The History of Gaelic Park -- Once a Dream, now a Reality
Chicago Gaelic Park was officially opened in 1985 with a mission to promote and foster the culture, music and sports of our Irish heritage. With tremendous grassroots interest and support, Chicago Gaelic Park is vibrant and continues to grow. The fifty acre Irish cultural, heritage and athletic facility, was once a dream and is now a reality.
Today Chicago Gaelic Park is home field for the local Chicago Gaelic Athletic Association kids, ladies and men's hurling and football teams. The center is also hosts Irish entertainment to the area and is available for use by Irish organizations and community groups.
The facility has become not only a mainstay in the Irish community in and around Chicago, but also a well-known and highly regarded organization to Irish communities all over North America and Ireland. The weddings, parties, dinner dances, school functions, and meetings are always well served in the beautiful halls of the banquet rooms, and the athletic facilities are home to many teams and supporters. The community has truly benefited from the hard work and dedication that many loyal supporters and selfless volunteers have put in to make Gaelic Park such a wonderful place.
Please click on the below links to learn more about our history:
1983 - 1998
1989 - 1994
1995 - 2000
2001 - 2005
2006 - beyond
1983 - 1988
After the land on 147th Street was chosen as the future site of “Gaelic Park,” the structure of the organization was formed. At a meeting in June of 1983, a committee of fifteen individuals, many of them the athletes originally looking for a playing field, was organized. These men, Liam O’Brien, John Lynch, Con Twomey, Noel Courtney, Joe Begley, Eamon Malone, Michael Finnegan, Brian Mulhern, Larry Burke, Mike Murphy, Henry Coyle, Thomas P. Looney, Michael Vesey, John Barret, and Hugh McLaughlin, became Gaelic Park’s Board of Directors. Liam O’Brien, the GAA Chairman, was elected as the first President.
Ground was broken on the site in the fall of 1983, and the structure – a kitchen, two locker rooms, a meeting hall and a 35’ x60’ banquet hall, seating 150-175 - was completed in spring of the following year. Bishop John Durkin presided over a grand opening in June of 1985, six years after the original idea for Gaelic Park was conceived. In October of that same year, the Board of Directors added fifteen additional members to its ranks to aid the development of the club. Liam O’Brien’s presidency was soon over, and John Barrett took over in early 1986.
By the time John Barrett became president, an extension of the original facility was already underway. In order to meet demanding needs, both the kitchen and the banquet hall were doubled in size, and new lockers were added. An impressive new fireplace was installed in the freshly tiled bar. In order to finance the expansion, and alleviate the start-up costs, John Barrett asked for more volunteer help on weekends, as well as asking each committee member to sell an additional ten shares at $100 apiece. Gaelic Park also decided to pair up with the Irish American Heritage Center to co-sponsor a fund-raising event for the following year, “Irish Fest Chicago.”
1986 marked the year of the first Mass & Breakfast as well as the beginning of the Gaelic Park Weekly Radio Show. Other small fundraisers, such as a dinner to welcome the Kerry All Ireland Football team, allowed Gaelic Park to add to its bank balance, though not quite enough to cover the bills. Despite the treasurer’s report, the success of Gaelic Park was obvious – Gaelic Park was chosen as Grand Marshall of the South Side Irish Parade for St. Patrick’s Day, 1987. The first Irish Fest was held over Memorial Day Weekend, 1987 - around the same time that an additional seven acres were purchased as more playing fields, and plans for installing and paving the parking lot, as well as the purchase of additional bleachers and the finishing of adjacent landscaping were continued. During the fall and winter of 1987, the Gaelic Park lounge opened for business seven days a week, the Clare Association hosted its first annual “Day for Special People,” and the first New Year’s Eve Gala commenced. The bankbooks were aided by the first Super Fundraiser Raffle, which took place in early December of 1987.
In early 1988, the first Gaelic Park newsletter was sent out to shareholders, under the direction of Mrs. Pat Daly. The organization also hired a part-time employee to handle the phone calls and take bookings for the banquet hall, as well as a part-time facility manager. During the second Irish Fest in May of 1988, “Friends of Gaelic Park” was introduced, requiring an annual membership fee of $25. The Irish Fest Queen Contest also began during the second fest, and Annette McLaughlin was crowned the first Gaelic Park Queen. By the end of 1988, the children’s playground, as well as a new satellite dish allowing viewings of the All Ireland Football matches, were both installed in the facility.
1989 - 1994
Tom Boyle was elected President of Gaelic Park in early 1989, having been asked by Mike Finnegan to consider the position in order to broaden the membership base. Gaelic Park was the site of many prestigious athletic events in 1989, including the American League Playoffs and a match between the Irish National Rugby team and the USA Midwest team, as well as a venue for many big-name concerts – Mary Black, De Dannan, Stockton’s Wing, Brendan Grace, and Christy Moore.
