New York has long been favorably known as the Big Apple, Gotham, the City that Never Sleeps, and the Crossroads of the World, but right now it has the dangerous distinction of being the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States.
The shutdown inevitably has huge economic and social costs for much of the population, but the Irish community has been particularly hard hit due to its members being heavily involved in the construction, hospitality and services industries. Granted job losses may be somewhat mitigated by the unemployment benefits and the stimulus checks, but there are many in the Irish community who will have no safety net, and no family support in these straitened times. The most vulnerable will probably be young Irish apartment dwellers with little savings, no sports, no social life, no health insurance, rent to be paid and nobody to fall back on.
Historically the Irish have always been to the forefront when a helping hand is required by those down on their luck or those less fortunate. Indeed benevolence seemed to be an integral part of the Irish immigrants’ DNA more than a century and a half ago when they fled persecution and poverty to eke out a better living in the U.S.
As soon as some of the new arrivals were economically comfortable, they began looking out for those experiencing hardship. That led to the setting up of the various county associations, with benevolent activities their primary mission.
According to the Irish American paper of the day, the objective of these associations was “to render as far as practical financial and moral aid to the people of their native county in an effort to improve their condition, and to afford assistance in deserving cases and to their families in New York.”
Though we live in radically different times from the early beneficent efforts of our predecessors, the words of French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr still ring true, namely, “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
Right now we are on the cusp of the greatest wave of hardship and time of economic upheaval that the Irish community has ever experienced in the U.S. So it is against this backdrop that Sláinte 2020 was launched on April 17.
It plans to harness the collective reach of well-known and long-standing Irish organizations to maximize fundraising to assist individuals adversely impacted by the COVID crisis. The partnership consists of six long-established Irish not-for-profit organizations that have solid reputations, good track records and are well-known and respected and trusted in the Irish community.
It is hoped that this initiative will be generously supported by the large network of civic and social organizations with close ties to the Irish community. The partnership consists of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, New York GAA, Tara Circle, United Irish Counties Association, Aisling Irish Community Center, and the New York Irish Center.
The partnership is acutely aware of the scope and size of the task at hand and noted that “no one organization can do it alone, but by joining forces and working together we hope to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those in our community who need assistance. We want to keep our communities together and support them by alleviating some of the stress and anxiety during this time of uncertainty and upheaval.”
Paul Finnegan, director of New York Irish Center noted, “With almost a complete shutdown of the New York region’s economy, we can expect the number of people experiencing hardship to grow rapidly in the weeks ahead as their savings will be depleted, and specifically those in the construction and hospitality trades.”
He added that Sláinte 2020 is a way of “harnessing the goodwill of the community and distributing aid efficiently to those who need it.”
According to Michael O’Reilly, Co. Cavan native and vice president of the United Irish Counties, “The United Irish Counties Association is proud to work closely with the other organizations in this very worthwhile endeavor, and being able to help where it is needed most, at the individual and family level. This continues the long history of the Irish in New York always stepping up when needed.”
Cyril Hughes, the president of Tara Circle Inc., was quickly on board with Sláinte 2020. “Tara Circle is appreciative of this fundraising effort and is pleased to be able to back it. We need to support one and other and make sure the basic needs of our community are met during this trying time. Tara Circle knows that Slainte 2020 will distribute all donations quickly and efficiently,” he said.
Naturally, the New York GAA wholeheartedly embraced the initiative as its tentacles extend into the tri-state area, and it has seen first-hand what the shutdown has done to many of its players and supporters. Chairperson Joan Henchy said, “The New York GAA family -- the senior, minor, ladies and Gaelic for Girls boards -- collectively felt that collaboration with other community groups to form Sláinte was vital. We are now in a stronger position to offer financial support to our members and the broader Irish and Irish American communities by assisting them with food, rent, and utilities, etc.”
Siobhan Dennehy, director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, strongly supported the collaborative efforts of the community-minded organizations. “Our organizations working together as part of Sláinte 2020 represented a unified collaboration for the community. In partnering we can maximize our effectiveness to reach more individuals who need our support at this trying time,” she said.
At the core of Slainte is the pooling of efforts and resources to fight an exploding problem, and that was aptly emphasized by Sandra Feeney-Charles, executive director of the Aisling Irish Community Center, with the Irish proverb, “Ni neart go cur le cheile,” translated to there is no strength without unity. She added, “We want to reach out to anybody willing to help support Sláinte because there will be lots of hardship.”
As regards hardship, those eligible for assistance will include individuals and families living in the tri-state area who can demonstrate genuine financial hardship caused by COVID-19, and those who have limited or no access to other sources of aid.
Irish Consul General in New York Ciaran Madden said, “Sláinte 2020 is a remarkable coming together of the New York Irish community to provide assistance to those in this time of their greatest need. It is also about leadership and that leadership does not come out of the blue. Those who have pulled it together – Caitriona Clarke, Joan Henchy, Siobhan Dennehy, Paul Finnegan, and others -- have been working in the community for years. They bring enormous knowledge, experience, and passion to this.
“I know from my colleagues around the country that others are looking to Sláinte 2020 as an example of what can be done in response to the current crisis. We are delighted to be able to support Sláinte 2020, and will continue to support our community organizations to stay active in aiding those in need.”
Obviously the success of Sláinte 2020 depends totally on donations received. From my perspective as a member of the New York GAA and the Leitrim GFC, and the Leitrim Society, and by association the United Irish Counties, I urge you to support Sláinte.
In the GAA we are always concerned about raising money to put or keep a team on the field. Folks let’s forget about a team on the field, and instead put food on the table, pay the rent, a utility bill, etc. for someone who badly needs it.
In societies and associations, we build up reserves for a rainy day. Well, the rainy day is here, so what are we waiting for?
In the Irish community, we are very good at soliciting journal ads from especially bars, restaurants, construction companies, and small businesses, and they have responded generously without fail. Those businesses are now all closed, and consequently, their employees are out of work. Now is the time to give back some of that money so we can help those sitting at home with a bare pantry and an empty fridge.
There are lots of us unscathed economically by this pandemic or as they’d say in the hills of North Leitrim, “there’s no loss on me,” except that I miss Eileen’s Country Kitchen and Rory Dolan’s.
Those of you who can dip into your pockets, do so, and make sure that Sláinte 2020 helps those, who through no fault of their own are experiencing hardship. That has always been the Irish way. A little philanthropy is a wonderful elixir in trying and testing times.
I would be greatly remiss if I did not acknowledge the prodigious efforts of Caitriona Clarke, not only in conceptualizing this initiative but also in liaisoning with all the concerned parties so that a coherent and transparent organization emerged.
I should mention that all partners in Sláinte 2020 have put their money where their heart is, and they have all donated substantial checks.
The Sláinte 2020 Steering Committee consists of Clarke, Dennehy, Feeney-Charles, Finnegan, O’Reilly, and attorney Shane Humphries. The address is Sláinte 2020, 990 McLean Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10704.