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Arts, Dance, Music

Hammerstep’s Got Talent

Hammerstep, photo by Kristine Helliesen

Hammerstep, photo by Kristine Helliesen

It’s not every day that an Irish-Hip Hop dance troupe makes it through the auditions of “America’s Got Talent,” especially with these words of blessing from judge Howard Stern: “Your skill level is so high that you’re are too talented to ignore.” But that’s exactly how it happened on the June 25th episode of the NBC series, when Hammerstep got put through to Las Vegas.

Performing their routine garbed all in black and wearing gas masks, the group danced to “Exodus,” an original composition co-produced by Hammerstep and Pat and Sean Mangan. Riverdance, it’s not— although the two co-founders of Hammerstep, Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, are both Riverdance alums.

“We started conceptualizing Hammerstep back in 2009. Jason and I had met touring with Riverdance, and we were actually off tour at that point. We were both working 9 to 5 jobs—not dead-end, but not really fulfilling work. We were pretty miserable, and realized we had similar visions for putting together a large-scale touring production. We found we had a lot of similarities and parallels in how we viewed the world and what we wanted to do with Irish dance,” Garrett Coleman explained.

What both dancers had in mind involved taking Irish dance beyond the mainstream, at the same time incorporating other genres that had been born out of oppressive cultures.

“It kind of started out as an experiment in melding these dance forms; a lot of people wonder why we chose the dance forms we chose to integrate. We’re both trained in traditional Irish dance, so that was our base. But we noticed that the art form had remained pretty stagnant since Riverdance launched; the same choreography, nothing really changed. And that was great in its own right—obviously we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people like Michael Flatley. But it was due for an infusion of something more socially relevant, something that would resonate with a younger audience.

“We saw the parallels from where the many dance forms come from as being a really strong thematic thread through all of them…Jason and I both come from similar backgrounds and upbringings in urban environments [Garrett is from Pittsburgh, PA, and Jason hails from Sydney, Australia]; we’re both huge fans of hip hop and urban culture. So, we took our social interests and tried to bring that into our dance and artistic and creative interests. We drew from tap and hip hop, and African stepping and body percussion. And the reason for choosing some of those is not just for the fact that they rhythmically work really well together, but also for the fact they’re all born out of previously oppressive social circumstances. Like Irish dancing arose as part of an Irish cultural resurgence in response to oppression by the British. And hip hop obviously was a huge unifier for impoverished communities in the Bronx and the other five boroughs of New York. It was a statement for the youth to come together around culture rather than being divided along gang lines and poverty.

“We have a heck of a lot of people from different backgrounds all coming together behind this project, and that was the basis for the piece with the gas masks—having a sense of anonymity throughout that piece, and then taking the masks off at the end of the piece and revealing people from different racial backgrounds, different genders, different dance styles. And then having that solidarity once we put the masks on, symbolizing a unification of cultures.”

The fusion that has taken root in their dance routines, and their ever expanding choreography, is only the tip of the iceberg for the larger mission of Hammerstep. They want to tell their stories, and the stories of the people they’ve surrounded themselves with, as part of a project with a much more socially significant message.

“The Hammerstep initiative,” Garrett defined, “is kind of like the umbrella organization that we’d like to launch a variety of things through. We have a Hammerstep Headquarters here in Brooklyn; it’s part living, part office, part dance studio—a massive dance studio that actually converts from a living room into a rehearsal space. The crew comes over here for the majority of our dance rehearsals, and we’re just getting into holding some community events here. We’re going to be launching a Hammerstep radio broadcast from here as well. Through the website, we’ll have a podcast/live stream of things that are happening here, like video footage of rehearsals. It’s a very creative space where there’s a lot of collaboration.”

Ultimately, they’d like to have a production company where they’d produce their own shows. The dancers work closely with musicians who like the idea of collaborating to make Hammerstep into a larger social movement, one that would include a Hammerstep foundation from which they’d launch outreach projects and dance workshops internationally.

“We know what dance has done for our own lives and what it can do for other people who don’t necessarily have access to it or who haven’t been introduced to it,” Garrett added.

It’s the continuing cross-cultural partnerships engaged in by the group that breathe new dimensions into their Irish dance base; while presenting workshops in Soweto, South Africa, recently, they learned as much as they taught.

