Jimmy Fallon, eat your heart out! You may have made lip syncing cool, but last Friday night the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia filled the ballroom of the Paxon Hollow Golf Club in Broomall with its Lip Sync Challenge. Over 300 people turned out to cheer on the ten acts who performed like the entertainers they were channeling.
And the theme of the night was FUN.
One of the most important missions of the Immigration Center is its work with the seniors in the community, including a monthly lunch at the Irish Center in Mt. Airy, so it was only fitting that two of the acts, The Jailbirds and Seniors in Sync, were composed of seniors. Proving age has no season, they brought the house down with their performances, including interpretations of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Continue Reading
Tiernagh & Mia Moore and Meagan & Jenna Diver with their cards for Caolan & Conall
“It’s overwhelming how people just come together in situations like this. Situations that you don’t even think about before they happen.”
These are the words of Fidelma McGroary, and she knows what she’s talking about. Fidelma is one of five Delaware County women who organized last Sunday’s Garden Tea Party to raise money for two strong little boys who are fighting cancer.
Caolan Melaugh, the cousin of Fidelma’s sister-in-law in County Donegal, was diagnosed at four weeks with Neuroblastoma. Now four months old, Caolan is undergoing an 18 month protocol in Ireland to treat his cancer, but the best chance for a successful cure would mean treatment in either the U.S. or Europe. An expensive undertaking, the Caolan Melaugh Fund has been established online, and half of the money raised at Sunday’s Tea Party will be donated to Caolan.
Conall Harvey is much closer to home. The five year old, whose family is part of St. Denis Parish in Havertown and whose great-grandmother was the late Rosabelle Gifford, was diagnosed in March of this year with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The Leukemia was discovered when Conall was admitted to the ER with what his parents thought was dehydration from a stomach virus. But instead of a stomach virus, Conall’s body had gone into septic shock from a bacterial infection that his immune system was too weak to fight off. Doctors amputated both Conall’s legs at the knee and part of his hand to save his life; the other half of the money raised Sunday will go directly to Conall’s family as he undergoes chemotherapy and rehabilitation.
“These are two special little boys,” Fidelma said. “And we decided we weren’t going to let another day go by without doing something to help them. We’ve been talking about giving back and paying it forward for years. I wanted to do something for Caolan, and then we heard about Conall. That’s how it started.
“This could not have happened without Louise Moore, Sharon Doogan, Kathy McGuinness and Colette Gallagher-Mohan. And the people who donated raffle baskets and food and their time. Everybody lifted the phone and said ‘What can I bring?’ And then the word started to spread, that’s the people of the Irish Community.”
Another group that was instrumental in making the Garden Tea Party so successful was their children. “They did all the decor. They did everything, we couldn’t have done it without them,” Fidelma said. “It was important that the kids were a part of this. I wanted them to grow up realizing how blessed they are and to learn to give back. So when they grow up and we’re old and gone, they’ll carry on.”
The special guest of the day was Mairead Comaskey, the Philadelphia Rose of Tralee. Beautiful and gracious, Mairead could usually be found with a trail of young girls in her wake. In addition to judging the best-dressed contests, she happily posed for pictures and shared her sash and crown with the crowd. In a few weeks, Mairead is off to Tralee for the International Rose Pageant, but on Sunday her heart was with Caolan and Conall.
At the time of the fundraiser, Conall Harvey was still recovering at CHOP, but his aunt, Rose Harvey Kurtz, was at the event. “Conall is just a beautiful bright light, a beautiful spirit,” she said. “He’s a fighter. His school dedicated a day to him, and the motto was ‘Conall Strong.’ We do down to visit him to brighten his day, and instead he brightens ours.
“The outpouring of love and faith is keeping us going. There’s something about Conall’s spirit that is bringing out the love and goodness in people. People’s faith is coming back. The positive thing is the strength of the family and friends who are so supportive, and the beautiful people who do beautiful things like this. It’s overwhelming how good people are.”
You can see all the photos from the Garden Tea Party below.
