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Article Published June 12, 2019
Brendan McCaffery: Keeping his Culture Alive
Nathan Hughart

Brendan McCaffery has contributed to New Haven county’s oldest Irish festival for many years. He says it takes a huge group effort to put together the cultural display coming soon to the North Haven Fairgrounds.

Brendan arrived in the U.S. when he was 21. He came to join an aunt and uncle. Knowing no one but a few cousins, he needed a place to go. He joined the Irish American Community Center (IACC) in East Haven as a way to connect with people.

“That’s where a lot of the Irish community go in this area,” Brendan says.

Eventually, he ended up helping with its annual festival.

“People chip in, find your niche,” he says.

For eight years, Brendan’s niche with the IACC’s annual festival was with Gaelic football, a sport similar to soccer in which players may bounce, pass, and carry the ball to score points in a net and goal post.

“It’s something I think everybody did as a kid,” Brendan says. “I was here already with young kids and there were other Irish guys coaching it. They went back [to Ireland] and so it kind of fell on me and three or four others to try and keep it going.”

While Gaelic football is popular throughout Ireland, it’s not as well known in the U.S. Until 10 years ago, Brendan helped to coach the youth teams at the IACC. Since then, he’s stepped away to let the younger people take over.

“It’s still going,” Brendan says. “They try to get teams in from New York and Philadelphia, but it’s hard because they’re American kids. They have their own sports. [But] they still manage to get people.”

Brendan says some leagues do well with kids who are looking for an alternative sports experience, one that has less practice time and is different than American sports.

The Connecticut Irish Festival (CTIF), put on every year by the IACC, features competitions for Gaelic and hurling, another Irish sport. The festival attracts teams and players from across the region.

Brendan says Irish celebrations like the CTIF are important because they give the future generations of Irish immigrants a sense of what was important to their parents.

“I’m from Ireland…but now a lot of the people who are helping out are American-Irish. It’s harder. The generations get sort of diluted,” Brendan says. “It’s harder to keep it going.”

The festival brings in people of all backgrounds. It’s a way to bring the culture, not just to Irish and Irish-Americans, but to anyone in the area who is interested.

CTIF will return to the North Haven fairgrounds on Saturday and Sunday, June 22 and June 23.

A dart tournament begins at noon on Saturday, then the festival proper opens at 3 p.m. and again at 8 a.m. on Sunday, with a Catholic Mass at 8:30 a.m.

The dance competition is still an important part of the festival. It takes place on Sunday after the Mass and will be judged by professional feis judges.

“They take it very seriously,” Brendan says.

The festival is a display of Irish culture open to everyone. Vendors will present Irish food, sports, and music but it will also have typical festival fare.

Since Brendan stepped away from the Gaelic football program to let the next generation take over, he’s focused on running the festivals ad book and obtaining sponsorship for the event.

“It’s not too much work because a lot of the sponsors and advertisers are the same, but it still takes time,” he says. “Then, if I’m around, I try and help out” during the festival.

Brendan has worked in North Haven for 20 years, first managing the finance operations of a non-profit Catholic publishing company and now as an independent State Farm sales representative. It keeps him busy, but leaves time for him to keep up with the festival’s ad book.

Brendan says putting together the festival takes a lot of work from a lot of people. The IACC spends close to $100,000 each year and enlists the help of numerous committees to handle everything from food to the genealogy booth to the Irish bread competition, plus the nearly 200 volunteers who help to set up and break down the festival.

“My motto is if you help out and everybody puts in time, the group does well,” Brendan says.

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