By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
According to United States Census figures, nearly 35 million Americans -- more than 11 percent of the country -- can trace their roots back to the Emerald Isle.
It is an ancestry -- and a culture -- that was both celebrated and embraced at parties and parades in communities across the country on Sunday in honor of St. Patrick's Day.
At Amsterdam's Irish-American Club, however, Irish heritage is honored and celebrated all year by a proud, vibrant and -- most importantly -- united Irish-American community.
The club began, said longtime member Jack Allen, out of a need for a cultural organization dedicated to Amsterdam's Irish population as a whole.
Previous clubs, he explained, were secular.
The Hibernians, of which there are several chapters in the Capital Region, are strictly Irish Catholics, but a large portion of Amsterdam's Irish immigrants hailed from Protestant Northern Ireland.
Amsterdam's Hibernian chapter dissolved in the 1960s, he said, as result of declining membership.
In 1971, nine Amsterdam residents began meeting over dinners at Russo's Restaurant and today's Irish-American Club was born.
The group moved around for a number of years before finding its permanent home on Yeoman Street.
On Sunday, and throughout the course of the weekend, hundreds flocked to the Irish-American Club, believed to be the only one of its kind in this area, for a little taste of Irish culture.
"It's events like this that help us survive," said Irish-American Club President K. Casey Boyd.
The club celebrates St. Patrick's Day with, among other things, sales of corned beef sandwiches and Shepherd's Pie.
Last year, the club sold between 500 and 600 pounds of corned beef, Allen said.
"It's our biggest fundraiser of the year," said Boyd.
The membership of the club itself mirrors that of Amsterdam's Irish population, once strong and thriving, but having faded somewhat in recent years.
"We had up to 250 members at one time," said Boyd. "It's gone down over the years."
Today, Boyd said, there are approximately 135 members.
"But we get more on St. Patrick's day," he added, noting that membership applications tend to increase every March 17.
"Everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's' Day," added Allen.
Allen, affectionately known as the club's "historian," said the Irish influx into Amsterdam began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when immigrants fled the lingering famine in Ireland in search of work and a better life in Amsterdam's carpet mills and broom factories.
The Erie Canal, Allen said, was built, in large part, by Irish immigrants.
"They came over to get better jobs," Allen said.
Through sheer will and determination, those Irish immigrants made new lives for themselves in the Mohawk Valley.
Through cultural organization's like the Irish-American club, the proud spirit and traditions of those early immigrants can live on, Boyd explained.
"We're trying to retain the heritage we have," he said.
The club itself has it's own proud heritage. It was built and is operated solely by its membership and their families -- every one a volunteer.
It is a community within a community, Allen explained, a family.
"When my son was little, I had no problem bringing him in here," said Allen. "I tried to teach him some of the Irish heritage, the heritage of what the Irish did for this community."
As Allen sat at the bar on Sunday, he was greeted by Robert Daley, one of the nine founding members of the club.
"We had a lot of fun building this club," said Daley.
As he reflected on the years he spent as a member, Daley, too, noted the declining membership and visibility of Amsterdam's Irish community.
"It seems the older people were more aggressive," Daley said.
He did not, however, completely discount the fervor of the younger generations.
"They still have the spirit," said Daley. "The younger generations are showing their pride and heritage."
Daley said he was confident that the legacy he and his friends helped to build will be carried on.
Jack Harrington was also a founding member. He remembers clearly how it all began.
"We put an ad in the paper," Harrington said. "We just wanted to get a bunch of Irish together."
"The place was packed," he added. "We said from then on: 'I guess we got a good club going."
Right now, Allen said, club membership is on the upswing, adding, however, that it has fluctuated over the years.
The reason for the decline since its beginnings, Harrington said, is fairly simple.
"We don't have as many Irish in Amsterdam as we used to have," he said. "We have more Americans."
"We were more second-generation Irish," Harrington said of the club's founders. "Now, it's fifth- and sixth-generation."
Still, Harrington said, the club serves a truly special purpose through its ability to unite Amsterdam residents through their shared love and appreciation for their Irish heritage.
"I found some of my best friends when I joined this club," Harrington said.