We’re still not quite finished with this year’s St. Patrick’s Day experience in Philadelphia.
We’ve had many requests for the speech that Kathy McGee Burns, President of the Irish Memorial and Grand Marshal of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, gave at The Memorial (located at Front and Chestnut Streets) on March 17th. So here is the video, and the transcript, of her eloquent expression of not only the story of her Irish family’s experience, but the experience of so many who left their homeland for a better life. And found it.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY SPEECH AT THE IRISH MEMORIAL, BY KATHY MCGEE BURNS, MARCH 17, 2015
“Good afternoon. As you know, I’m Kathy McGee Burns, President of the Irish Memorial, and I’m grateful to be giving this speech because as we all gaze upon this beautiful monument, it tells a story. The story I’m going to tell you is of my family; but it could be any one of your families. That monument depicts many aspects of the Irish.
My great-great grandparents, Cornelius and Kate McGee had six children. Four of them were forced out of Ireland. They all lived in Gweedore, County Donegal, and the McGees were tenants on their own land, forced to pay high rents. That is because the landlord really wanted the land for the grazing of his high-bred English and Scottish lambs and sheep. We were in the way. They thought more of their sheep than our people. So their son, Thomas McGee, got on one of those ships and headed to the Port of Philadelphia. His people were miners and railroaders and servants, but the result of their tenacity and their Irish spirit is part of the fiber of Philadelphia.
They were the builders of St. Malachy’s in North Philadelphia. That’s where Irish children were educated by the Sisters of Mercy. One of those children was my grandmother, Mary Josephine Callahan. Religion was one of the stepping stones to Irish success in Philadelphia; through the nuns and priests who educated us, to the bishops and the cardinals and the parish system which was a powerful builder of Irish success.
Well, Mary Jo and her husband Hugh McGee had a son, Timothy, my father. He was brought up in Swampoodle and I bet if I took a chance, many of you here were from Swampoodle. He graduated from Roman Catholic High School, went to work for the ‘Ac-a-me’ and then started his own business. He was highly successful.
The Irish built these cities through their unions, their bricklayers, their builders, their electricians, the operating engineers, the McCloskeys and the Kellys.
Tim McGee, my father, had four children. He made sure we were educated. Each one of us have graduate degrees. And I am proudly married to an operating engineer. The Irish have gained power by their involvement in the law. They were firemen, policemen, attorneys, politicians and judges. Well, the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius McGee is none other than my own daughter, the Honorable Kelly Wall, who became a judge.
So this is what The Irish Memorial is to all of us, given an opportunity in this world, this city. It represents the hardships, the ‘Irish Need Not Applies,’ the many avenues of Irish Philadelphia education—Villanova, St. Joe’s, my own school, Chestnut Hill College. It represents Boathouse Row and the lighting of Philadelphia by the electricians’ union. So we owe our love and respect to our ancestors, and a huge thank you to those who conceived the plan and raised the money and built what is known as the most beautiful monument in the world to honor ‘An Gorta Mor.’
Denise has seen the sisters play in Inishowen, I’ve seen one of the sisters (Jolene) play in Buncrana; of course we were going to see the Henry Girls play when they came to us (although, frankly, we’d both rather be in Donegal seeing them play). So last Friday, when Karen, Lorna and Jolene performed at Burlap and Bean, in Newtown Square, along with musician Ry Cavanaugh, we were there. Denise got a few photos, I got a few videos (the atmosphere was small, intimate and dark, so the visual quality isn’t that great; just listen to their magical, musical harmonies). And when they closed the evening with their a cappella version of “The Parting Glass,” they did indeed bring joy to us all.
The Henry Girls have three CDs they’ve recorded: “Dawn,” “December Moon,” and “Louder Than Words.” All three are unique, yet showcase the rare and particular unison in which the sisters play and sing.
Their recordings are available for purchase through their website, The Henry Girls, as well as for download on iTunes.
So, check out their music, and then add it to your collection; it’s music you’ll want to listen to on repeat.