“Whether it’s in Soweto, or Dayton, Ohio, wherever we do these residencies, the kids that we work with teach us a lot of their own cultural understandings of the world. We try to incorporate that into the choreography and into Hammerstep as a whole as we move forward. So, for instance, in Soweto, the African gumboot dance is very similar to what you’d see in the African American tradition of stepping here in the U.S. It was a response to the oppressive circumstances in the mining industry over in Soweto; it was used as a form of communication for people working in the mines. And they taught us this dance. It’s kind of a simple dance form but rhythmically, it grabs a hold of people and it fits very nicely with the Irish style as well. The language barrier was pretty significant, but that universal language of rhythm that everyone always talks about, it’s very true how powerful that is.”

With so much going on, the group is in the middle of seeing the hard work of the past 4 years take them into the next phase of Hammerstep.

“The ‘America’s Got Talent’ thing is the most exciting thing on the horizon. We’ve had to turn down some work to participate in that. And we’re working on a music video style production with some cutting edge choreography and concepts. It’s an exciting time.”

That excitement was on full display on “America’s Got Talent.” Among the dancers who are performing with the group for the television show is Jonathon Srour, who we here at Irish Philadelphia consider a home-town talent (he’s from York County). Jonathon is part of the musical Srour family who perform as Irish Blessing, along with Cushla, Josh and Jim. When Jonathon made the move to Brooklyn, he joined up with the Hammerstep crew, and they started training him in. The other members of the troupe behind the gas masks—in addition to Garrett, Jason and Jonathon—are Scott “Swag” Pilgrim, Ronald “Shadow” Simmons, Nicole Zepcevski and Meghan Lucey. And Garrett’s younger brother Conor Coleman, on summer break from his studies at LaSalle University, is also training to join the troupe.

If you haven’t caught the clip from their appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” you can watch it on YouTube.

And, to keep up with everything Hammerstep, Like them on Facebook. They have a website that is still under construction; you can check it out at this link.

Arts, Music

How to Be Irish in Philly This Week

No Irish Need Apply

No Irish Need Apply

If you’re looking to indulge your Irishness, then Sunday could be a big day for you.

First up, the 16th Annual Celtic Day in Bristol’s Lions Park, at the foot of friendly Mill Street. It’s always a great crowd, and for good reason. Lots of music, featuring No Irish Need Apply and the Hooligans—and both of those bands are always a party. The Fitzpatrick School of Irish Dance will also be on their toes throughout the day. It’s a sure bet the pipes will be calling, too, as the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums will be on the march.

As with most festivals, you can count on great food and drink, vendors, and plenty of kid-friendly activities. Pack an umbrella on the off-chance, but, hey … we’re Irish. A little rain won’t dampen our spirits. The fun runs from 1 to 8 p.m.

Members of the South Jersey Irish Society are hosting their picnic at the CYO-Yardville Branch, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. You dance the day away under a covered pavilion. The pool will be open until 5, and you can roast your own hot dogs in one of the many charcoal grills. Play mini-golf with the kids, or send them off to the game room.

As for the rest of the week, hey, did we miss the memo? Are you all going to be in Wildwood this week? Well, hey, if you’re down there working on your burn, drop into Casey’s, 301 New York Avenue in North Wildwood, on Saturday night for Jamison Celtic Rock. Take our word for it … you’ll have a great time.

Also a fun time …

Slainte at Keenan’s, 113 Old New Jersey Avenue, North Wildwood, from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday. You’ll see familiar faces, Frank Day & CJ Mills of Jamison Celtic Rock.

The Broken Shillelaghs at Lazy Lanigan’s, 139 Egg Harbor Road, in Sewell, N.J. The tunes start at 9.

The rest of the week, you can always count on plenty of opportunities to hear Irish music, with traditional Irish music sessions all over the place.

We know it’s a few weeks out, but we also wanted to remind you about the Graeme Park Celtic Weekend in Horsham, July 20 and 21. Lots of music, including the Glengarry Bhoys, Seamus Kennedy and our local piping pals, Irish Thunder. Mark your calendar.

Want to know more? Check the calendar for details. It’s small, but mighty.