In 1990, Eugene Nestor, John Griffin, and Fr. Dave Dillon, along with eight other representatives, traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with members from the House of Representatives in hopes of initiating immigration reform. The lobbying was well served, and the Immigration Act was entered into law in late fall of 1990.
In addition to the many groups starting to form under Gaelic Park’s roof, two of the most well known, The Gaelic Park Ladies Auxiliary, under the direction of Kay Knightly, and The Gaelic Park Players, the theatre troupe, first met in 1991. Soon after the Ladies’ first meeting, the newly remodeled Gaelic Park had its grand reopening. Nearly 1500 people attended the open house and ribbon cutting ceremony. In August of that same year, Dorothy McCabe was hired as Gaelic Park’s banquet manager, and John Papadopoulos was hired as its renowned chef. The banquet hall was filled to capacity a few months later when Mary Robinson, then President of Ireland, visited the south side of Chicago and a reception was held in her honor. Members of the club were honored by President Robinson’s kind remarks, and all the hard work of tireless Saturdays were validated by her comment “What wonderful things have been accomplished by Gaelic Park in such a short time; your future looks extremely bright.”
Shortly after Mary Robinson’s visit, Mike Finnegan, who had been instrumental in the installation of the Grotto behind the main structure, as well as the fireplace in the bar and the two shamrocks flanking the Emerald Room, and was one of Gaelic Park’s most active and most beloved members, passed away. The Grotto was dedicated in his honor in November of 1991.
In early 1992, John Griffin was elected President. That same year saw the beginning of Sunday Celtic Supper, the first installment of the Ladies Auxiliary’s cookbook “Recipes from the Hearth,” and the completion of the basketball courts. In the following year, the Padraig Pearse Football Club made their debut just in time for the 1993 GAA Season. Also in 1993, the Gaelic Park radio show moved to the Park Lounge, in order to allow live performances to become part of the show. Danny O’Donnell appeared in concert at Gaelic Park in September of 1993, further establishing Gaelic Park’s reputation as a venue for popular Irish music.
Towards the end of 1993, it was decided to construct a roof over the patio area instead of renting one every year. The roof was finished in the early months of 1994. The 1994 GAA Season was an exciting one: new showers and dressing rooms had been installed, and CuChulainn’s Hurling Club made its debut. The North American League Playoffs were held at Gaelic Park over Labor Day Weekend in 1994. Fergus Hanna, a writer for the Irish Voice wrote about the facility: “Last weekend’s trip to Chicago for the North American playoffs proved simply mind-boggling. What the Gaels there have achieved took years of planning, fund-raising, and voluntary labor, but the result is unquestionably a set-up miles ahead of anything else which exists on this side of the Atlantic.” Jack Boothman, the president of the Gaelic Athletic Association also commented on Gaelic Park: “Congratulations to the people of Gaelic Park. Descriptions of the park that were given to me failed to describe the reality of it all. I can think of no other club in Ireland with better facilities. I think Chicago Gaelic Park is magnificent.”
Late 1994 marked the beginning of the Monthly Senior Luncheon, and early in the following year, another group, The Young Gaelic Park Association, was formed.
1995 - 2000
Late 1994 marked the beginning of the Monthly Senior Luncheon, and early in the following year, another group, The Young Gaelic Park Association, was formed. Irish Fest in 1995, held over Memorial Day Weekend, was a wet and muddy weekend, though over 42,000 people put on their Wellingtons and came out to enjoy the festivities. A new Performing Arts Stage was a big hit. Immediately following the fest, construction of new offices and a patio extension began. These were well served when Gaelic Park hosted the North American Playoffs for the second consecutive year. The Chicago teams – Padraig Pearse, The Wolfe Tones, and CuChulainn’s – made the weekend even more remarkable with their strong performances. In August of 1995, Gaelic Park celebrated the feast of Our Lady of Knock at the Grotto with a Rosary and Benediction. In the fall of 1995, the banquet rooms were named: The Emerald Room, The Celtic Room, The Shamrock Room, and The Tara Room. The dedication of the Tara Room, which took place about two months later, was a beautiful affair, with almost 250 guests. The Gaelic Park Ladies Auxiliary hosted their first “Breakfast with Santa” at Christmas of 1995.
Director Liam O’Brien managed to get Gaelic Park up and running on the internet in the spring of 1996. The spring was one of the rainiest springs in Chicago, which meant Irish Fest 1996 was just as muddy as it was the year before. Talk spread of switching the dates of the festival, but due to the availability of the carnival, as well as Gaelic Park obligations, the Memorial Day weekend proved to be the best available dates. On the 11th of September 1996, an exhibition sponsored by An Gorta Mor Commemoration Committee was presented in memory of the victims of the famine. The reception in the Emerald Room, the viewing, and the Memorial Mass were well received by all in attendance. Christmas of ’96 marked the first annual “Mingle and Jingle” Christmas Party, held in the Emerald Room. 1997 saw the same successes as the previous years – including hosting Ireland on Parade for the second time, another wet Irish Fest, the Feis, and a hugely successful GAA Season.
