When it comes to celebrating all things Irish in Kalamazoo, it’s a couple with a Polish last name you can thank.
Margaret Strzelecki has been the president of the Irish American Club of Kalamazoo for the past 19 years, while her husband, Ron, has been the club’s treasurer. Under their leadership, the club started Kalamazoo’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade through downtown (set for March 16 this year) and the annual Irish Fest in June. But before you think the Strzeleckis are co-opting the Irish spirit to drink a little green beer (which they don’t care for, by the way), be aware that both are descendants of Irish immigrants to America. Margaret’s father is 100 percent Irish (her maiden name is Cudihy), while Ron’s grandfather was born and raised in Ireland (his parents’ surnames were Martin and O’Flynn). And, Margaret says, when the couple have taken any of their 20 trips to Ireland, “it feels like coming home.” Here, she talks with EncoreEditor Marie Lee.
How did you get involved with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade?
I had just become the president of the club and received a phone call from Jack Moss (former sports editor for the Kalamazoo Gazette, who died recently) and I thought, “Why is the sports editor calling me?” He said, “I think we should have a St. Patrick’s parade in Kalamazoo and I was talking to my friend Lou McGuire about it and asked him who he thought could do this and he said the Irish American Club and gave me your name and number.” Lou was a member of our club. But it was Jack Moss’s idea, because, you know, Chicago had one and New York, and he just thought Kalamazoo should, too.
Tell me about the Irish American Club of Kalamazoo.
The club is around 100 members, and we meet monthly except in May, June and July. Our mission is to educate and learn about Irish culture and the Irish community in Kalamazoo. It costs $15 a year for a single membership, $25 for a family, and you get a monthly newsletter, free admission to the Irish Fest, and, of course, you can walk in the parade.
Every month we have different entertain-ment at the meetings — anything from a lecture about Irish ancestry to bagpipes. We’ve even had lectures on other countries like Russia and Norway. People are willing to listen, learn about anything.
Do club members have to have Irish ancestry?
No. Anybody that finds it interesting can join. We had one couple who wasn’t Irish at all but were going to Ireland and wanted to set up a tour, so they joined the club to learn more about it. We have a monthly newsletter that announces what that month’s program is going to be, and sometimes non-members will show up and say, “I saw this, and I was interested.” A lot of times they end up joining.
Are there other ways the club observes St. Patrick’s Day?
It’s actually a series of events — we have two other events around St. Patrick’s Day in addition to the parade. We serve an Irish dinner at Ministry with Community, and we have the Hooley for Healing, which is a fundraiser to help two local people with cancer.
One of the reasons why there’s so many Irish in the United States is because they left during the famine in Ireland in the 1860s and came here. So, around St. Patrick’s Day, the club purchases, prepares and serves a meal to Ministry with Community clients to celebrate our heritage and pay respect to the people that died during the famine.
Then there’s the parade. It’s a short parade route from Michigan Avenue, down Burdick Street, on to Cedar Street, where it ends. It’s small in length, but the streets of downtown are packed. There are usually about 50 entries, from Irish dancers, bagpipers and bands to local Irish families and groups like the Sons of Norway and the local Hispanic American Council (now called El Concilio Kalamazoo) — it’s actually a multicultural event. It’s become part of what makes Kalamazoo a cool city.
After the parade we have the Hooley for Healing — this year will be our ninth one. “Hooley” means Irish party. It’s a fundraiser for two people in Kalamazoo who have a cancer diagnosis, because a lot of times there are a lot of expenses that come with a cancer diagnosis. We have it in Bell’s Brewery’s back room, and there’s a band, games and a silent auction. With the money we raise we are able to help out a couple of people.
Tell me about the Irish Fest.
The festival is held at Old Dog Tavern in June. (It will be June 21-22 this year.) They have a really nice outdoor area, and two stages, one inside and one outside. We have bands on both stages on Friday evening and all-day Saturday. Old Dog does a nice job with the food, and there’s all kinds of drinks. It’s really celebrating the Irish for a day and a half.
When did you actually start embracing your own Irish-ness?
Probably the first time we went to Ireland — we’ve been 20 times. We went and just really fell in love with it.