Beach Reads, Irish Style

A fave

A fave

Our Facebook group has 2,190 members. It was starting to feel like all of them had something to say when we asked them a question: What’s your favorite Irish book? We expected a healthy response, but nothing like the torrent of recommendations that came flooding our way. If you’re looking for some great Irish-themed reads for your stay in North Wildwood (or wherever your family summer migration pattern dictates), we have a ton of suggestions.

Before we boil things down—and that’ll be hard, because there were so many ideas—we invite you to join the group on Facebook. If you aren’t a regular visitor, you’re missing out.

Here’s some of what our Facebook pals recommended. (We won’t be able to include them all.)

First off, there was a lot of agreement around certain books, and certain authors. Not surprisingly, books by the prolific Roddy Doyle made the cut.

Thomas Ivory’s favorites: The Barrytown Trilogy, which included “The Commitments,” “The Snapper,” and “The Van.” They’re all hilariously irreverent tales of the

Rabbitte family of Barrytown, a North Dublin working class suburb. If you’ve seen any of the movies based on the books—”The Commitments” being the best-known—you know what we’re talking about. As great as the movies were, the books are so much better and grittier. “Not sure if they’re my favorites,” Tom says, “but they’d be good beach reading.”

Tom also recommended anything by Sebastian Barry. “A Long Long Way” and “The Secret Scripture,” for two.)

Tom O’Malley and Rosie McGill also recommended a Doyle masterwork—a bit on the serious side, but equally gritty, the brilliant “A Star Called Henry.” Laura McPhail also recommended anything by Doyle.

A couple of books by Frank McCourt, not surprisingly, also made the cut: his masterwork, “Angela’s Ashes,” and the later “Teacher Man.” Of the latter, Mary Beth Bonner Ryan says: “I laughed so hard, he tells some of his experiences as teacher and the journey he took from Ireland to America. Very good light read, perfect for a nice summer read!”

One surprise: A few of our friends highly recommended a book about Ireland written by an author who is most decidedly not Irish: the historical novel “Trinity,” following the lives of Catholic and Protestant families, and the tensions that arise from long-simmering religious and political differences. The author is Leon Uris.

Says Kevin Quigg: “Even though Leon Uris is American, I read the novel in Ireland while staying in the area where the story took place.”

Brendan O’Neill also recommended “Trinity.”

If you’re looking for something lighter (MUCH lighter) many of us recommended an incredibly silly book, “Round Ireland With a Fridge,” by Brit comedian Tony Hawks. It just goes to show the lengths to which people will go to win a bar bet. We’ll leave it at that. I loved it, my Irish Philly partner in crime Denise Foley loved it, and so did Rich McEntee:

“”Round Ireland with a Fridge” was ferkin hilareous, I recommend it to everyone. not sure it should be read in public though, unless you are very not-shy about busting out in laughter.”

Kathleen Madigan had so many recommendations, it’s probably a good thing we posted the question on Facebook, and not Twitter:

“Here are a few: 1- “The House on a n Irish Hillside” by Felicity Hughes-McCoy. It is a true story about rediscovering one self though simplicity; 2- “Ireland” by Frank Delaney; 3- The series by Patrick Taylor. I have read “Irish Country Doctor”, “Irish Country Village”, Irish Country Christmas”, and “Irish Country Girl”. I am now starting on “Irish Country Courtship”. There are also others in the series I haven’t read yet; 4- “When Ireland Fell Silent” by Harolyn Enis. Have tissues for this one.”

A pile of recommendations, too, from Anne Torpey Smith, leading off with McCourt’s seminal work: “”Angela’s Ashes” still has to be my all-time favorite Irish book. I recently read “A Week In Winter” by Maeve Binchy and enjoyed that. Also Tess Gerritsen’s “The Bone Garden” appealed to me in two ways—being of Irish descent and as a nurse. One character was a poor female Irish immigrant in Boston. One aspect of the story was the fate of many poor women dying from “childbirth fever”, before the simple step of washing one’s hands between deliveries became commonplace for doctors and nurses.”

Runa lead singer Shannon Lambert-Ryan chimes in with a travelogue that makes you believe lovers (she and her spouse Fionán de Barra) can truly be star-crossed: “Lonely Planet Ireland 1999—A picture of Fionán busking on Grafton Street was in the book. I must have seen that picture a hundred times from when I took it on my first trip to Ireland in March 1999 before I met him in 2006! Who knew I would wind up marrying that guy in the picture!”

