Gordon Ireland, pillar of Michigan Pagan community, retiring from service

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Gordon only created the Pagan of the Year Award so that he could give it to himself.” — Arwen Starda

DETROIT –That wisecrack about Gordon Ireland was recounted by Arwen Starda’s daughter Gwenn, after Arwen was named Michigan’s 2016 Pagan of the Year. And, Ireland has taken great pains to be certain that Arwen’s prediction doesn’t come true. Not only will he not be involved in selecting the annual honoree for 2017 and beyond, he has also secured an agreement that he himself will not be named in his lifetime.

Awarding the honor to longtime co-conspirator Arwen Starda as one of his last official acts before his retirement may well be evidence of what Gwenn Starda calls his “sick sense of humor.”

But Ireland isn’t talking about that.

Gordon and Paula Ireland [courtesy photo]

Gordon and Paula Ireland [Courtesy Photo]

What he was willing to talk about was the incredibly vibrant Pagan community in Michigan, a community that he himself has sought to improve in multiple ways. Ireland has had a hand in a number of other high-profile projects. Those include the Midwest Witches’ Ball, Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund, and the Pagans in Need food bank.

In addition, he launched the Pagan of the Year award, which is now in its fifth year. The 2016 winner Arwen Starda joins other winners: Kenya Coviak, Jacki Smith, Michael Wiggins, and David Trexler, who have all been recognized for their contributions to Michigan’s Pagan community.

Ireland and his wife Paula came up with the idea as a way to recognize those people that always seemed to be lending a hand, year in and year out. “We made a list of people, came up with 15 that we thought would deserve it,” he recalled. Honorees get a handsome plaque at the Witches’ Ball, and free tickets to next year’s soiree.

Exactly who is on that list remains a secret, but Ireland made it clear that his name isn’t among them. Pagans in the region might intuit who future honorees may be from Ireland’s description of the criteria: “must be doing something positive for the community, and we like people who do it because it needs to be done, not people who do it to say, ‘look at me.’ ”

Ireland’s list has now been delivered to the leadership of the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry. The winner will no longer be selected by Ireland and his wife, as in past years. Part of the agreement in passing the award-selection on to the church is that neither Gordon nor Paula are eligible to receive it.

“I told them that after I die, they can award me with whatever they want.”

Just the two of them picking winners has worked well, Ireland says, because the fewer people that know, the easier it is to surprise the recipient. However, the process has always welcomed nominations from the public. If no one deemed suitable is nominated in a particular year, the award goes to someone else from that original list, he explained. Others have been entrusted with the winner’s name, and it’s worked out well until this point.

“We had to give a wife free tickets to get her husband to attend, but she was good at keeping the secret.”

According to the loose criteria he provided, Ireland would otherwise be well-qualified to be named Pagan of the Year several times over. It’s been given to luminaries like David Trexler, who in the wake of Tempest Smith’s suicide founded Witches of Michigan to educate people on the Wiccan faith. Smith’s mother Danessa started a scholarship for Pagans in her daughter’s name, and when that foundation was closed, Ireland helped launch the Michigan Pagan Scholarship to continue that legacy.

Another winner, Michael Wiggins, saw to it that the Magical Education Council — host organization for ConVocation — donates $500 annually to that scholarship fund.

As for this year’s honoree, Arwen Starda, her daughter explained some of what she’s been up to.

In addition to being part of the Witches’ Ball committee for all these years and organizing all the good works that I spoke about, Arwen has also been hosting the Pagan Roundtable the first Tuesday of every month at the Mount Clemens library since 1996. I can remember myself and my brothers being hauled there as kids. This group was a lifeline to Pagans seeking to connect with one another in the days before the internet was ubiquitous. People that met there have made lifetime friendships and relationships.

Ireland might be considered worthy of being called “Pagan of the year” just for his work on the scholarship, or even for establishing the annual award alone. However, he has also done many other things to normalize Pagans as being members of a religion, albeit an alternative religion. There’s a Boy Scout troop sponsored by the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry church, as well as a recovery group and food bank that are designed for Pagans, both with his fingerprints on them.

Pagan of the Year award from 2013 [courtesy photo]

Pagan of the Year award from 2013 [courtesy photo]

What makes it all possible, however, is the Witches’ Ball. It is the financial engine making all the other programs possible. In fact, the ball was among the first projects that Ireland worked on 20 years ago, and it is not one he’s going to divorce himself from completely.

“I’ll still attend,” he said. “I just won’t plan it.”

What makes the ball such a powerful platform, Ireland believes, is the marketing behind it. That program includes the marketing of the sponsors, who pay more than half of its budget each year. The fact that there are solid covens around, the members of which are willing to collaborate on setting up the space and the yearlong organization, certainly helps as well.

Pagans in Need — one of his proudest accomplishments — started out, Ireland explains, as “a food bank filled and maintained by Universal Society of Ancient Ministry supporters to meet the needs of those who might be turned away from other sources due to their professed religious orientation.”

Ireland put the paperwork in order to make this a non-profit agency, and he’s proud to see how it has grown. “This charity has expanded to address diverse needs such as lack of home appliances, shutoff notices, and eviction notices,” he said.

Most of these projects involve the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry, and that is no coincidence. Ireland founded the church, set up the by-laws, and made sure that it was recognized by IRS officials. He also built the web sites for the organization’s numerous programs, but otherwise says he’s not involved with it.

“I helped with it because I wanted to see if I could,” he said.

Gordon Ireland probably doesn’t have any more good ideas than any another Pagan, but he does possess the ability to follow through until they become reality. That, and he unabashedly taps into the large number of “people of like minds” to whom he has access within the Detroit area. While he won’t become the official Pagan of the Year — at least in his lifetime — the impact of his 20 years of service to Paganism in Michigan will be felt for a long time to come.

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