City Guide 2021: Take a Trip to Ireland in Metro Detroit

St. Patrick’s Day has been observed in Detroit since 1808, but there’s more to local Irish culture than celebrating the annual holiday. Join us on our next trip around the world to see how else you can explore Ireland without leaving home.

Even amid the vast ethnic diversity of metro Detroit, the area’s Irish cultural influences stand out. From Irish pubs to local Celtic musicians and dance troupes, there remain abundant ways to experience the traditions carried here by the immigrants of the 19th century.

Fleeing religious persecution at the hands of the British colonial government, Irish Catholics began migrating to the U.S. in the early 1800s. They initially settled in large cities along the East Coast, especially Boston and New York. At the time, however, those cities were largely Protestant and greeted the influx of Catholic immigrants with hostility. Seeking yet again to escape violence and oppression, many Irish settlers soon headed west.

Hopeful that a French-founded — and therefore largely Catholic — city might offer the peace and freedom that had thus far eluded them, many journeyed to Detroit. They formed a neighborhood in the south of the city, which, due to its large number of inhabitants hailing from Ireland’s County Cork, came to be known as Corktown. 

Then, in the mid-19th century, a devastating famine struck Ireland and drove even more migrants to this area. By 1853, more than 15 percent of all Detroiters were Irish immigrants, and 45 percent of them lived in Corktown.

The 1890s, however, saw Detroit’s increasingly affluent Irish population disperse throughout the city. Meanwhile, other ethnic groups, such as Mediterraneans and Latinos, were forming their own communities in Corktown. These changes would eventually beget the diverse populace that inhabits the area today. Now the oldest surviving neighborhood in Detroit, Corktown has held onto a number of its original Irish businesses and remains the center of the metro area’s rich Irish culture.

St. Patrick's Day - Ireland
Corktown is the perfect place to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. // Photograph by Gerard + Belevender

Don’t Miss

The Gaelic League of Detroit has been working for more than a century to promote and preserve Irish traditions in metro Detroit. It serves this mission, in part, by regularly hosting cultural events. Guests of all ancestries are welcome to attend Irish language lessons, history lectures, dance classes, and live Irish dance and music performances. “During non-COVID times, we have live entertainment every Friday and Saturday night,” says league president Theresa Anaya. Patrons at these events are also helping to further a good cause. “The Gaelic League Irish American Club has been part of the Corktown community for many years. We support The Most Holy Trinity Schools, Detroit Open Streets, Corktown Business Association, and many others.” Even those who opt simply to enjoy a beer or whiskey at the league’s Corktown clubhouse will get a taste of Irish history via the memorabilia — maps, antique farm implements, and portraits of Irish revolutionary heroes — adorning its walls.

The floats, marching bands, color guards, clowns, and pipe and drum bands that promenade through Corktown for Detroit’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade attract more than 80,000 spectators each March. The United Irish Societies has organized the event since 1958, always donating a portion of proceeds to metro Detroit charities, such as St. Patrick’s Senior Center and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The honored Detroit tradition has now been canceled two years in a row due to COVID-19, but UIS promises a strong return in 2022.

Each June, the Motor City Irish Fest takes over Greenmead Historical Park in Livonia for three days of Irish and Celtic entertainment. Two stages host acts including stunt troupes, Celtic bands, and Irish dance schools, while the festival’s cultural tent features storytellers, guest speakers, and exhibits on Irish history, culture, and folklore. Whiskey tastings also take place throughout the weekend. In addition to sampling some of Ireland’s finest whiskeys, guests learn about each spirit’s background and characteristics.

The Real Deal

Real Irish Gifts was founded in 1999, when second-generation Irish immigrant Stuart Marley began selling imported Irish goods at local festivals. Now occupying a brick-and-mortar space in downtown Ann Arbor, it’s one of the largest importers of authentic Irish goods in North America. These products range from kitchenware and pottery to Irish sweaters, jewelry, and body products. Especially popular are the shop’s various styles of Irish cap, including flat, newsboy, and earflap.

Frankenmuth may be known as a hub for German culture, but the Irish and Scottish flags that hang proudly from either side of one Main Street establishment ensure the area’s Celtic lineage isn’t forgotten. Inside Got Kilt?, patrons will find fantasy merchandise, humorous Celtic-inspired T-shirts, and — for those with a Celtic surname — all manner of items emblazoned with their house crest. But the shop’s specialty is, of course, kilts. The entire length of its south wall is hung with men’s, women’s, and children’s kilts, ranging from traditional plaid to modernized cargo and utility versions. A personal recommendation from the Gaelic League’s Anaya is the Twisted Shamrock in Berkley. Among the wares sold at this Irish goods store are traditional apparel items, Celtic jewelry, purses, and an array of home and garden ornaments.

Sullivan’s Public House - Ireland
Sullivan’s Public House has been named as the No. 1 Irish eatery in Michigan. // Photograph courtesy of Sullivan’s Public House

Tastes

One of the most authentically Irish dining experiences in metro Detroit can be found at Conor O’Neill’s in downtown Ann Arbor. Modeled after the multipurpose public houses of rural Ireland, the eatery features timber floors, wooden wainscotting, Gaelic street signs, and a stone fireplace. Irish music, sports, and history bric-a-brac covers the walls, and large apothecary cabinets represent the dual role of rural pubs, which often also serve as the local shop. A menu of traditional Irish comfort food is just as convincing. Options include ale-battered fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, an Irish lamb stew, and Irish boxty — a homemade potato pancake with sautéed vegetables and pesto mayo. The drink menu, meanwhile, offers an extensive selection of Irish whiskeys and imported and local draft beer.

The owner of Sullivan’s Public House — a first-generation immigrant who grew up helping out at his parents’ pub in Ireland — is equally dedicated to authenticity. Named the No. 1 Irish Restaurant in Michigan by Travel & Leisure, Buzzfeed, and Delish, the downtown Oxford restaurant and bar serves old Irish classics including seafood chowder, bangers and colcannon mash, and shepherd’s pie. Meanwhile, modernized options, such as salmon smothered in whiskey-cream sauce and a pub board featuring Irish cheeses and a salmon spread, keep the menu fresh without straying from its Irish roots. Even the elevated yet traditional interior was designed by a Dublin-based firm.

Popular Corktown watering hole McShane’s Pub offers longtime favorites like fried perch, Irish Whiskey Steak, and bangers and colcannon potato mash, but doesn’t shy away from more playful Irish-inspired bites. Bobby McShane’s Brisket Melt features corned beef and stout-braised onions, while the wonton shells of Irish egg rolls are stuffed with cabbage, potato, corned beef, and Swiss cheese. Still, with a whiskey list of nearly 200 varietals, McShane’s true Irish spirit can’t be denied.

Did You Know?

St. Patrick’s Day has been observed in Detroit since 1808. Though initially a quiet, religious holiday, it soon became a civic occasion celebrated with parades, banquets, and other festivities. In 1880, however, the city opted to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day parade and instead raise money for famine relief in Ireland.

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