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Irish Center

Food & Drink

Dinner Is Served … at the Irish Center

Little neck clams. Irish stew. Guinness braised brisket and cabbage. Roasted half chicken. Pan pizza. Vegan meatloaf. Homemade brownies with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.

Is your mouth watering yet?

Save your whetted appetite for a new restaurant, opening in the cozy Fireside Room at the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center (the Irish Center). It’s called The Commodore, and it’s opening for a soft launch October 29 and November 1.

All of those delicious dishes and more are on the menu. And, of course, you are cordially invited.

This is a “soft” opening, meant to refine the concept, with plans to open on a regular basis afterward.

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Friends of the Irish Center Come Through Big Time

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).”

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All Are Welcome to the Irish Center’s Open House and Christmas Tree Lighting

The folks at the Commodore John Barry Arts & Cultural Center (also known as the Irish Center) want you to get to know what a singular contribution the venerable institution makes to the Philadelphia Irish community and to the surrounding neighborhood of Mount Airy—and what better time than at the beginning of the Christmas holiday season.

The Center will host its first Christmas Tree Lighting and Open House December 1 from 12 noon to 6 p.m. You can find the Center at 6815 Emlen Street in Mount Airy. Best of all, it’s free, although donations will be accepted.

“There will be something going on in every room of the Center,” says board member and vice president Lisa Maloney. “In the Fireside Room, there will be Irish music from noon ‘til 6. We have a number of Irish musicians already confirmed. From there you move into the Barry Room, where we’re hosting a Christmas market. We have about 12 or 13 vendors already confirmed. Bette Conway will have jewelry, and there will also be antique jewelry, and handmade candles made by Maureen Barry Connor. Bewley’s Tea will be there with tea and jam and other yummy treats.

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Music, Videos

Sneak Preview: “The Christmas Letter,” With Cherish the Ladies and Don Stiffe

On Saturday, December 1, Cherish the Ladies with Don Stiffe take the stage at the Commodore Barry Arts & Cultural Center (the Irish Center) to present their amazing Celtic Christmas show. The show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets here.

One of the seasonal songs to be presented will be the poignant “The Christmas Letter,” with lead vocals performed by Stiffe. As the YouTube promo explains: “The song tells the sad story of forced immigration due to starvation and unemployment and a mother’s broken heart lamenting over the loneliness of a Christmas morning knowing that her family is forever torn apart and the only contact she’ll ever have is the letters that arrive for Christmas.”

Try listening to it without developing a little tremble in the lips and forming a few tears. Heart-breaking and lovely.

Here’s a sneak preview.


Summer Camp for Irish Dancers

Noreen Donohue McAleer offers a few pointers on toe pointing.

Noreen Donohue McAleer offers a few pointers on toe pointing.

When there were no jigs and reels playing, the Irish Center’s cavernous ballroom echoed with little girl giggles. Last week, the Cummins School dancers were having their summer camp—a lot of dancing, which also served last-minute cramming for the five Cummins dancers heading to the national championships in Montreal next week, and, for the littlest ones, crafts involving glue and glitter and tie-dyed socks. Oh, and ice cream sundaes, the only thing that brought dead silence to the room.

The Cummins School has been teaching kids to step dance in this ballroom for the last 12 years; a second class, mainly for the youngest, is held at the VFW post in Glenside.

“We’ve been so lucky,” says Frances Cummins Donohue, who runs the school with her daughter, Noreen Donohue McAleer. Donohue started dancing herself when she was an 11-year-old in Dublin and scored a second in the All-Irelands. “Dancing was my life and I loved it and when I came over here, I instilled that in my girls, Kerri and Noreen,” she says.

The Cummins students learn more than beats, cuts, lifts and sevens. “Because we’re in the Irish Center, we’re also exposing kids to the Irish culture,” says Donohue. “The bagpipers [The Emerald Society Pipe Band] are here on Wednesdays and they love that. Then John Shields is in here with his ceili dancers and they enjoy that too. This space is amazing. We’d miss it terrible, we really would.”