We could go on, but we’re running out of room. OK, yes, we know this is a blog, and you really can’t ever run out of room, but still … start with this bunch, and then visit us on Facebook to see the rest.

And you can continue the discussion here by adding your comments.


A Monumental Memorial to the Children of Newtown

Chuck Connelly

Chuck Connelly

It’s a chill early April day in East Oak Lane. Chuck Connelly is leading the way up a pitch-black stairwell in the middle of a ramshackle barn, a couple of blocks from his home. I can just barely make out his profile. We step out on the top floor, where we can see a little better. Shafts of light lance through cracks in the wall.

We tread carefully past dusty stacks of books and old classical LPs. A clawfoot bathtub sits incongruously off in a corner. Finally, we arrive in a cavernous space illuminated by an arched window and a utility light. Before us stands a breathtaking work of art: a 10- by 12-foot collection of 20 brightly painted portraits of children, the canvases all bound together in a still unfinished wooden frame.

It takes no time to recognize these children. Their pictures were all over the news in the days and weeks following December 14, 2012. They’re the young, innocent victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Connelly, like so many of us, saw the same snapshots in the news. Unlike the rest of us, Connelly was in a position to transform his grief into an incandescent, life-affirming memorial. He is a world-renowned, Tyler-educated artist whose work has appeared in countless galleries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His paintings have invited comparisons to Vincent van Gogh.

Connelly’s colorful career has been the subject of an HBO documentary, “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale.” A movie, “Life Lessons”—Martin Scorsese’s contribution to the 1989 anthology film, “New York Stories”—is loosely based on him. In an introduction to a 1991 interview, this is how he is described: “Chuck Connelly is Norman Rockwell on acid—a maverick narrative painter pushing the limits of myth into a modern malaise all his own.”

Connelly—tall, craggy-faced, and somewhat rumpled—stands before his ambitious project, the fingers of one hand lightly clinging to a cheap Korean cigarette. He is given to moments of deep cynicism when he talks about his career and his troubled relationship with the art world, but when he looks at this bigger-than-life work, his comments take on an air of reverence.

“I worked every day since it all started, just a couple of days after the tragedy,” Connelly says, and he points to one portrait in particular, two down from the top and two in from the left. It’s a blonde girl with plump, baby cheeks and sparkling blue eyes. It’s Emilie Parker, just 6 years old at the time of her death.

“I started to do the one, Emilie, when it first happened. Her face was everywhere. I just thought … what a tragedy. So I painted her. Then I made Dylan (Hockley), and then I thought … you know what? I gotta do them all. Emilie probably took the longest. As I did the others, I would often go back and make her fit in with them. Some came right off the brush. Others, even Emilie, went through a lot of stages. I didn’t have a plan.”

Drawing inspiration from the many photographs that emerged in the days after the shooting, Connelly toiled away on the paintings in his rambling Victorian home, a chaotic space where paint spatters dot the hardwood floors, and dozens of canvases stand propped up against the walls like shingles. It took about a month before he was finished painting them all.

Which doesn’t mean he’s finished with the project. Not at all.

“I’m not done until I get this someplace and people stand in front of it,” says Connelly. “That is my goal. It needs to be somewhere. It’s not really finished until it’s stabilized on a real wall. I don’t see one portrait as a painting. I consider this all one piece. To me, that’s the painting.”

Enter neighbor Marita Krivda Poxon, author of the recently published history, “Irish Philadelphia.” Poxon came to know Connelly several years ago as a result of one of his projects, a series of paintings of the grand old houses of East Oak Lane. One of those homes was Poxon’s. She bought the painting, and then she and the artist became friends.

Connelly’s skill lies in creating indelible images, but, Poxon says, he wasn’t sure how to find a permanent home for his 10- by 12-foot masterwork. “I’m just the artist,” he says. Poxon, on the other hand, is a career librarian. Research is something she knows well. She put her skills to work to find a place for her friend’s project.

The one obvious destination for the outsized project: Newtown, Conn. But that’s where the story takes an unexpected turn.

Or perhaps not so unexpected. In the months following the shootings, Newtown was on the receiving end of thousands of gifts and millions of dollars in donations. The town was overwhelmed. The day after Christmas, the word came down: Please, no more.