How do the judges, lawyers, law students (and their friends!) of Irish descent rejoice in the St. Patrick’s Day season in Philly? They gather their members of The Brehon Law Society together, get John Byrne & Maura Dwyer of The John Byrne Band to play some music and they meet at Tir na nOG in the city on March 11th. With a great turnout, and the food & drink superb, the craic was mighty.
And, with guests like Patrick Murphy, the former Pennsylvania Congressman and current host of MSNBC’s monthly program “Taking the Hill” (which is airing this Sunday, March 22, at 1PM Eastern Time), in attendance, you can always count on The Brehons to throw an exceptional shindig!
Check out our photos from the evening, and see who else showed up for the party.
Caitriona O’Leary’s Enthralling Arrangement of The Wexford Carols
Christmas music evokes the spirit and sublime essence of the season, and Caitriona O’Leary has captured all that is meaningful about the Yuletide in her new CD, “The Wexford Carols,” by restoring original tunes to the 17th century poems and singing them in her glorious voice.
Caitriona, the Donegal born singer known for her ethereal voice and for her group DULRA, became captivated by The Wexford Carols 25 years ago when she first heard Noirin Ni Riain singing them on her album, “The Darkest Midnight.” The story behind the carols is part of Ireland’s dark history: Written as poems in 1684 by Luke Waddinge, Bishop of Ferns, County Wexford, they were published in “A Smale Garland of Pious & Godly Songs.” They were an expression of the politics of the time, and specifically Oliver Cromwell’s 1649 Sack of Wexford, which left the Irish Catholic gentry disenfranchised. The people found solace in this poetry, and began singing them to popular melodies of the era. In 1728, Father William Devereux composed his own version of the carols, titled “A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas.” There were originally 22 songs, but only 12 are still sung annually in Wexford as part of the 12 days of Christmas. They were passed down as all traditional Irish songs have been—from “mouth to ear to mouth, through the generations.”
“Indeed, it is fascinating how songs are kept alive like that,” Caitriona said. “And how they develop and change, even if only tiny bit by tiny bit over the centuries. You can sometimes see this in songs that have been passed down orally in other regions—they may have started off the same but through the inevitable personal nuances of different singers end up quite different indeed. Look at how ‘Barbara Allen’ is sung in England versus Appalachia versus how it was written down in 18th century Scotland!”
Caitriona’s captivation with the carols led to her 25 year journey researching the history, and then thoroughly and meticulously recreating the original melodies to the songs.
“I listened to recordings of the traditional carolers in Kilmore (as well as hearing them live) and I read every scrap of history I could find. I was very fortunate to be able to hold in my hands and peruse an original 1728 edition of Waddinge’s ‘Garland’ (the second edition) in The National Library (Ireland) and had access to the treasure trove that is the Irish Traditional Music Archives,” Caitriona explained.
Some tunes were easier than others to restore to the poems.
“In the case of ‘An Angel This Night’ it wasn’t so hard at all; Waddinge intended for all of his poems to be sung and beneath the title of each is the instruction ‘To the tune of…’ In this case the tune in question was ‘Neen Major Neel.’ While the tune with that title is no longer known, two other Waddinge poems (‘On St. Stephen’s Day’ and ‘Song of the Circumcision, New Year’s Day’) are also to be sung to ‘Neen Major Neel’ and are both still sung traditionally. I have made the assumption that this is the original tune. In other cases, the prescribed tunes have been a little harder to hunt down. But by trawling through old ballad books and dance books from the 17th and 18th centuries, I did find some that I think are right. Like, for example, ‘This is Our Christmass Day’ which is supposed to be sung to the tune of ‘Bonny-brooe.’ I reckon that Waddinge probably meant ‘The Bonny Broom,’ a popular 17th century Scottish song.
