More than 33 million Americans have some Irish ancestry, and two Region businesses give them a way to connect with their roots.
Ballyea Jewelry Designs, which has sold artisanal Celtic jewelry since 1991, moved from Chicago’s Loop to downtown Michigan City more than a year ago, adding a gift shop of Irish items.
And Peter Townsend’s Irish Collection, formerly the Irish on the Square shop in downtown Crown Point, sells Irish handcrafted gifts and keepsakes to Irish gift shops nationwide, at Irish festivals across the country and increasingly direct to consumers on Amazon.
South Side native Bernadette Moore Gibson, whose mother was born in County Clare and whose father also had Irish ancestry, cut her teeth at Jeweler’s Row and ran a trade shop casting jewelry in Lahinch, Ireland, before opening Ballyea at Wabash Avenue and Madison Street nearly three decades ago.
Gibson studied metalsmithing at Illinois State University, where she earned a bachelor’s of fine arts.
“I started working downtown and learning the trade,” she said.
“I moved to County Claire Ireland and opened a little trade shop. It was a good experience. My mom always reared us in the Celtic arts, so it was a natural transition. Sharing stories, folklore, family histories, and personal stories are some of the things we cherish about out being Irish. ”
She makes many different types of Celtic jewelry, including bracelets, necklaces and engagement rings. Ballyea’s gift shop sells many goods such as imported Irish wool sweaters, Irish crystals, and photographs.
“I do full rings, engagement rings, earrings, pendants,” she said. “I do everything in the fine jewelry space. I make myself silver plate in the Irish tradition.”
She does the traveling festival circuit, selling her handcrafted wares at fests in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Missouri and Dublin, Ohio, just outside Columbus.
After her husband Gary retired from the Chicago Board of Trade and they moved to Indiana, she decided to move her business to Michigan City to be closer to relatives in Northwest Indiana and Southwest Michigan, after vacationing for many years at Sheridan Beach, where they like to golf and paddle-board.
“We’ve always loved this town,” she said. “We’re hoping for a rejuvenation. The Uptown Arts Groups has been working to improve Franklin Street, but it’s been slow coming.”
Her husband manages the shop’s day-to-day operations so she can focus on designing and crafting jewelry. She gets many custom orders on commission from longtime customers, having built a loyal following over the past three decades.
Other than the pieces of jewelry Gibson creates herself, about 80 to 90 percent of what Ballyea carries is imported from Ireland.
“There’s a great call for Irish goods,” she said.
“Our customers appreciate the Celtic arts. They want to appreciate their roots and celebrate the community. A big percentage want to celebrate their heritage.”
Peter Townsend's Irish Collection
Peter Townsend, a native of Derry in Northern Ireland, came to the United States in 1998 with his Rennselear-born wife Jennifer, a then-Columbia College student who went on a cultural tour of Ireland.
"We hosted a group of ladies from Chicago," he said. "We were one of the families that put them up. They stayed at my mother's house while I took them around to visit pubs."
They moved to Dyer while she worked at the Museum of Science and Industry and ultimately settled in Crown Point.
Townsend, an illustrator, graphic designer and painter by occupation, loved designing. So he started designing Irish gifts like clothes, prints and blessings to make a living after coming to America. He’s placed coats of arms on steins, glassware and wooden plaques.
He started the business selling to mail-order catalogs and then opened two different brick-and-mortar stores in downtown Crown Point. He’s since shifted the business to focus on wholesale and online sales.
“We wholesale to Irish stores throughout North America,” he said.
“If it’s an Irish store, we supply it or have worked with it at some point. We once supplied 120 stores, but now it’s around 40 to 50.”
Brick-and-mortar retail has suffered because of competition from online rivals, Townsend said. So he sells items directly off his website and is opening an Amazon store after generating more than $4,000 a month in sales through Amazon.
“It’s really taken off,” he said. “We get an order every 20 minutes. My colleague expects it to triple this year.”
The business outgrew Townsend’s basement, so he bought a house he runs it out of it. He designs decals of Irish blessings, family name explanations, family history, and coats of arms and silkscreens them onto T-shirts.
Current top-sellers include "Irish police," "Irish firefighters," “Irishman your mother warned you about,” “an Irish girl is the best damn drinker a guy could have,” “Irish roots, American soil,” and “Little Leprechaun.” Customers love the Irish toasts, especially the top-selling “there are tall ships, there are wood ships, but the best ships are friendships.”
Townsend employs four people who sell his creations at booths at Irish Festivals around the country from Memorial Day through October, including at Gaelic Park in Oak Forest, Cleveland, and Wildwood, New Jersey.
The recent fascination with DNA and ancestry also has helped drive sales. Townsend sells framed parchments with the history of family names, showing what towns and counties they originally came from and charting their movement to North America with dates and years.
Canada-based Swyrich Corp. does the genealogical research for Peter Townsend's Irish Collection, and it’s one of their top-selling vendors worldwide.
“People are getting their DNA from ancestry.com,” he said. “It’s a fad. We can actually print your genealogy out with your family name or coat of arms.”
Townsend, who has trademarked Pete Townsend’s Irish Collection, wholesales the handcrafted merchandise to shops that can buy it in volume. He sells a variety of items as an online retailer, including whiskey glasses, hoodies, sweatshirts, and keychains.
“We put out new products every couple of months,” he said. “We try to make sure the text we create for it is careful and good. We experiment. If it doesn’t work, we put up something else.”
Townsend hopes to franchise his concept and find more people to sell his products at events, including German, Italian and Hispanic festivals.
“In retail, the big stores are closing down,” he said. “But more people are shopping locally. They’re going to craft shows and looking for personalized goods.”
Townsend likes to make cultural connections.
“When I was in Belleville, Illinois, a pipe and drums band played their music in front of my pop-up shop,” he said.
“I was touched by that. For the American Irish and some Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is about drinking and sarcastic, sparkling green T-shirts. I prefer to take more time listening to cultural Irish music and taking in Irish culture.”