After fifty strong years, Philadelphia Irish cultural hub The Commodore John Barry Center is in danger of closing under the financial strain of increased city taxes, abnormally high heating bills and expensive required building repairs.
But there may be hope yet. The 1,000 devoted members and Irish diaspora in the area have been putting up an incredible fight in their fundraising efforts.
Named for Commodore John Barry, the Wexford-born father of the American Navy who made a new and better life for himself in Philadelphia, the center has kept the Irish community in Philadelphia strong since 1958. It hosts concerts, festivals, music and dance lessons, annual balls, ceils, sessions and weddings. The two-story, 10,000 square foot building has a large ballroom that can fit 500 dinner guests (or 1,000 Irish dancers), a large bar and dining/meeting room, an extensive and robust library and a museum.
“I was raised in the Irish Center,” Karen Boyce McCollum, a dedicated and involved member told IrishCentral. “My parents are from Donegal, and when they came here in the late 50s and early 60s it became their second home. Now, more than ever, it’s a place where they spend a lot of their time.”
McCollum has been a significant leader of the center’s fundraising efforts – their goal is to raise $50,000 this year, and so far they have raised just under $25,000. They have a GoFundMe campaign and other online resources, and the Irish community in Philadelphia has contributed a huge sum through fundraising events.
“We have individual Irish organizations approaching us saying, ‘how can I help?’ People want to take it a step further and give us their time, not just lend a dollar,” McCollum said. This past July, the Mayo Society held an event at a local Irish pub called Moloney’s and raised over $7,000, with hundreds of people in attendance.
The center’s plight was the subject of a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article. Commodore John Barry board member Sean McMenamin told the paper that in the last year, real estate taxes surged from 7,000 to 22,000 dollars, utility bills have skyrocketed, and required updates like an elevator and new stove hoods have amounted to $22,000.
Currently their goal is to become a nonprofit organization, which would allow the center to apply for cultural and artistic grants. “We consider ourselves to be a cultural organization,” McCollum said, “It’s an appropriate category for what we offer.” The process could take up to two years, but they are currently working with donated legal help to become designated as a 501 (c)(3) organization rather than a commercial operation.
Many more events are scheduled for the coming months, including a comedy night, an Irish trivia night. This year the fundraising campaign is teaming up with an annual event called “The Gathering,” which invites visitors to participate in workshops and lessons, such learning Irish dance or Gaelic words. They often come from this event as members with a greater interest in tracing their Irish roots, and can join organizations specific to their own counties (The Donegal Table, for example).
The upside is that all of these fundraising efforts have helped the center learn more about what their members enjoy doingl, and McCollum said that they plan to continue these events even after all of the money’s been raised. She and the rest of the board are quite optimistic. “The generosity has been really uplifting,” she said.
The club represents each of Ireland’s counties with colorful flags lining the place, and has made for a comforting haven for the Irish for over 50 years.
“The center is built on history. It was founded by many who are elderly or gone, and we’re working very hard to continue it,” McCollum said. She wants to ensure the center’s existence so that future generations can enjoy it as she did when she was a child.
“We’re passing on the baton in a way,” she said.