I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of Éamon de Valera in which he ever looked anything but forbidding. The photo I’m looking at now is no exception.
It’s a framed sepia-toned portrait of “Dev” in a visit to the Overbrook home of Joe McGarrity, Philadelphia wine and spirits merchant, the unrepentant physical-force Republican and major fund-raiser for the cause of Irish freedom. The photo was taken in the early part of the 20th Century. In it, the future first Taoiseach (prime minister) and two-term president of the Irish Republic is flanked by McGarrity and two associates, a woman (presumably McGarrity’s wife) and assorted children, at least two of them McGarrity’s. One of the children, a little girl with a page boy cut, stands in front of the seated de Valera. He is cradling her small hands.
A slight smile rests on the Long Fellow’s face. Still, it’s one of those smiles in which the mouth is disconcertingly out of synch with the eyes, which are framed by granny glasses and looking anything but warm. And the eyes tell the story. You can almost imagine the thought running through his head: “The things I have to do just to score a few hundred Tommy guns.”
This hidden treasure is part of a wide-ranging collection housed in the Commodore John Barry Memorial Library at the Philadelphia Irish Center. The library—for those who didn’t even know there was a library at the Irish Center—is in a room on the second floor of the rambling old structure at Carpenter and Emlen, in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood.
You might be forgiven if you had assumed that there might be a closet behind the locked double doors. In fact, the library occupies a large room, about the size of the Fireside Room just below it, and it is packed to the rafters with old books containing the histories of the many Irish counties, posters advertising membership in Philadelphia’s Hibernia Fire Engine Company, a Donegal Society mural that once rode on a float in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the Catholic Sons of Derry Honor Roll, a replica of the banner of the famed 69th Irish Regiment, a print of the Letterkenny Cathedral, a Hunger Strike exhibit, and an Irish-language bible contributed by Father Doyle from Old Saint Joseph’s Church.
It’s a fairly large collection for such a small library. “We just started collecting things,” says Sean McMenamin, one of the library’s longtime volunteers and a retired DuPont engineer. “It was just a book here and there, stuff from estates and donated things.”
The de Valera photo was among the donated “things.” It was part of a collection donated by the McGarrity family, says Bill Brennan, an amateur historian and the library’s guiding force since the earliest days. The collection turned out to be quite a find for a small library. Most of McGarrity’s papers now reside at the Falvey Memorial Library at Villanova University.
Those who work on the collection today recall only too well its humble beginnings.
McMenamin came to Philadelphia from County Mayo, by way of England, in 1966, just for a weekend. He liked what he saw in Philadelphia, and he set down roots. Like many new arrivals, he gravitated to the Irish Center, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. He learned about the library project, and it struck a chord. “I have a great interest in history and genealogy,” he says. “I knew Billy was up here with boxes of books. It was just going to be a little closet.”
Then, some timely fund-raising helped turn the “closet” into something rather more ambitious.
There was much work to be done. For one thing, the room wasn’t a room at all. It was actually a place where guests to the club once could stand and look down on the dance floor below. Volunteers installed a floor, and numerous other volunteer efforts have gradually turned the room into warm, welcoming place. “All the societies had somebody up here at one time or another,” says Brennan.
For Brennan, who is retired from the electric company, the library has always been a labor of love. “Maybe it’s my calling,” he says. “I always figured the Irish didn’t get the credit they deserve.”
Since those days, the library collection has grown steadily, continuing to reflect Brennan’s strongly held conviction that the Irish be recognized for their great contribution to Philadelphia and U.S. culture. It has also been there to save many an ill-prepared student from academic failure. “We get calls from panic-stricken parents,” Brennan says, “like the one whose child needed to see a painting of Brian Boru, or someone doing an assignment on the Great Hunger. We have the stuff.” Academics, too, recognize the little library’s great value, including one woman who was doing research on the subject of textiles.
The library staff also pieced together a very well-received historical exhibit for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia back in the bicentennial year of 1976.
And if Bill Brennan and Sean McMenamin have anything to say about it, the library will just keep on growing to meet the needs of the next generation of Irish and Irish-Americans in Philadelphia. “We take everything,” says McMenamin, “political or non-political. History is history.”
The library is open Tuesday nights or by appointment. Contact John Nolan at the Irish Center for more information: (215) 843-8051.