Life after death has always been a controversial concept, but it is hard to quarrel with the idea that the Irish Center has achieved it.
Life after death has always been a controversial concept about which people of goodwill can differ, but it is hard to quarrel with the idea that the Irish Center at 6815 Emlen St. in West Mt. Airy has achieved that supernatural condition.
There is an old Irish saying, “May you be at the gates of heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead!” And in 2014, it seemed as if the 65-year-old Irish Center, headquartered in a 118-year-old building that encompasses 12,000 square feet, formally named the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center, was within walking distance of those gates.
Membership had fallen off the roof. Torrents of water swimming down the walls would routinely disrupt meetings, other parts of the building were in dire need of repairs and many of the members were way up the ladder in years and were not being replaced by younger people. Back taxes were piling up, and there was no money for the desperately needed upgrades.
But along came Sean McMenamin, who, if he were a relief pitcher for the Phillies, would be striking out every batter he faced. A native of County Mayo, he left the old country in 1959 because – like so many other European economies after World War II – the Irish economy was in the basement and job opportunities were like rare jewels.
A retired building engineer from DuPont Pharmaceuticals, the “80-ish” McMenamin, who is now the Irish Center president, set about resuscitating the center which for so long had been a meeting place for those of Irish descent all over the Delaware Valley. He enlisted the support of civic and business leaders, labor unions, members of the center, foundations and volunteers to change the legal status of the Center to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and begin a massive fundraising effort.
Now, almost 10 years later, the Irish Center is back.
It is now serving more than 12,000 people annually and all the back taxes and many of the loans have been fully paid off. The roof has been fixed and a new elevator and air conditioning have been installed. And record numbers of people are using the center and calling it home. It is hosting art exhibits, including a children's art show, concerts of Irish music, fundraising events for charity, flea markets, dance instruction, jazz night every Thursday, community meetings and senior citizen lunches.
In a recent interview, McMenamin said that for the Irish Center, the Covid pandemic actually turned out to be a “blessing in disguise.”
“Since we could not do the normal events and were shut down for months, this allowed us time to do major repairs,” he said. “Fundraising was even great during Covid. We had great support from people in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. Chestnut Hill Sports even registered hundreds of kids here.”
Local attorney Lisa Maloney, formerly with the Ballard Spahr law firm, led the pro bono work to create the 501(c)(3) and negotiate the payment of back taxes and debt restructuring. She said McMenamin was “absolutely instrumental” to the center’s survival and its growing community involvement.
“He has the ability to reach out and make things happen,” she said. “This was truly a labor of love.”
“If it wasn’t for Sean McMenamin, there would be no Irish Center. He brought it back to life,” said Rosaleen McWilliams Rotondi, who is president of the Derry Society and has been coming to the Irish Center since she was 8. “It means something to have the Irish Center, and Sean is a major part of that.”
Marissa Berry, the Donegal Society's corresponding secretary, noted that no other Irish community in the country has a center like the one in Mt. Airy.
“From the use of the ballroom to the quaintness of the fireside room all the way up to the library, it’s invaluable,” she said, adding that she will never forget her first visit to the Center as a child.
“It’s not just about the physical space; it’s about the community that it cultivates,” she said. “It’s so hard to put into words the impact and the value behind the Irish Center. It’s about community.”
“I love seeing kids running around, and the parents and their kids both feeling safe and at home,” Maloney said. “I want the Irish Center to be around for future generations – a place which celebrates the rich cultural diversity of the tri-state area.”
For more information, call 215-843-8051 or visit theirishcenter.org. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.