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Our History

Irish Heritage was formed in London in 1974 with the objective of presenting the best of Irish music and literature to audiences in the capital.

The driving forces behind the launch of the society were Ethna and Charles Kennedy.

Ethna & Charles

Dublin born and raised in County Mayo where she attended Balla Convent School, Ethna went on to study at University College Galway where she graduated with an arts degree. She subsequently moved to Dublin and trained as a librarian. At the age of 26 she was appointed county librarian for Westmeath.

In 1948, she married Charles Kennedy, a young civil servant with a superb tenor voice much in demand in concert halls across Britain and Ireland, and a regular broadcaster on both the BBC and RTE. In the early 1950s they moved to London where Charles took up a position in the Embassy of Ireland and Ethna returned to working in libraries, eventually becoming music librarian for Holborn.

Launch event at the Embassy of Ireland in London in 1974 with Ethna Kennedy seated in front and Charles Kennedy on her right.

The London Years

During their years in London they were both heavily involved with Irish culture. They wished to portray an alternative view of Ireland from the “singing pub” and traditional music image, wanting audiences to be aware of the country’s great wealth of classical music and literature which was rarely showcased in Britain.

In the late 1960s they were asked to produce a concert at Castletown House, Co Kildare, to commemorate Thomas Moore. They engaged John Betjeman (the distinguished broadcaster, writer and Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom) to host the evening, and Charles sang accompanied by the great Russian harpist Maria Korchinska. The night was a tremendous success making both Ethna and Charles realise there was a demand for such events.

Poster for Irish Heritage’s John McCormack Centenary Concert in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 14th June 1984.

Founding Irish Heritage

As a result they founded Irish Heritage to promote the best of Irish music and literature. The first concert took place in the Inner Temple in London on 4th April 1974 and commemorated the bicentenary of Oliver Goldsmith’s death. Over following months, Ethna and Charles presented several recitals with other distinguished musicians and performers in the Irish Embassy.

Setting up and running Irish Heritage in Britain in 1974 required great courage. It was the height of the “Troubles”, and despite the unsettled times, they persevered, organising concerts together. Following the untimely death of Charles in 1979, Ethna continued to be the driving force in the organisation, arranging vocal recitals, concerts, theatre evenings, lectures, poetry readings and dinners in prestigious venues, including West End theatres and major concert halls in London.

Irish Heritage celebrated its 21st anniversary with a concert in the Britten Theatre of the Royal College of Music in May 1995. Pictured (left to right) are: Michael Morrissey, Ethna Kennedy, Mary Mullin, HE The Ambassador of Ireland, Mr Joe Small and Mrs Mary Small, Niall Gallagher (at back) and Denise Cole.

Continuing To Thrive

As the years slipped by, Ethna spent more time in the west of Ireland, in County Mayo in particular, before she finally settled in Manchester to be near her family. By this time Irish Heritage had an organising committee under the Chairmanship of Niall Gallagher which freed Ethna to focus on artistic matters. Sadly, she passed away on 3rd May 2014 and was unable to attend her final production, “Enchanted Ireland – 40 years of Irish Heritage”, which was performed as a tribute to her in St George’s Church, Hanover Square, London W1 on 8th May 2014.

Not only has Irish Heritage survived and thrived since then, its activities are firmly based on the values inherited from Ethna and Charles. She would be proud of its registered charity status and its work with young performers and its outreach programme in particular.

Irish Heritage’s inaugural “Showcase Ireland” concert in London’s Princess Alexandra Hall in 2019, included (left to right): Tara Viscardi (harpist), Niall Tormey (composer), Katie Jemmett (Ireland Funds GB), Amy Gillen (flautist) and Seamus McGarry (Patron Irish Heritage).

Artistic Directors:

1974 – 2014
Ethna Kennedy
2014 – 2018
Katie Rowan and Jean Kelly
2018 –
Audrey McKenna

Chairpersons:

1974 – 1993
Tommy Dunne
1993 – 2017
Niall Gallagher
2017 – 2018
Mary Connolly
2018 – 2021
Patrick Lennon

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