• One of the Co Founders of the IHSM

  • Interview of Chris McEnerney

    Bernard: When did you first come up with the idea of an Irish heritage group for Milford?

    Chris: I’d have to say probably like 2002 I kind of started formulating an idea. That’s when I met Marty Hardiman. He was actually selling Pickles on a Stick in front of Dulin Automotive on Bridgeport Avenue during Devon Day. We got engaged in a conversation, I gave him my number. We just went about our business separately. But I was always coming up with plans, writing things down of how to formulate a club. I believe it was in January of 2005 that Marty gave me a call and said, “Hey, I need some help with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.” So that’s how I got involved with Marty. And I helped him out with the parade for that year, 2005. We did some fundraising and parties and things like that. We started getting some bands together for the parade and building the parade up.
    The following year in 2006, we got a good jump on fundraising that year and we really built up the bands. And the day before the festival – I mean not the festival, the parade – I got a call from a gentleman, whose name escapes me but he was a reporter with the Connecticut Post, and he had interviewed me about the parade and who puts on the parade… and I said, “I would really think that if we had a club here in Milford, an Irish Club, that the parade would go off a lot smoother.” And I believe that’s what he wrote. Now when you talk to a reporter like I’m talking to you, you don’t know what they’re going to write down. So the more that you tell them they pick and choose the highlights. So he put down that we were interested in starting a parade – err, a club – which I was. By the time I got home, now that was in the obituary page on Friday. By the time I got home from the parade on Saturday afternoon at 5:00, I had fifty-six emails to my personal email asking for information about the club and that they’re interested in help forming the club. I went to Marty with this and I said, “Marty, you wouldn’t believe this that we have so many people interested, just from the parade.”
    One that really sticks out with me is this gentleman, his name is Seth Cohen. He’s about a 6’7" Jewish man from Brooklyn. He told me when he wrote the email, he goes, "Even though my name doesn’t resonate Irish, my wife’s family, the Delaneys, own a bed and breakfast in County Laois. So therefore I believe I’m eligible to become a member of the club.” So a couple weeks later, on April 6th, 2006, we had our initial meeting at the West River Health Care Center and he showed up. And Seth Cohen actually became the first parliamentarian who helped us formulate bylaws and get us incorporated.
    So, I would say, I’ve been kind of kicking this around since 2002. Then Marty came around, and I got involved with the parade the summer of 2005. We were kicking it around at a party at Maryann Griffin’s house, on the beach at Fort Trumbull. So we were kicking it around and it came to fruition.

    Bernard: How did you decide on the name The Irish Heritage Society of Milford?

    Chris: That’s a good question. Marty and I were kicking around names. And the names that we were – there is an Irish Heritage Club in Seattle, Washington, which I did a lot of research on how they did their club. Over 20 years, never owned a lock, no brick-and-mortar, they’re just a club in Seattle that goes from restaurant to restaurant without owning any property at all and they sustain themselves with activities and events and just bringing people into different restaurants around the city. While I was talking to a gentleman there, I had actually asked him, I said, “we’re getting ready to do a club and I love the name The Irish Heritage Club… would it offend anyone if we did that, Irish Heritage Club of Milford?” And he said, “absolutely not, we’d be honored if you used it.” When I was talking to Marty, when we were starting to formulate plans of how we were going to do this, it came to both of us at the time that we’d be more of a society because of the things that we’ve talked about earlier, that there’s a place for everybody in a society and we wanted to have a place for the people who celebrate their heritage to have a place to go and celebrate that and explore the opportunities that others might be able to share with us. A lot of us were born in America but there’s a lot of people in Milford that I’m sure were born in Ireland that could shed light on a lot of things that happened over there and how maybe our counties, or maybe we’re from the same towns, or maybe they know our cousins… so we were just thinking that ‘society’ fit the bill a little bit better than ‘club.’

    Bernard: How were the bylaws developed… what steps or procedures were necessary to become recognized as an Irish Heritage organization? Who thought up the bylaws? How do you organize that?