In 1998, Gaelic Park leased an additional 25 acres, hoping to convert the extra land into overflow parking and two or three more playing fields. The arrangement of this lease brought Gaelic Park’s total acreage up to almost 50 acres. At this time, Gaelic Park also announced a scholarship program for the relatives of its members – a grammar school, high school and college scholarship were established, demonstrably showing Gaelic Park’s commitment to the community and to the future. Gaelic Park played host to more than 50 visitors from the Manchester Irish Society in Great Britain in March of 1998, as well as to the Illinois St. Andrew Association, allowing them to use the facilities for their annual Scottish Highland Games in June. Gaelic Park was also the venue for the North American Feis Commission’s annual convention. Jack Connolly of County Down, one of the examiners for the certification program for Teaching and Adjudicating in Irish Dancing, wrote a thank you to President John Griffin and the staff of Gaelic Park: “I would like to take this opportunity to express our thanks for the marvelous facilities which were placed at our disposal. Having conducted these examinations over several years throughout the world, in not alone Dublin, but also in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Newark, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and also Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney, Australia, and in all that time I have never been so impressed with a venue as Gaelic Park. Please convey to the Board of Governors and to all those who had any input into the erection of such a magnificent edifice, not alone our congratulation on such a mammoth undertaking, but also our sincere gratitude for the use of the premises, the hospitality we received and last but not least the kindness and the cordiality we received from the staff on every occasion.”
In 1999, the efforts members of Gaelic Park had made a year earlier to issue a commemorative stamp in honor of the victims of the Irish famine were rewarded, and the Post Office released a stamp for the 150th anniversary of the famine. Fr. Anthony Brankin of St. Thomas Moore Church was commissioned to create a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Irish Famine, and in October of 1999, a dedication ceremony was held to mark the Famine Memorial Monument, which depicts an Irish family weakened by the famine, but strengthened by their togetherness. The GAA celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a Dinner Dance and inducted exceptional athletes into the GAA Hall of Fame in May. In July, the Irish marathon runner, Catherina McKiernan visited Gaelic Park and met with members of the local GAA. Also in July, Gaelic Park welcomed the Omagh Community Youth Choir, who presented a wonderful concert. The new millennium was marked by remodeling the Park Lounge into a traditional Irish pub and the creation of a new hallway leading guests directly into the Celtic Room. The Threshing Machine, directed by Eamon Malone, made its first appearance at Gaelic Park at Heritage and Harvest Day in October of 2000. The year ended with the traditional New Year’s Eve celebration.
2001 - 2005
Gaelic Park had become a cornerstone of the Chicago Irish community; indeed, the highly regarded and much enjoyed Gaelic Park Radio Show was already celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2001. The Carraig Irish Pub opened its doors earlier in the year to rave reviews, and Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann stopped at Gaelic Park in October on their North American tour. The audience loved the show of traditional Irish music, song, dance, and humor. Plans to remove the unused basketball courts and replace them with a garden also got underway in 2001. The garden would become a lovely backdrop for the Famine Memorial, as well as the setting for wedding photographs.
In 2002, Gaelic Park served as the host of the first annual Irish Set Dance Weekend, and was visited by dancers from all over the country – as far away as New Mexico, New Jersey, and New York. In September of 2002, Gaelic Park took part in Celtic Fest, an Irish fest sponsored by the City of Chicago, held in Grant Park. Gaelic Park welcomed Noel Fahey, Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, in winter of 2002. The following year, Gaelic Park again welcomed Ireland’s President, Mary Robinson’s successor, Mary McAleese, and her husband Martin. President McAleese gave a memorable speech to Gaelic Park about the effects of the Celtic Tiger and the progress of Ireland.
In the summer of 2003, Gaelic Park received a $25,000 donation from the John McCarthy Trust. The gift was delivered by Trustee Paul McCarthy and accompanied by a challenge to Gaelic Park supporters: the McCarthy Trust would match any contribution or pledge donated to Gaelic Park within the year, up to $100,000.
2006 - beyond
Today, Gaelic Park strives to fulfill its mission statement – to perpetuate and promote Irish culture through religion, music, dance, sports, theatre, cuisine, and much more. The facility has become not only a mainstay in the Irish community in and around Chicago, but also a well-known and highly regarded organization to Irish communities all over North America and Ireland. The weddings, parties, dinner dances, school functions, and meetings are always well served in the beautiful halls of the banquet rooms, and the athletic facilities are home to many teams and supporters. The community has truly benefited from the hard work and dedication that many loyal supporters and selfless volunteers have put in to make Gaelic Park such a wonderful place.
To the men and women who had the foresight and courage to strive to find a suitable location to begin an Irish Cultural Center, for all of us to enjoy, we are forever grateful.
Gur a Mile Maith Agat.
(gaelic for "Thank you")