“I really love these texts, the wonderful contrast between the humble and the lavish expressed in fabulously rich, yet accessible language. The tunes are beautiful, too, and the fact that so much of the tradition has been kept alive by the folk is really wonderful. Apart from ‘The Ennisworthy Carol’ (which is quite well known, generally by the name ‘The Wexford Carol’), these songs are almost unknown outside the parish in which they are still sung. And there is not a huge amount of traditional Irish Christmas music in the general repertoire. That fact also made these songs all the more precious to me. Also, I lived in New York for many years, and while there Irish culture took on a whole new meaning for me. Sometimes it takes exile to strengthen ties (the old ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’)!”
And how did her three co-vocalists come to be involved in the project?
“The producer of this record, the lovely Joe Henry, suggested Tom Jones and Rosanne Cash and also Rhiannon Giddens—whose star is rising very fast; she is a member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and the New Basement Tapes (a ‘supergroup’ that also includes Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford). He had worked with all three in the past and thought they would be a good fit for the project—I think he was right! These three singers, along with the band of brilliant players, gathered in a circle around Joe and me in a former stable (that is now the Grouse Lodge Recording Studio) and gave their individual and collective artistic responses to the tunes as I sang them, and together we made this beautiful music.”
Beautiful. Stunning. Sublime. It takes more than one adjective to describe “The Wexford Carols.”
Watch the video of “The Angell Said to Joseph Mild:”
When the Philadelphia Rose Centre was established in 2002, in order to give “young Irish American women from the Philadelphia region the chance to participate in one of Ireland’s most beloved traditions,” little did they know that in 2014 they would see one of their own become the International Rose.
So this year’s Christmas party was an extra special holiday celebration. With Maria Walsh and Santa (who sometimes goes by the name Seamus Bonner) in attendance, the Saturday Club in Wayne was rocking the season’s spirit last Sunday. There was food, music provided by Karen Boyce McCollum and the Lads (Pat Close and Pat Kildea), dancing, face painting, crafts, raffles, Newbridge jewelry for sale by Kathleen Regan and just a whole lot of fun.
The Conaghan family—Tom, Mary and daughters Sarah, Mary and Karen Conaghan Race—are the driving force behind the phenomenal success of the Philadelphia Rose program, and are supported by a devoted committee (Margaret King, Beth Keeley and Elizabeth Spellman) and volunteers who work throughout the year to bring events and activities to the Rose community.
She’s already traveled all over the world as the 2014 Rose, but on Sunday, Maria belonged to Philadelphia. She posed for pictures, danced and made the room come alive. And as she thanked everyone for attending the party, especially those with young kids, she noted “If we didn’t have young rosebuds, petals, future escorts, we wouldn’t have a future. And it’s so important that parents and teachers and aunts and uncles and grandparents bring kids here. This is how the Irish have survived for so long—we always re-invest and keep the cycle sustainable and going.”
Janice Pietrowicz and Charlie Lord, owners of CelticClothing.com, in their Chaddsford home, in front of a painting of The Odessa, a ship that carried Irish immigrants from Queenstown, Cork to America in the 1800’s.
Spend an afternoon with Charlie Lord and Janice Pietrowicz, owners of CelticClothing.com, and it doesn’t take long to see why their online business has not only succeeded over the past 20 years, but is now flourishing. And there is no end to the possibilities for their future growth.
For starters there is their company motto, “American First, Irish Always,” which they have trademarked into one of their most popular selling t-shirts.
But more than that is the hard work and dedication that the Belfast born Charlie put into building his own American dream. He wanted to bring quality Irish products to the United States, and from the beginning knew nothing was going to stop him.
After having spent some time in Boston in the late 1980’s, Charlie decided to pursue a degree in Business Studies at Derby University in England. As part of his program, he had to come up with a plan for starting a business. He directly created his own future.
When he returned to the United States through the Donnelly Visa program in the early 90’s, finding a job as an immigrant wasn’t easy. “I came back to America with a business degree and a green card. I had been in Boston initially, and a couple of the guys who were up there said they were going to Wildwood, NJ, and I thought I was going to stay in Boston on my own and try and play on a soccer team. But the guys were leaving, so I really thought about it and decided to go with them for the summer in Wildwood—one of my friends had been there before and said ‘All right, lads, there’s plenty of work in Wildwood, it’s the beach and it’s summertime.’ And we get there and I got a job for $5 an hour chopping potatoes through this big thing for the french fry machine.”