    Chris: Well the bylaws were… with the help of Seth Cohen our honorary Irishman, he was a tax accountant and an attorney. So he was a tax attorney very knowledgeable with IRS codes and all of that. So a lot of the stuff that we do when we do a corporation had to be done in accordance with a 501c… we were 501c7 at the time with the IRS codes. When we sat down to do the bylaws a lot of us offered help when we came upon picking a bylaw committee, which I don’t have them here but I can furnish you with the names of the people that were on the committee. The ones that ring a bell are Priscilla James, Danelle Sullivan, I believe Ned Riley, Dave Conroy, Chris McEnerney (myself), Marty Hardiman and Seth Cohen. I believe there may have been a few more.
    One thing that we did, we all did some research when we said we’re going to be on the bylaws committee, we said, “Go look through some other clubs and get some bylaws and see what we can do.” So when we got it, people came to the meeting everybody had a different point, but there was really a common thread. And one thing that Seth Cohen had brought up, he says, “hey guys, let’s not reinvent the wheel. These bylaws are pretty straightforward. You can’t have a president that’s the treasurer, you can’t do this, that, and the other thing. You can’t have any employees. It’s got to be a non-stock health. No one can individually benefit from the club.” So there was some bylaws groundwork that was laid out. We worked on that bylaw committee for… I think we met like twice a week for about four or five weeks. And Seth would do a lot of work typing them out after we were done. So that’s how the bylaws came. I know they’ve been revised several times since we started, but I think we came up with pretty good groundwork at the beginning.

    Bernard: Now, in the beginning, how were the first officers selected? Were they volunteers? They couldn’t have been elected – you were just starting out.

    Chris: Well, when we first started, at the first meeting, Peter Phalen was a past Grand Marshall of the parade, made a suggestion that – because that was a question that was asked at the first meeting, who’s going to run the club and all that – so Peter Phelan wrote up that Chris McEnerney and Marty Hardiman be co-presidents at the time to get the ball rolling and to get the club going. At that point, we asked at the next meeting, that meeting was at the West River Health Care Center.

    Bernard: That was the first meeting?

    Chris: That was the first meeting. Then the second meeting was at Stonebridge in the room behind the bar, it’s a glass atrium room; it goes out to the deck. That night we had Billy Donaldson come and play some Irish music for us. Within the first fifteen minutes of that meeting, we outgrew that room. There was no room for anybody else more to come in. We were packed in there. People had volunteered and then at that point we asked if anyone was – I believe we asked if anybody had any opposition to these people being volunteers and there were none. So Danelle Sullivan was at the time, Membership Chair, Priscilla James was Secretary, we didn’t have a Vice-president. Mike McCabe, that was his first meeting there and he volunteered to be Treasurer. Dan Sullivan volunteered to be Sergeant-at-Arms. And I’m not sure about the trustees at that point. I think the trustees were put on later. That was the original board to start off. There were some people that came around… we wanted a web presence so Dave Conroy was at the meetings because we wanted him to record things and bring things forward. So he was also a part of that as well. He’s the one who created the websites, which really got us going with MilfordIrish.org and MilfordIrish.com. If you were looking for stuff in Milford and you were Irish, he nailed it with that domain name. So that was good.

    Bernard: Do you remember what the first real club activity was?

    Chris: Yes. We would have meetings, now after we left the Stonebridge because we outgrew that, we went to a place called Remy’s which is next to Patriot Bank in Jim Connolly’s office there on Boston Post Road. Used to be called Charlie’s Potbelly Pub or something like that, on the corner of Route 121 and Route 1. We were there. So we had an activity every month so to speak with a meeting but outside of the meeting the first activity we had, I brought up the fact of having a festival. I think it would be great to have a festival. Everyone looked at me like, “you must be out of your mind.” We were just getting started but I thought the time was right. We had the momentum and we had the people who were motivated to do it so I thought it was a good thing to bring up. And then we went ahead with it and started planning. We had that festival planned in like six weeks. So here’s the thing, the first activity that we had was we had a breakfast at the VFW on Naugatuck Avenue, the morning of the Fairfield Irish Festival. And at that breakfast, we had egg sandwiches and things. And for your fee, you got a t-shirt that you were to wear to the festival – the Irish Festival – that on the back, it was a white T-shirt and on the back it had our festival sign on it… Milford Irish Festival with the date and time. And that was our first activity and everybody went down there, a lot of us were a little nervous about wearing it like, “hey, you know, we’re going down into Fairfield to advertise our Festival,” but it was good. People embraced it, people asked us about it, so it actually worked out. That was our first activity.

    Bernard: Now, with the festival, were there any problems? You hadn’t done festivals yet – you had never done a festival. What were some of the problems with bringing that to fruition?

