What is the current state of Irish-America? In the 90’s it throbbed with political passion.
It’s no overstatement to suggest that many Irish-Americans were as interested in the troubles in the North of Ireland as most residents of the Irish Republic.
Native Irish often tend to look on Irish-America as some vast homogenous green-beer swilling, Aran-sweatered, politically naive mass. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From the South side of Boston to the West Side of Cleveland, through Butte Montana and on to San Francisco’s Geary Street, each enclave has its own traditions, opinions, peculiarities and different ways of seeing the world.
With the diminution of political problems in the North the focus of Irish-American communities has now veered more towards culture and celebration of their own individuality.
Irish festivals still host great gatherings but the local cultural center provides a year round home for those who wish to celebrate and nourish their heritage.
In the coming year I’ll be doing a Rock & Read solo tour of some of these centers and will file the occasional report.
My first stop will be Cincinnati on Saturday, Feb. 4th. It’s not a city that immediately springs to mind as Irish, rather more German – in fact its public schools were bilingual until World War 1. I know it tolerably well from gigs at Bogart’s (one of the best clubs in the country) and nights spent carousing at the late lamented Sudsy Malone’s Rock & Roll Laundry and Bar. I kid you not – a saloon cum laundromat!
Though Cincinnati is calm on the surface one can notice a simmering urban tension on a midnight stroll down Vine Street. But that’s hardly unusual in a vibrant city and you can’t beat Cincinnati’s music fans.
There’s a marked southern influence that breeds a certain graciousness; it’s not surprising that America’s greatest songwriter, Stephen Foster, spent formative years in Cincinnati, though one would have to surmise that he made the occasional short trip across the Ohio River to Kentucky where booze, tobacco and other delights have always been easy, if not entirely free.
I don’t know where the city’s Gaels used to congregate but they now make their home at The Irish Heritage Center. Only operating since late 2009 it has already made a huge impact on both the city and the Irish-American community.
The center’s founders are ambitious. They purchased a 44,000 square foot East Side school and went to work with a vengeance restoring it.
They used as their model the very vital Chicago Irish-American Heritage Center once also a cavernous school building.
The Cincinnati Center already has a functioning theater, tearoom, library and dance studio, with plans for a museum; not to mention that managing director, Kent Covey and his executive committee provide Irish language, history, dance and painting classes.
I first learned of the center through their dynamic theatrical artistic director, Maureen Kennedy, who directed Blood, a play of mine. In barely a year she has mounted three other productions while unearthing a valuable lode of local acting talent.
I’m sure the odd drink is taken there too and knowing some of the local staunch republicans I would imagine that there’s the occasional dispute over politics late at night – all par the course for any respectable Irish center.
Ah, but it’s hard to think of Cincinnati without Sudsy Malone’s Bar and Laundromat – what a combination for a band on the road! Finally, a bullet proof, hygienic excuse to spend one’s night getting wasted!
Still, I’m looking forward to going back to the city where Stephen Foster wrote Oh Susannah, maybe some of the great songwriter’s magic will rub off on me.
Make sure you visit your own local Irish cultural club or center, there’s a home there for anyone with a Celtic soul and plenty of rewarding work if you’d like to volunteer your services.
Perhaps I’ll run into you at one of these hives of activity over the next year. Hey, maybe your center has a working laundromat – you never know, it might be close to the members’ bar – and who couldn’t use a good excuse for a drink every now and then.