Las Vegas ROCKS

Maura O'Connell in concert.

By Elizabeth Raggi, Contributor
December / January 2001

Maura O’Connell concert benefits U.S.-Ireland Alliance.

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On Friday, September 22, Maura O’Connell performed her first Las Vegas concert at the Regent Las Vegas, a new luxury hotel concerned with more than just the green that flows across its blackjack tables. The event was to support the US-Ireland Alliance, a non-partisan, non-profit organization founded by Trina Vargo in 1998. Some 300 people turned out in support.

The Alliance’s flagship initiative is the George J. Mitchell Scholarships, a program which sends young Americans to Ireland and Northern Ireland for a year of postgraduate study. This year’s recipients were presented at the event before going on to Dublin where American Ambassador Michael Sullivan hosted a welcoming party.

The goal of the Alliance is to educate Americans about Ireland and create a nationwide network with a voice in Washington. The success of the Las Vegas event shows that there is a strong Irish voice in Nevada.

And a beautiful one at that. Maura O’Connell has her own US-Ireland alliance being born in County Clare and living many years in Nashville, releasing five albums and working with such artists as Van Morrison, Dolly Parton, and the Chieftains. She is a Grammy-nominated stylist with liberated musical vision, while her rendering of traditional song is always powerful. Her luminescent voice recently caught the attention of Martin Scorsese who offered her a singing role in his new movie on New York Irish and Italian gang wars in the 1850’s.

The concert was the result of a seed planted years ago when Trina Vargo, now president of the Alliance, encountered Sean McGuinness. While serving as foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy, she was researching the Choctaw Indians’ contribution to Ireland during the famine. Sean, an expert on the subject, offered his knowledge. Then head of an Irish organization in Mississippi, McGuinness mentioned that there were Irish-Americans outside New York, Boston and Chicago who wanted to get involved in matters relating to Ireland.

In 1998 when Vargo left Senator Kennedy’s office to start the US-Ireland Alliance, she tracked McGuinness to his new home in Las Vegas and gave him the chance to prove his words. Flying there the first time last year, she met with McGuinness and John Tipton, president of Swiss Casinos of America, the parent of the Regent Las Vegas. After hearing of O’Connell’s offer to perform, Tipton and McGuinness immediately offered the Regent as a venue.

The Mitchell scholars with Prime Minister Bernie Ahern. US-Ireland Alliance president Trina Vargo is to his right.

Las Vegas City councilman Larry Brown flew his family from Boston for the event. Afterwards he said, “My family and I thoroughly enjoyed Maura O’Connell. I hope this is the start of something big for the Irish community in Las Vegas.”

And it very well might be.

In this election year, during the campaign season, the event was still able to generate $16,000. That’s no small feat.

Terry Murphy is President of Strategic Solutions, a company that works on solutions to the challenges posed by the phenomenal growth of the Las Vegas area (5,000 new residents a month!). Murphy has witnessed the change in Las Vegas firsthand, driving to Las Vegas in 1969 in her VW bug from Brooklyn never to return. She is optimistic about the future. “I feel the concert went extremely well especially considering it was the first event and the short amount of time we had to put it together. It should be twice as successful next year. We hope to add a golf tournament and to end with another great concert.”

Other Las Vegas residents are taking interest in the US-Ireland Alliance. Brian McMullan is President of the Irish Pub Company, which is responsible for designing and building over 350 authentic Irish pubs in over 40 countries. He is moving its U.S. headquarters to Las Vegas. John Daly, also calling Las Vegas home, moved to Nevada in 1990 to be main anchor of an ABC affiliate. He is now the host of the nationally syndicated new video magazine “Real TV.”

The interest in O’Connell’s concert and the support of the US-Ireland Alliance are indicative of the interest in Ireland. Nevada boasts an 18 percent population with Irish ancestry and people are taking notice. The host committee for the event included Irish-American Governor Kenny Guinn, Mayor Oscar Goodman, and numerous city council members and commissioners.

The Irish community is not limited to Las Vegas; there is a strong Irish voice in Reno also, as a few years ago the Irish Government named Dr. Bernard Brady as Ireland’s Honorary Counsul General for Nevada. Maura received a standing ovation and the Alliance received the recognition it deserves. Future Irish-American involvement seems as bright as Las Vegas’ neon signs. Now not even mentioned in Irish-American Landmarks – A Traveller’s Guide, the next edition may mention Nevada as the Irish oasis it is becoming. ♦

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