Nine years after facing closure, Philadelphia's Irish Center is celebrating its thriving revitalization thanks to the local Irish community and Center President Sean McMenamin.
The Irish Center, formally named the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center, was established in 1958. For decades, it has been the central gathering place of support, camaraderie, and connection to heritage for Philadelphia’s large Irish community.
By 2014, however, the Center was facing permanent closure. It was in need of major repairs, and with an aging Irish population, membership had dwindled.
Center President McMenamin, who in 2014 was in his 70s and retired, began investing every ounce of his energy, dedication, and passion into saving this unifying symbol of cultural heritage for Philadelphia’s Irish community.
Nine years later, the institution is celebrating a remarkable transformation and now serving more than 12,000 people annually.
McMenamin's ability to bring together the community in support of his vision to save the Center was fundamental to its transformation and sustainability.
The Irish community, business and city leaders, labor unions, Center members and volunteers, donors, and supporters all rallied around McMenamin to achieve success in these critical areas:
- 600 shareholders were persuaded to surrender their holdings enabling the Center to transition to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
- New revenue streams due to the 501(c)(3) opened up for the Center, including grants, sponsorships, fundraising, cultural events, and facility rentals.
- $250,000 in back taxes and loans have been fully paid.
- Local unions donated the labor to renovate the 118-year-old, 12,000 square-foot, two-story building, which needed major, costly repairs.
- The local Irish community donated the funds to pay for the materials used in the renovation.
- The Center’s establishment as a cultural hub brought the Irish community back in record numbers and for the first time is attracting individuals and families of all ages and backgrounds. Many diverse groups and organizations sponsor activities and call the Center their home.
“If it wasn’t for Sean McMenamin, there would be no Irish Center. He brought it back to life,” said Rosaleen McWilliams Rotondi, President of the Derry Society, who has been coming to the Irish Center since she was 8.
“It means something to have the Irish Center, and Sean is a major part of that.”
Philadelphia attorney Lisa Maloney, then with the Ballard Spahr law firm, led its pro bono work to create the 501(c)(3) and negotiate the payment of the back taxes and debt restructuring.
She described McMenamin as “absolutely instrumental” to the center's survival and its growing community involvement.
“What Sean did was enormous,” said Pari Livermore, whose philanthropic work, along with Kathy McGee Burns, aided in the Center’s financial recovery.
“He saved Irish culture for the people of Philadelphia and now people young and old have a grand and gorgeous place to experience the rich Irish cultural traditions of music, dance and storytelling. They are learning what it means to be Irish, and they are proud.”
Today, visitors to the Irish Center find a community hub bustling with activity where people young and old from diverse backgrounds experience and explore cultural traditions. From music and dance events to team sports, and everything in between, there is something for everyone.
Marissa Berry, the Irish Center’s corresponding secretary, said no other Irish community has a Center like the one in Philadelphia.
“From the use of the ballroom to the quaintness of the fireside room all the way up to the library, it’s invaluable,” she said.
“It’s not just about the physical space, it’s about the community that it cultivates,” she said. “It’s so hard to put into words the impact and the value behind the Irish Center. It’s about community.”
For more information visit https://theirishcenter.org.