Donohue is talking about the current financial crisis facing the Irish Center, a combination of an increased tax burden brought on by Philadelphia’s citywide reassessment last year and kitchen upgrades required by the city’s board of health—expenses estimated to total $100,000 or more over the next two years.

Cummins dancers will be participating in a fundraiser on July 19 at Maloney’s Pub of Ardmore in an effort to save their home.

But this week, it was all fun and games—except for the extra dance instruction from Donohue, McAleer, and teachers Brittany Kelly and Theresa McElhill. We stopped by on Thursday and took some photos of the fun.


Return of the Voice You Can’t Forget

Singer-songwriter Don Stiffe

In 2010, we wrote about a then up-and-coming singer-songwriter from Galway. His, we wrote in a headline, is “a new voice you won’t forget.”

Since that time, Don Stiffe has become an arrived singer-songwriter from Galway and hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to forget his gift-from-God voice, thanks to his 2011 appearance on RTE’s “The All Ireland Talent Show,” one of Ireland’s most watched TV shows a la “America’s Got Talent,” on which he was a finalist.

Fresh off the Joannie Madden (Cherish the Ladies) “Folk’n’Irish” Cruise, with a new CD in hand (“Life’s Journey”), and a tour with the Kilfenora Ceili Band on the resume, Stiffe is heading to Philadelphia for a return engagement at the Irish Center on Sunday, Feb. 17. The show is produced by Marianne MacDonald, host of the “Come West Along the Road” radio show on WTMR 800AM every Sunday at noon.

MacDonald forged a relationship with Stiffe after, one day, deciding to blow the dust off a CD someone had given her to hear this new guy’s version of a song she loves, “Shanagolden.” She had the same reaction most people do when they hear Don Stiffe sing. “Wow,” she said.

“So I did what you usually do these days when you want to reach someone—I found him on Facebook!” she says, laughing. They chatted and she lured him to his first Philly gig, introducing him to fellow Galway native and musician, Gabriel Donohue, who served as his one-man-band accompanist.

Stiffe entered “The All-Ireland Talent Show” on the urging of his wife Elaine and three children. He didn’t win, but as it goes in many of these star-making series, even the runners up reap the rewards.

“You get the publicity out of it and it’s fantastic,” Stiffe told me a couple of weeks ago from Miami, where he was about to board the Joanie Madden cruise ship. “People take a bit more notice of you. In fact, when I was coming through Shannon, on of the immigration officers said to me, ‘Are you that person who was on that talent show one time?’ God almighty,” Stiffe says, laughing, “when an immigration officers pulls you up and starts talking about the bloody thing. . .I thought people would be thinking I was on some murder list or something! And she just would not let me go. She knew about the three kids, the family. . . .”

The real reward isn’t recognition though, says Stiffe. “It’s the work. Getting the work is a great thing. I didn’t think things would happen so fast. I got a nice bit of work at home, in different parts of the country.” He toured with Cherish the Ladies last year (they made a stop at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Theater to soldout crowds) and is with them again right now in Texas. And he hooked up with the Kilfenora Ceili Band, the oldest and possibly most famous ceili band in Ireland, which regularly sells out the Irish National Concert Hall in Dublin.
“Touring with the Kilfenora Ceili Band was fantastic. We played all the big auditoriums in Ireland and people did recognize who I was. To get to a wider audience, to get steady work, that’s the name of the game. I’m not too concerned about the fame,” he says, laughing again. “It’s the work.”

But getting noticed is what’s bringing the work and Stiffe’s talent is drawing attention in many ways. In 2010, his version of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” from his debut album, “Start of a Dream,” earned him the “Vocal Cut of the Year” award from the Live Ireland awards. This year, one of his songs, “Somebody Special,” performed by his friend and fellow Galway native Matt Keane, was named Live Ireland’s pick for “Song of the Year.”

But, perhaps more important, this touching (and to Stiffe, very personal) love song has become the song of the year—and possibly, for years to come—of young Irish couples. “A lot of people are singing it at weddings,” says Stiffe. “That must mean something, hmm?”

Listen to Matt Keane’s version and you’ll understand why.

Even better, come to the Irish Center on Sunday night at 7 PM and ask Don to sing it himself. Guaranteed, you’ll never forget it.