement of Menotti’s adopted son and heir ‘Chip,’ born Frank Phelan in Philadelphia.

This year’s Spoleto USA features performers from more than a dozen countries (including members of Ireland’s Gate Theatre company), but its Ballycahill competitor has only one international headline act this year.

Pioneering Irish craftsperson Helen Conneely will present and demonstrate a wide range of the craft activity promoted by her CORE Crafted Design initiative based in Ballinahown, Co. Westmeath. The rest of the program brings together Irish-connected academics and amateurs in informal music and chat at Mary Margaret’s gallery and other nearby venues.

The College of Charleston’s Center for the Documentary is hosting showings of three Irish films: Saviours, by Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan; Lance Daly’s award-winning Kisses; and A Film with Me in It, starring Dylan Moran.

Four city bistro/restaurants are offering Irish-themed menus, from the traditional Irish breakfast being promoted by Killarney-born Denis O’Doherty at his Blue Rose Cafe in West Ashley to some elegant options being planned by Chef Sean Wren at his new North Charleston location. Originally dubbed Cork Bistro for the natural material of the same name, Sean subtly changed the emphasis when he discovered that the Wrens probably came from the southern Irish region in the first place.

The old Irish saying ‘Bíonn gach tosnú lag’ (every beginning is weak) gives comfort to the festival organizers. But an invitation to the official launch prompted Charleston City Director of Cultural Affairs Ellen Dressler-Moryl to re-read How the Irish Saved Civilization and to declare enthusiastically, “This is how Spoleto started!”

To which she added, in paraphrase if not in the original Gaelic, ‘Tús maith leath na hoibre,’ (a good start is half the work).

A more extensive history of Charleston’s Irish connections can be found at the new website

Denis Bergin previously contributed to Irish America on James Hoban and the early Washington Irish. He lives in the Charleston area of South Carolina and in Co. Offaly.