    Chris: In my mind, there weren’t many problems at all. The one problem that we had was that it rained the night before the festival. So we were – and it rained three days before while we were setting it up – so if you know about the Pavilion down there at Fowler Field, is that that’s all fill. That used to be the harbor. So I’m sitting there and I’m walking around – not sitting, I’m walking around doing work, straightening, getting things set up and I’m like, “wow, the ground’s awfully wet.” It hadn’t rained in a while, but I looked over at the harbor and the tide is up and when the tide would go down it would dry out. So, we were there we had it all set up, we had some people stay over the night for security, and that night it poured. And we woke up to a beautiful blue sky. Whoever hung rosary beads out the window that night it worked. I think Maureen Moore said she was hanging them out. But it worked. And I’m sure there were a lot of well wishes to get that festival going.
    The city was very helpful. Very, very helpful. The Chamber of Commerce came down. We were checked on several times by several city agencies: the mayor, his office and Public Works to come down and see if there’s anything that we needed. We were very well supported I don’t really think there were problems. I think maybe the only problems might have been that we were taking a chance and maybe our own thoughts got to us. I think overall it went very well for – well, that was the first year, it didn’t stop anybody from doing – now we’re up to eleven, we’re planning number twelve, right?

    Bernard: The Irish Heritage Society has met many places before we had a clubhouse. How were these decisions made? I mean, you mentioned previously about meeting here and meeting there. How was the meeting place determined? What were some of the good and bad points about having to shift around, month to month, or however you had them?

    Chris: That’s a good question. What we did was the first meeting, like I said earlier, was at West River Health Care Center. I was Director there. I knew the room was big enough. I expected maybe six, maybe a half dozen or dozen people to show up. Over seventy people showed up that first night. I was amazed. Peter Phelan had come in first. I welcomed him, I asked him, “hey Peter, how you doing? Anything I can get for you?” He said, “yeah, I’ll have a cup of coffee.” I went to get a cup of coffee for him. An employee of mine, this young lady comes walking back in, she says, “you’re going to need more than a cup of coffee.” I said, “what are you talking about?” She goes, “you better get out here.” I looked out – it was like the bus station just opened up. There were people who had set up chairs, tables… it was quite a collection of people and to this day I still see those people at the club. Those people have been there since day one. So those people are charter members.
    So from there we went to Stonebridge, just based on availability, thinking maybe we’d get more people in place where they can maybe enjoy an adult beverage or something like that. So we did that and as I said earlier we outgrew that room within fifteen minutes. From that point we went to Remy’s, which was on the corner of Route 1 and 121. We were there for several – I’m not going to say several – we were there probably about three or four months and then he’d informed us that he was selling the place, or it was sold, so we had to move on. So we’re kind of scrambling like where are we going to go. So from that point someone went up – I’m not 100% sure – went up to the Orange Ale House. Now that got hit with a little confrontation, too, even though it’s about two hundred yards over the Milford line – that we weren’t in Milford. But they were very accommodating and we were there for, I believe we were there for over a year. Then he went and changed his back room where he had booths set up where we couldn’t – before it was more of an open format where – the board would be at a table and then there would be tables out there. Now they put booths and nobody can see the board and the board couldn’t see them. So we decided it was time to move and we went – Chris Busker, who at that time for Sergeant-at-Arms, had gone down and spoke to Richie Conine, who offered us Daniel Street which is now Eli’s, 21 Daniel Street. We were there for a couple of years and that was good. That was a big room, the acoustics were good, we always had a sound system because it was built into the room so we were always set up that way.
    Parking was an issue. It was a big issue for a lot of people. Although we still got very good numbers at the meetings.
    Then from there, because Richie was selling Daniel Street, we moved to Costa Azzurra and we were there for many years and Benny and his crew took care of us. That was nice. We had the stage up top where the board would sit and there was plenty of room for the membership.

    Bernard: The entire membership – how big was it by then?

    Chris: At that time, we built that membership, we had about five hundred members – pushing five hundred members.

    Bernard: And how many would you get to the monthly meetings?

    Chris: I would say we’d average about one hundred, maybe a hundred and three. There might be some nights where we were like at eighty. I would say we were averaging about a hundred.

    Bernard: Many sites were considered before purchasing the current clubhouse. What were your thoughts on the process and do you think the best deal was made for the club for the current clubhouse?