At summer’s end, Charlie headed to Philadelphia, the nearest big city, where he met Janice and decided it was time to put his business plan into action. As an immigrant with a green card, it wasn’t easy to get a loan. “Banks weren’t interested,” Janice explained. “So I co-signed a loan for him, not a big one, just enough to buy an old van, his first round of t-shirts, some tables and entry into an Irish event. Within two weeks he had the loan paid off.”
“If you want to do something, you’ll get it done,” Charlie added.
And it was Charlie’s idea to make it an online venture, even in the early days when the internet was in its infancy. “We started when mail order was definitely still the thing. So it would always be a kick, we’d be eating dinner and get an online order and go fill it,” Janice said. At that time, their warehouse was their garage.
“It just continued to get bigger and bigger, and the more I adapted to the internet, it was like turning a ship. We made a conscious decision some years ago that we were going to turn things into an e-commerce company primarily. In those early days, people kept throwing money at internet companies, but we just kept going along. So when there was a big implosion, we got through the smoke. We were still going and still going, and we’re still there. Visitors to the site are up 32% from November 2013 to November of 2014. That’s 33,000 visitors to CelticClothing.com,” Charlie explained.
In the meantime, Charlie got a Masters Degree in Business Education from Temple University and began teaching Web Design and Internet Marketing at Haverford High School, where he is now also Department Chair of the Business Faculty. Janice has always worked as a school psychologist for the past 25 years. And they had two children. Oh, and they still travel during the summer to all the big festivals, using at least a 10 x 20 truck to haul their inventory to the shows, and bringing a staff of workers with them.
And the business finally outgrew their garage. About three years ago, they rented a warehouse in Toughkenamon in Chester County and hired staff to answer phones and fill orders. Danna and Maggie are the two women who keep things going so Charlie and Janice can focus on expanding the business. “For years, it was clothing and caps,” Janice said. “Since then we’ve gotten into glassware, scarves, perfumes, jewelry, some food products. We have wine corks—they’re great for hostess gifts. We’ve added children’s clothes. And we have Aran sweaters, plus a lot of different designs of men’s flat caps. We started carrying the women’s caps this year, which are great—Downton Abbey style hats. And they look so nice on women. Sometimes a woman will say, ‘I’m not a hat person’ and I tell them to try it on. The purple one in particular looks good on everyone; it brings everybody’s eyes out. We also carry food items, from Barry’s Tea to Guinness Chocolate Truffle cups. Charlie makes sure we order the candies he likes,” Janice laughed. “That way, if they don’t sell, he can bring them home. But every Christmas we’ll do a breakfast basket and that is a really cool thing. It has Irish sausage, bacon, O’Hara’s Soda Bread, the puddings, the whole deal. It comes frozen and stays insulated.”
In order to find new products, Janice explained, they go to different trade shows, and to Ireland once a year “to see if there are any unique products. We have some people we’ve been dealing with for years. All our stuff is either bought from Irish companies or local based American companies. All our hats and sweaters, they’re made in Ireland. There aren’t many manufacturers still doing it, but it’s the old-timers, the families, people who have had them for generations are still doing them. With that the costs are higher, but you can’t beat the quality.
“Everything we buy is licensed from the company. All the t-shirts are good quality. We have a 100% return policy. And we have the girls here if you need to call us. Some people still don’t like to order online. Sometimes people want an opinion—‘which one do you like better?’ They may have seen it online, or they may have seen it at an event. We’re always adding new designs, we have a lot of new t-shirts. There’s really something for everybody. Every shirt has a life expectancy, so we keep them in and then try to come up with some new designs, whether they’re our own or somebody else’s. If you don’t come up with your own designs, you basically have what everyone else has. And we don’t carry anything derogatory—none of the drunken stuff. We really want to portray ourselves as a quality product company. We’ve got something for all ages, and we also do gift certificates online—that’s helpful because sometimes you’ve got last minute shoppers who don’t know quite what to get or what size someone is.