“Our hearts are warmed by the outpouring of love and support from all corners of our country and world,” First Selectman Patricia Llodra told the press. “We are struggling now to manage the overwhelming volume of gifts and ask that sympathy and kindness to our community be expressed by donating such items to needy children and families in other communities in the name of those killed in Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14.”

Nevertheless, Poxon reached out to Jennifer Rogers at Newtown’s Cultural Arts Museum in the hope that there might yet be a suitable space for Connelly’s project. (Poxon tracked her down through a reporter at the New York Times.) An organization called Healing Newtown had set up a gallery featuring artwork from around the world in a rented building in the middle of town. Healing Newtown donated the space to the Cultural Arts Museum. The gallery drew in dozens of local residents in the weeks after the shooting. It seemed like it could be a good fit.

“They want to accept it but they didn’t have a place for it at this point,” Poxon recalls. “Unfortunately, they were about to be kicked out of the donated space. Jennifer told me, Newtown wants this painting, but they have no place to put it.”

Rogers suggested trying finding space in a nearby museum. Poxon contacted the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, but again, no luck. There was no room for anything that big.

The museum director then put Poxon in contact with the agency that displays art at the state capitol. But, again, no luck … but for a different reason. Government officials were afraid that some of the parents just weren’t ready to deal with such an emotionally charged piece of art. “They know the families firsthand. Some of the families would love it, but some of the families wouldn’t. It might be too much for them.”

Which leaves Poxon in the position of trying to find a temporary home for her friend’s massive tribute somewhere in the Philadelphia area.

For his part, Chuck Connelly is frustrated by the lack of progress. He understands that some Newtown parents might find it painful to deal with the public display of their children’s portraits, but he still holds out hope that his labor of love will eventually find a home in Newtown, and in the meantime in a space closer to home.

Until that day comes, the massive work will stay where right it is. “I love this space,” he says. “It’s like this secret little chapel that no one gets to see, and even if no one is seeing it, it’s here. Here they are.”

Arts, News

Calling All Irish Actors

Shawn Swords

Shawn Swords

Local filmmaker Shawn Swords is looking for a few good actors.

Swords, whose critically acclaimed documentary, “Wage of Spin,” focused on the Philadelphia music scene, Dick Clark, and the payola scandals of the ’50s and early ”60s, is planning to film the play “Seanchaithe,” a variation on the Irish word for storyteller, in various locations in Philadelphia and Delaware County.

“We’re looking for theater-trained actors who know how to act and take directions, not aspiring wannabes or regional models,” says Swords. “We’re only accepting e-resumes/headshots.” So far, he says, “90 percent of the actors who have sent resumes/headshots don’t even look Irish.”

Along with a face that has the map of Ireland all over it, an authentic Irish accent is a plus.

The plot? “I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because there is a major twist in the third act,” says Swords. “I suppose it could be categorized as a drama/black comedy/satire/noir.”

Suffice it to say that there’s an upscale Irish pub in the city and a blue collar Irish pub frequented by Irish nationals involved, as well as four songs and two dance sequences “but this is not a musical,” says Swords. One well known local Irish musician has already signed on.

If you have some acting chops and look like you might be from County Mayo or Cork, sent your resume and head shots to


Calling All Irish Actors

Shawn Swords

Shawn Swords

Local filmmaker Shawn Swords is looking for a few good actors.

Swords, whose critically acclaimed documentary, “Wage of Spin,” focused on the Philadelphia music scene, Dick Clark, and the payola scandals of the ’50s and early ”60s, is planning to film the play “Seanchaithe,” a variation on the Irish word for storyteller, in various locations in Philadelphia and Delaware County.

“We’re looking for theater-trained actors who know how to act and take directions, not aspiring wannabes or regional models,” says Swords. “We’re only accepting e-resumes/headshots.” So far, he says, “90 percent of the actors who have sent resumes/headshots don’t even look Irish.”

Along with a face that has the map of Ireland all over it, an authentic Irish accent is a plus.

The plot? “I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because there is a major twist in the third act,” says Swords. “I suppose it could be categorized as a drama/black comedy/satire/noir.”

Suffice it to say that there’s an upscale Irish pub in the city and a blue collar Irish pub frequented by Irish nationals involved, as well as four songs and two dance sequences “but this is not a musical,” says Swords. One well known local Irish musician has already signed on.

If you have some acting chops and look like you might be from County Mayo or Cork, sent your resume and head shots to


“Jimmy Titanic” Comes to Philadelphia

Colin Hamell as "Jimmy Titanic."

Colin Hamell as “Jimmy Titanic.”

Titanic: The Comedy?

Even 101 years after the sinking of the unsinkable ocean liner—1498 souls lost in the icy sea—no one is going to turn the story of tragedy and hubris into an SNL skit. But Belfast playwright Bernard McMullan, like all good Irish writers, was able to find the humor at the bottom of the pit of sadness—and craft a story that, despite the books, plays, movies, and Discovery Channel specials, you likely haven’t heard.

He’s bringing his play, “Jimmy Titanic,” to the Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street in Philadelphia, for two weeks starting Wednesday, February 27.

“This was a bit of a challenge of a play,” said McMullan in a phone interview two weeks ago. “It’s been done before, so it had to be innovative. I’m not sure people want a new serious story of the Titanic, so it was up to us to bring it to another level, to instill some comedy into it.”

The eponymous Jimmy—played, along with 20 other characters in this one-man play, by Colin Hamell—is actually Jimmy Boylan, a former shipyard worker who knew every rivet on the ship where he was also a sailor on its first—and last—voyage. But the play opens in Heaven, where Jimmy is “good friends with the Angel Gabriel and God” and a figure of some prestige, so closely associated is he with the “Titanic brand,” says McMullan.

“It’s a little bit of a play on all of us slaves to marketing and branding. The Titanic brand lives on and Jimmy used the brand to give him status in heaven.”

McMullan uses the comedy as comedy is often used in Irish plays—as juxtaposition with the horror, as relief from the “dark passages,” including how people met their death.

“It’s ultimately the story of dreams shattered,” he says.

“Jimmy Titanic,” which was critically acclaimed in its New York run, explores many ruined dreams, from the immigrants looking for a new life to the officials and people of Belfast who were so proud of “their ship” and fearful of what the sinking will do to the future of shipbuilding in Belfast.

“I’ve really concentrated on the Irish side of things, including ship building in Belfast,” said McMullan. “Being from Belfast, it’s really part of the culture there and I grew up hearing stories from people who worked on the shop. In Belfast, people will ask, ‘Why do you celebrate this ship that sank?’ and the people of Belfast will tell you, ‘It was allright when it left here.’ That’s their way of shifting the blame elsewhere.”

Though the Titanic was a luxury liner, its sole purpose was not to carry wealthy people from Europe to America and back again. “It was built as an emigrant ship,” said McMullan, a former TV news reporter who read and studied Titanic’s history, even attending lectures by its discoverer, Robert Ballard of Woods Hole Oceanagraphic Institute in Massachusetts and visiting Titanic exhibits all over the world, including one in Pigeon Forge, TN (yes, the home of Dollywood).

In fact, according to the Titanic exhibit now on display at the Franklin Institute, the White Star Lines raised the bar on comfort even in steerage because it was counting on European immigration to boost its profits. “But the stories of the immigrants on the Titanic are forgotten amid the stories of the Astors, the Rockefellers, and other millionaires on the ship,” said McMullan.

Colin Hamell, who starred in the play in New York, plays many of those immigrants from all over Europe who were fleeing oppression, poverty, or the law—or just looking for a fresh start. “He wouldn’t tell you this himself, but he does a great job,” said McMullan. “He’s wonderful with accents and changes of character.”

Hamell has some high praise for McMullan too. “Talking to people after the play was interesting. They found the historical parts as compelling as the humorous parts. Bernard really got the balance right,” he said.

You can see “Jimmy Titanic” at the Second Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia, Wednesday through Sunday, from Feb. 27 to March 10. Tickets are $25 for adults, $18 for students. Call 215-567-2848, or go to

See more photos from the play.


A New History of Irish Philadelphia

Marita Krivda Poxon, center, at a recent gathering of Philly Irish authors.

Marita Krivda Poxon, center, at a recent gathering of Philly Irish authors.

Retired research librarian Marita Krivda Poxon had just finished co-writing her 2011 book about the Oak Lane, Olney and Logan neighborhoods of Philadelphia when she started thinking about her next book.

The question: What to write about? Poxon’s editor at Arcadia Publishing, which produced “Oak Lane, Olney and Logan (Images of America),” wasn’t over the moon about any of her ideas for a follow-up, so she found herself casting about, trying to figure out what the editor would be interested in.

Then, Poxon noticed that Arcadia had a pretty successful line of books about ethnic groups: titles like, “African Americans in Amarillo” and “Thais in Los Angeles.”

“I wondered if anyone had done a book on the Irish in Philadelphia, and there was nothing in the Images of America a series,” Poxon recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Poxon called the editor, pitched the idea, and this time found her more receptive.

“She asked what would I call it, and I said ‘Irish Philadelphia.’ And she said, ‘That’s a possibility. We don’t have that, and ethnic books sell.’ They have a book, ‘Italians of Philadelphia,’ that has never been out of print since they first published it 10 years ago. They’ve reprinted it six or seven times.”

Arcadia gave the OK, and now the finished product―crammed with 200 photos and illustrations describing the history of the Irish in Philadelphia since the 17th century―is set to go on sale January 28. (Order it here.) A big book signing party is scheduled for Saturday, February 2, at the Philadelphia Irish Center. (Details here.)

For Poxon, retired after a long and successful career in medical libraries, researching and writing a book was right up her alley in more ways than one. To begin with, her degree in library science from Drexel and years of experience taught her how to sniff out information.

“When I retired, I thought, ‘I can do anything I like.’ That’s how I started writing that regional history book (Oak Lane, Olney and Logan). It was an easy book to write. This kind of book is very defined. It has strict rules: how many pictures, how you format them, how it’s all laid out. It’s rule-bound. As a librarian, I am used to that. Once I got that book under my belt, I thought, ‘Now I can try to do another’.”

But when it came to the Irish Philadelphia book idea, Poxon had another power motivator: her deep familiarity with Irish history and culture. Although Poxon’s father was a Hungarian, born in Budapest, her mother was a Finnegan—Margaret Mary, to be precise—born to a father from County Sligo. Her well-loved uncle Tom Finnegan was very well known around the Philadelphia Irish Center.

Poxon’s Irish roots are deep in yet another way. Back in the late 1960s-early 1970s, she came to love Irish literature while studying English at Temple University. She then moved on to do graduate work at Trinity College in Dublin. She never quite finished her doctorate there. Money was running short, and she had no scholarship funds, so she returned home.

Back in the States, Poxon taught English for a while at the State University of New York. She didn’t like it. So she went through a brief period of self-examination and decided that what she really liked was research and scholarship. That’s what led to the master’s degree from Drexel. Armed with that degree, she began her career at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Her last job before retirement, after 30 years as a medical librarian, was in the library at Chestnut Hill Hospital. Still, even though she had spent three decades in libraries, she never forgot the early years she devoted to the study of Irish literature and culture.

It was when she started to research her Irish Philadelphia book that Poxon ran into a name that wasn’t familiar to her. It was that of Dennis Clark, author of the seminal book, “The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience.” It turned out that Clark had been on the faculty at Temple at the same time she was pursuing her studies. “I was in the English department, and he was in city planning or something, so I never ran into him,” Poxon says.

Once introduced to Clark’s incredibly detailed knowledge of the Irish experience in Philadelphia , Poxon was inspired. In fact, Clark’s scholarship served as a useful starting point for much of her work on “Irish Philadelphia,” although Clark’s books and Poxon’s really aren’t at all the same.

“Dennis Clark was an amazing writer, but I bought six of his books, and there wasn’t one picture in any of them,” Poxon says. “He was not a photographic person; he didn’t have a sense of the visual. He saw history happening while it was happening. He was a smart man that way. He was an astute observer of people, but he didn’t like photos.”

The Arcadia series, on the other hand, is a very different kind of book. Poxon followed the trail blazed by Clark, but she did it in a more visual way. She found that approach right up her alley, and she believes it will have a strong appeal for anyone who identifies as Irish in Philadelphia.

“I used a lot of Clark’s ideas, and made them more palatable,” Poxon explains. “These books are like children’s history books, but for adults, and the pictures tell the story.”