    Chris: Well, I know that we looked at – we’ve always been like, “hey, look at this place is open, this place is available.” Ideally, to promote Irish sports – ideally a place would be like Glastonbury to have your own festival grounds and all that stuff, but we’re here on the shoreline in Connecticut and at that point we didn’t have the money to do something like that. We did explore renting a few places and leasing some places that I think we would have outgrown day one. This club, from a financial point of view, two pieces of property with a rental in the back lot with on-street parking, and there’s some municipal lots down on Bridgeport Avenue. And there is some room to – there is a parking lot out there so, on the holidays, St. Patrick’s Day Parade and stuff, that you can set up a tent and do some things outside just to make space.
    But I think overall, for the money that we paid, I don’t think it’s that bad of a deal for two income- generating properties for what they actually, for what they paid for it. I know there was a lot of money going into renovations. But, it’s funny, I was there one night and the owner, the former owner of the Star, her daughter came in and looked at the place – she just broke into tears. Because she couldn’t believe that this was the Star. And if you remember what the Star looked like to what it looks like now, it’s…

    Bernard: Night and day.

    Chris: It’s night and day. It’s like Home and Garden TV came in and did something to it. Property Brothers flipped it over, I don’t know. It is quite night and day.

    Bernard: Did you ever think that the club would have over a thousand members?

    Chris: I never really expected it to be as large as it is. I wasn’t ever really looking for numbers. I was really looking for people that were interested and wanted to do work and carry out the work of exploring our heritage and celebrating our lives as Irish-Americans here in Milford. So I’m elated that there’s over a thousand members. I know that Membership does a good job in making sure that they’re all who they say they are. It’s nice. And I know that there’s a lot of people that talk about it in the communities. Like I was telling you earlier, through going to parades and other events throughout the state of Connecticut, and even in New York, there was a time that I was recognized, or the club was recognized. We went to the first New England Irish Summit up in Canton, Mass. with all the Boston clubs and all the clubs from New England were there. They were very interested in hearing about our Milford club just because of the numbers that we had and how quickly we developed into having a festival, and at that point we had several annual festivals, that there was a parade in Milford. There were a lot of things that they were impressed with. I don’t know if you know this, but up in Boston there’s over two hundred Irish societies, some with as many as three thousand people and some with as few as six people in their societies. But they’re all recognized societies. So it was nice when we got invited up to that – we were invited by the Consulate General of Ireland for the Boston division. And we also have developed a relationship and several of our members maintain that relationship with the consulate’s office down in New York, which was really quite an honor at the first to be invited down there. But those folks, when you meet people from that office, you’re going down as far as Philadelphia through New York and Pennsylvania, so you do get to meet some people through New Jersey.
    But if I have to say so myself, I talk to a lot of people that are involved with managing and presiding over these Irish clubs… there’s something special here in Milford that I don’t see in the other clubs. I think we’re fresh and we’re new. A lot of these clubs are older, and when I say older I mean like they’ve been around since the 1950s, and a different way of life and different – I think we look at things a little differently. I’d like to say we’re more progressive at this point.

    Bernard: Where would you like to see the club – the Irish Heritage Society of Milford – where would you like to see the club go over the next ten or twenty years?

    Chris: I would like to see it continue to be a mainstay in the city of Milford. I’d like to see it continue to grow through music and art and sports. I’d like to see more young families involved through the Gaelic Athletic Association. Also, I think through music, I think there’s a great opportunity for us to teach the young people the music of Ireland. Whether it’s traditional music or through the rebel songs that we all have heard and learned. So I do think that there’s a lot of growth potential for these kids. The thing that resonates with me a lot is that if we don’t continue on with our heritage and teaching our heritage to our young people in our families, where’s it going to go?
    So I’m just so grateful and thankful that we came up with this, Marty and I came up with this idea to do this and that it’s become a very popular club and a popular cultural thing here in Milford.

    Bernard: Any last thoughts that you’d like to mention?

    Chris: Well, there are so many people that have helped. It’s not just, I know it sounds like co-founders Marty and Chris, but it could still just be Marty and Chris sitting there with a plan and our bonnet here on our head. But we actually acted on it. We actually took a chance and threw it out there and the response was overwhelming. There’s been times when it’s brought you to tears when you look out and see what you’ve accomplished, and that people took faith and took your word that everything was going to work out alright. I do have to say this, and I used to talk to McCabe about this – Mike McCabe was the Treasurer – there was never a time that I remember that I have knowledge of that what we said we were going to do we lost money in. So my thing was always “let’s show everyone a good time and have fun and with fun, the money will come.” And I hope that that just never changes and doesn’t tilt the other way where it’s all about the money and less about the fun. I think if people are having fun and having a good time enjoying themselves, feel welcomed, feel safe, and secure in their environment I think only good things will come.

    Bernard: This is the Irish Heritage Society of Milford’s History Project, which is focused on the club in Milford.

    Chris: Thank you Bernard. Thank you very much.