“Our customers are really faithful. They’ll come up to us at the shows and remember what they’ve gotten, and say ‘Oh, that’s a new one.’
“Customer service is very important to us. We send coupons with every order so the customer will get a discount the next time they buy something from the website. If you’re unhappy with something or something doesn’t fit the way you want, you just return it. It’s not a big deal. If there’s an issue, if we’re out of a particular size, the customer can call and we can say, ‘Do you want to wait a week for our next shipment, or do you want to try a similar style?’ It gives them an option what to do. We’ve definitely gotten bigger, but I still like keeping it small. I like keeping the personal touch and the personal sense. I just really want that customer to be a happy person. That’s important to us. Our customers are faithful, good people; they come from all over the country.
“And we like having the business where it is, because we support the local business community. We use the little post office around the corner; today we shipped 350 orders through them. We hire local girls who work for us, and we pay benefits to our full-time employees.”
And all the time, Charlie has his eye focused on the future and where online commerce is heading. “We have an extensive digital footprint. We have over 30,000 fans on Facebook, we’re on Pinterest, we’re on Twitter. We engage in email marketing, we have our website, we sell on other platforms. We explore Amazon, we explore eBay—we have stores on those sites. Amazon is the benchmark of e-commerce; so many people use it, you kind of have to be there. Any of these places, like Facebook, it comes back into what I teach and do everyday. If you’ve got all of those people on Facebook, you’ve got to have a presence there. You’ve got all these internet communities, you have to have some kind of presence.
“On the downside of all that, it’s very time-consuming. You have to think about the time concern and the return on the investment. For any small business, you survive on the sales and revenue that come in. That’s the bottom line. Whatever activities you’re doing, you have to see a return on them. You have to see money coming in. Otherwise, you’re not going to be in business very long. You have to pay staff, you have to pay electric bills, and rent, and hosting and festival fees. The money for that comes from sales. But social media is a form of advertising, and unless you have an advertising budget, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got 500 fans or 5,000 fans.”
I asked Charlie if he were to come to the U.S. now, as a young man, if he thought he’d be able to accomplish all that he has in the past 20 years. His answer was “Yes” with a but: “The problem for the Irish kids who are leaving the Island now is that they can’t get into the United States. They’re going to Australia. And that’s a missed opportunity for both the young Irish people and for the Americans because you have a highly educated workforce that can’t get into the U.S. They’re willing to work and they want to work, but the immigration laws don’t let them in. So, Australia will benefit.
“It’s not a coincidence that Celtic Clothing is owned by an Irishman. It’s just something that when I came over at first, and I created my own job and I’m working in the Irish community, with the Irish people, it still gave me that connection with home. That was a big part of it because for me it was that cultural kind of need. Back then, you would have lots of Irish immigrants in Upper Darby and the Northeast. They’d come to Wildwood and then meet their cousins in the city. And there was a community. And that’s done now, that’s gone. Those people cannot get in anymore. It’s unfortunate because businesses grew up from that, but there’s no new Irish immigrants coming in anymore to keep these things alive and start these things up.
“At the heart of it, you have to love the business you create. You have to be enthusiastic, it has to be something you enjoy because in any business, that has to be there. You have to be answering the phone from Ireland in the middle of a conversation in the kitchen. Otherwise, it’s going to be too much like work, and you’re not going to want to do it.”
According to Janice, “There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by in 20 years where the words ‘Celtic Clothing’ have not come up in a conversation at our house.”
But at the end of the day, Charlie said, “What’s most important to Janice and me with our own kids is to make them aware of their family back in Ireland, so the kids know that story and that history that came across the ocean. I want them to understand their family background.” And Janice added, “We both work hard, and we want to teach that to our kids. We don’t just give them everything.”
American First, Irish Always.
To receive a special 10% discount for Irish Philadelphia readers, go to CelticClothing.com and enter the coupon code “PHILLY” at the checkout.
Check out the photos from my behind-the-scenes tour of CelticClothing.com’s warehouse: