This was supposed to be the Commodore Barry Arts and Cultural Center’s big year.
The Mount Airy-based center makes most of its money from hosting events—from ceili dances and Irish language courses to big banquets and wedding receptions that typically fill the center’s spacious ballroom to capacity. For 2020, the calendar was so crowded with paying events, there was a waiting list.
And then in mid-March the pandemic hit, and the center had to close.
“In January, we were preparing the budget. We were booked solid the entire year,” says Center board member and vice president Lisa Maloney. “This has been years in the making. We really thought we were on a positive plane. We had a lot of different events coming in, and we were very excited—and then Covid came in. We now have no income coming in at all. We don’t have big expenditures, but we do have the monthly costs of running the building.”
Irish dancers and musicians will have no trouble remembering Muriel Prickitt, who passed away at age 87 on June 7 at Samaritan Hospice in Voorhees, N.J ., following a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She was simply everywhere and had a hand in virtually everything relating to Irish music and dance.
An exquisite set dancer and legendarily fast accordion player, this force of nature was known by all. She is mourned—and celebrated—by friends and relations almost past counting.
One of those who honors her memory is Gerry Buckley, of Ardagh in County Limerick, Ireland. Buckley was a founding member of the Delaware Valley chapter of Irish music, dance and cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In 1989, the newly wed Gerry and wife Fiona moved to Voorhees, N.J., where they met Muriel Prickitt through the set dance community.
“My wife was a set dancer before she moved over,” Buckley recalls. “She was looking for someplace where she could go set dancing, and she met Muriel and (Prickitt’s companion) Tom Quinn. I forget where they actually met, but they got to talking and Muriel mentioned that she was going for set dance lessons in Jenkintown. She said, ‘Why don’t you come along?’ and that was it.”
I don’t think it’s overstating things to assert that the pursuit of genealogy has been revolutionized over the past two decades. I first started delving into my family history in the mid 1990s, when a friend brought me with her to the Mercer Museum’s Spruance Library, where the Bucks County Historical Society maintained their archives.
Armed with a notebook and several sharpened pencils, I spent an afternoon immersed in dusty old published family histories and census records that involved searching indexes and battling a microfilm reader. It was glorious. And also daunting.
Fast forward about 10 years, and I was still visiting historical societies and courthouses whenever I got the chance, but I was also blissfully accessing census records at 3 a.m. from the comfort of my home via my computer and courtesy of Ancestry.com. No longer was I limited by an archive’s hours or the soundex version of a census index. I learned how to become creative in my keyword searches, and to work around the names of ancestors being mistranscribed.
These days, as I continue researching not just my own ancestors but also the families of other people, I utilize every online resource I can find. Some of them, like FamilySearch and Irish Genealogy, are free and invaluable. Others, such as Ancestry and Newspapers are subscription databases that I find equally invaluable and worth the price.
Kersti Powell, left
When Kersti Tarien Powell, D.Phil., an assistant professor in the English department at Saint Joseph’s University, first proposed a minor in Irish Studies back in the fall, some people wondered aloud: Don’t we already have one?
The answer at the time was no, but, she says, there was broad agreement: “Of course we should have Irish Studies.”
Powell formally submitted her proposal in January. Then, she says, it went to different governing bodies at the Catholic university on City Line, including the College of Arts and Sciences and the University Council. She got the go-ahead in February. “It was approved at every stage,” she says. “So that was really nice.”
Now comes the tricky part.
Under normal circumstances, Powell explains, a student would express an interest in adding or changing a major or a minor and fill out and sign a paper form. But these are not normal times. As with most universities and colleges, the coronavirus pandemic has forced changes in Saint Joe’s academic way of life.
“Since classes went online in March, in a couple of weeks, the university had to develop new means to deal with students who want to sign up for majors or change their major or sign up for new minors,” Powell says. “So now we have an online portal where they can do that.” As soon as the portal went live, the first couple of students signed up for the Irish Studies minor. “I was able to approve them and that was very exciting. We were literally starting to recruit students as the pandemic hit. It was an amazing thing to see happening.”
For the members of the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes & Drums, the most disappointing impact of the coronavirus shutdown came just days after the March 13 shooting death of Philadelphia Police SWAT Cpl. James O’Connor.
No obligation is more sacred to them than playing as a band in tribute to a fallen police officer or firefighter who suffers a line-of-duty death. That solemn tradition was off the table as the pandemic triggered the shutdown of all but essential services, together with the directive to avoid large public gatherings.
Mark O’Donnell is the unit’s Pipe Major. He’s also a Philadelphia Fire Service Paramedic. Under normal circumstances, the band would have turned out in force for a police officer’s funeral. “But it had to be postponed,” he says. “I’ve just never seen anything like this. We’ve always had that tradition.”
With the notable exception of those heroic souls who are working through the coronavirus pandemic—from health care professionals to cops and medics to grocery store clerks—all the rest of us are, or should be, keeping a safe distance from each other.
As a consequence of the need for physical distancing, millions have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs. Some people were hanging on by their fingernails as it was, before the outbreak. Now, those same people are—and there simply is no better word for it—desperate.
“We know that people normally have enough to get them through a couple of weeks, a month at most, says Emily Norton Ashinhurst, executive director of the Delaware County-based Irish Diaspora Center. “If you look at studies across America, the vast majority of people living in the United States don’t have enough to pay a $400 emergency expense. So that says, we’re living from paycheck to paycheck, and we recognize that losing that paycheck is going to be tough.”
In the case of the Philadelphia-area Irish community, many of those people aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance, government food assistance or other benefits because of the types of visas they hold—or simply because they are undocumented. They’ve slipped through the cracks.
I had these two great aunts – we’ll call them Edith and Gladys Melton (because those were their names) – who lived to be 94 and 92, respectively. They were at least half Irish, their mother was a Riley who had not one but two lines going back to Miles Riley who came to Virginia from County Cavan in 1634. They lived their entire lives in the small town in western Pennsylvania where they were born, in the one-time schoolhouse that had been their childhood home, where they grew up with their eight siblings. They were of a different era, one in which people designated them “old maids” or “spinsters.” They took care of their mother until she died at the ripe old age of 94, they were career girls who worked for over 40 years at the G.C. Murphy five and dime store in town, their front door was always open and their kitchen was always welcoming.
But this isn’t a story about my great aunts. It’s a story about their photos.
Make no mistake about it, they loved pictures. When they were younger, they loved being the subject of them, and as they grew older they made sure no one left their house without smiling for the camera. They collected, and hoarded, photos. It’s difficult to imagine in the instaworld of today that there was once a time when images were not so easily shared, and who got to keep the only portrait of Granddaddy could ignite a family feud to rival that of the Hatfields and McCoys. But, oh, there was indeed such a time. And it was no secret that these two sisters were sitting on a vast collection of family photos that had been hidden away from the world for almost a century.
The coronavirus pandemic has cost a lot of people their jobs and, therefore, their income. That’s had an impact on everything from mortgage and rent payments, utilities and loans to one extremely essential item: food.
People who never before needed to take advantage of the help of others suddenly find themselves struggling to keep their families fed.
Locally, the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick has long been known for its charitable endeavors. Now, they’ve established a Covid-19 relief fund, available to local Irish and Irish-American families fighting to keep body and soul together.
Friendly Sons President Ryan M. Heenan explains.
“Typically, our benevolence budget includes a lot of scholarships to local universities to help students travel to Ireland and things like that,” Heenan says, “but it became pretty apparent that a lot of those travel plans are going to be pretty restricted or canceled this year. So we made a conscious effort to dedicate those funds and continue to fund-raise toward the goal of food assistance.”