Closed since March due to the pandemic, the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center faced an uphill struggle. On the one hand, the Irish Center, as it is more commonly called, stood to lose tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. On the other, board members still had to meet monthly expenses for the rambling old building at Carpenter and Emlen Streets in Mount Airy.
The disruption couldn’t have come at a worse time. Fortunately, many of the center’s friends have come to the rescue.
This year was going to be a big one for the center, which had recently been granted 501c3 nonprofit status and had many old debts cleared up. The center makes most of its income from events, like wedding receptions, festivals, banquets and concerts. For 2020, the calendar was jam-packed with paying events—so much so that there was a waiting list.
“We were on such a good high from all the hard work that had been put into the Irish Center over the last number of years,” says board member and vice president Lisa Maloney. “We were getting on a profitable, albeit not a huge margin. We had some cushion in the bank because we had had so many shows (prior to the shutdown). We had some money saved by. All the hard work was paying off because we were booking events. We had solid schedules. The board was feeling good because were on a good plane … and then everyone got hit with it (the Covid pandemic).”
In late June, the center’s board launched a fund drive to raise enough money—$30,000—to get through the end of the year. That goal has now been exceeded by more than $6,000.
That response has been hugely gratifying.
“We are the cheerleaders, that’s why we volunteer,” says Maloney, “but the closing hit all of us very hard. We almost needed to see a sign—and we did. I wasn’t sure how the fundraising was going to go over, but people really reached down deep. We got donations from $5 to $2,500. Even though people were struggling, even people in those situations that could not give a lot, they gave what they could, and they gave some very heartfelt acknowledgements of what the Irish Center means to them.”
It isn’t the first time the Irish Center has faced adversity, board President Sean McMenamin notes, and its many friends have come to the rescue before. That said, he was concerned that giving might be more difficult at a time when people could be facing challenges of their own. But in the end, the Irish Center means a good deal to many, many people, including the folks who attend the Irish Diaspora Center’s senior lunch, John Shields and his dancers, local Irish musicians, county associations, Irish immigrants who came to the Philadelphia area in the 1950s and ‘60s who found a home away from home at the center, and more.
The response—not just the donations but the many letters and notes of support—were incredibly encouraging. “It gave us the energy to say, well, listen, we’re going to keep the Irish Center going,” says McMenamin. “It might be a year before we’re back, but we will have a center when this is over, because it will be over at some time.”
The money raised is helping support much needed maintenance, including roof repairs and replacement of the refrigeration system in one of the kitchen refrigerators. During this time, local unions have also provided materials and labor to tackle projects such as replacing all the lighting with energy-efficient fixtures.
Along with all the usual costs to pay bills and maintain the property, the pandemic comes with costs of its own. At a certain point, the building will re-open in a limited fashion for some events—including this Tuesday, October 6, for a Red Cross blood drive—and that means normal cleaning will no longer be good enough. “The fogger, the cleaning supplies … all that costs money,” says Maloney. “So all of that has to be considered, too. We’re really making sure that when we are ready to reopen, we’re reopening safely and in accordance with CDC guidance. We’re in the process now of trying to figure out what we need to do in order to reopen safely.”
Regardless of the challenges posed by the pandemic, McMenamin strongly believes the Irish Center will pull through.
“It’s in our DNA,” he says. “We survived Cromwell, we survived the famine, we survived the revolution, we survived the civil war and we came to America. We came and we saw and we conquered.”
Of course, the Irish Center continues to raise money. If you’d like to help out, visit https://theirishcenter.org and scroll down to “Support the Irish Center.”