Irish county associations struggle to survive
To mark the opening of the exhibit The Fifth Province: County Societies in Irish America at the Irish Consulate in New York, co-curator Dr. Miriam Nyhan discussed the changing role of New York’s Irish county societies with CAHIR O’DOHERTY.
You can no longer make the kind of journey to America that your grandparents’ generation did. That involved American wakes, creaking ships or first plane rides, and it included the possibility it might be the last time you ever set eyes on your loved ones at home.
The unspeakable personal cost of those separations is the subject of a thousand Irish ballads, as are the challenges of what happened once they arrived. Those once in a lifetime voyages to the U.S. also involved finding your feet in a new nation, at a time when most Irish people might not have ventured two miles beyond their own townland in their whole lives.
Nowadays, of course, those kinds of journeys are no longer possible – but the memory of them, like the echoes of the Famine and the Civil War, live in all of us, and are a part of the Irish DNA.
No one in America has lived or recorded the challenges and opportunities faced by generations of the Irish quite like the various Irish county associations. For decades, and in many cases centuries, they have worked to recreate a sense of home, community and belonging through social, cultural and sporting events that have transformed and occasionally even saved the lives of the generations who joined them.
It’s not sentimentality to say that they were a blessing. The facts reveal how much they helped, publically and privately, to extend protective and benevolent assistance to thousands of hard working Irish people who made America their new home.
New York claims the largest cluster of these county societies, and it claims the oldest ones too, but the impulse to share the experience with others like themselves is one that has marked the Irish, no matter where they have settled in the world.
This month Dr. Miriam Nyhan, a faculty fellow and assistant professor at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, has co-curated, with NYU’s Dr. Marion Casey, a groundbreaking new exhibition that celebrates the lifetime commitment that many Irish men and women have made to their own heritage (and its preservation) through their membership in county societies.
In her research Nyhan focused primarily on the 1950s Irish immigrants who settled in New York and London, but her work gave her an overview of the recent history of the societies too.
Unsurprisingly, since she’s made them her subject, Nyhan admits she’s a deep admirer of the work they do.
“I was interested in the lost record of the Irish, because there hasn’t been much research done on the Irish county societies here or the generation of immigrants who came here after World War II,” Nyhan told the Irish Voice. “At first I was interested in the London Irish, but pretty quickly I decided to make it comparative and chose New York.”
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