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St. Patrick's Day traditions resume on Beaver Island

Beaver Island's annual fish toss, 2011.
Jeff and Bill Cashman
Beaver Beacon
Beaver Island's annual fish toss, 2011.

The story of Beaver Island’s Irish heritage starts on another island — called Árainn Mhór — off the west coast of Ireland. In 1851, more than 200 people were evicted from their homes there. They left for America and most of them settled on Beaver Island.

That was the first batch of Irish settlers to arrive there and to this day many residents can trace their lineage back to Árainn Mhór.

“On both of my parents’ sides, their grandparents and great-grandparents are from Árainn Mhór,” said Paul Cole, director of the Beaver Island Community Center.

Because Beaver Island’s early settlers were so isolated from the mainland, Gaelic was the primary language well into the 1900s.

It’s not used in conversation anymore, but some of the island’s roads still have Gaelic names and so do some businesses.

“Like Dalwhinnie, which is a deli and a place to eat here on the island,” said Cole. “That’s Gaelic for ‘gathering place.’”

Music is a big part of the island’s Irish identity, too. In the 1930s, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded the music of Irish immigrants on Beaver Island. Those recordings are stored in the Library of Congress.

Paul Cole says St. Patrick’s day is a chance to continue celebrating the island’s connection to Ireland. It’s also a chance for family members who have moved away to revisit “America’s Emerald Isle.”

Little Sand Bay on Beaver Island
Patrick Shea
Interlochen Public Radio
Little Sand Bay on Beaver Island

“It’s kind of like a homecoming,” Cole said. “Or as we call it a gathering of the clans. Clan na Gael.”

And after two years of canceling that homecoming because of COVID, the island is ready to welcome family and friends once again.

“Just to be able to get back out, connect and enjoy time with people, to laugh and dance and sing—the energy’s gonna be high,” said Cole. “There’s no doubt about it. It’ll be a really fun time.”

“There will be a lot of music,” said Carol Burton, who’s part of a team organizing this year’s festivities.

Burton says the music will include a band of islanders playing traditional Irish folk songs. Celebrations will continue through the weekend and will include games like a limerick contest.

“We do tug-of-war and different kinds of races,” Burton said.

Those include the island’s take on a dog sled race, called the “Irish-A-Rod,” and, last but not least, the fish toss.

“It’s just throwing a frozen fish as far as you can,” Burton said.

Dominic Gallagher singing, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938:

“...Bound away to Traverse City, our destination to go,
We were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow.

We left Traverse City at nine the next day
And down to Elk Rapids we then bore our way,
We took in our store and to sea we did go,
We were crossing Lake Michigan where the stormy winds blow...”

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.