Reeling like everyone else from this global pandemic, the New York Irish community is learning how to respond effectively to the current crisis
Staying healthy means staying indoors, for the time being at any rate. So how do our Irish centers and Irish cultural groups reach their target communities and audiences still? The same way we always do it turns out, by acting together.
“Everybody needs to keep connecting,” says well-known New York-based writer and producer Turlough McConnell. “But I think they need to let themselves be seen too. Don't just be at the end of the phone, be online, be on Zoom. It's free, it's cheap, it doesn't cost anything to use."
"Get your friends on there and get your children on there. I plan to have a birthday party online with my sister in Ireland next week. And sadly, I was at my first memorial online on Saturday.”
The point is that isolation is the enemy and we already have the tools to beat it. “We're all going to live online for a while, so get on there and do it and you'll find that it's very restorative and very energy energized that we see each other and we know that we're all there for each other.”
Paul Finnegan, Executive Director of the New York Irish Center (NYIC) agrees. “The situation we find ourselves in is constantly evolving but the need for social distancing has complicated that kind of relief efforts we can provide in ways never seen before.”
So now, NYIC has moved online to organize the kind of response it wants to spearhead. “Our seniors are a hardy lot, they've been through many challenges in the past, be that social or economic, but now the main challenge is isolation. NYIC provides a very important social outlet for them but it turns out that seniors are in particular danger from this pandemic.”
Unfortunately, many seniors do not have access to technology like laptops and Zoom chat rooms so NYIC is developing new programs to deliver food and care packages to them including essential protective things like hand sanitizers and Clorox wipes, to help protect them from the virus and to provide sustenance.
Another brilliant new project NYIC is supporting is the Meitheal Mission, initiated by the Program Director of the U.S.-Ireland Council Sophie Colgan and Brian McCabe to accept donations to help meet the needs of New York’s healthcare workers and others.
Contributors to the program include Patrick Hogan of Leinster Construction, who contributed 100 latex gloves and 450 Tyvek suits, Aidan Conlon of ACON Construction Company who delivered 1,800 gloves, 400 medical masks, 70 N-95 masks, and 150 protective glasses and Caroline Wilkins who delivered 13,000 gloves culled from 35 businesses across multiple boroughs.
In total, the NYIC took in 15,000 gloves, 450 Tyvek suits, 400 medical masks, 70 N-95 masks, 150 safety goggles, and 36 very needed bottles of disinfectant over the weekend. More drop-offs are planned, scheduled to occur at least once a week.
NYIC was also scheduled to present the Outing the Past even on Saturday, organized by well-known LGBT rights activist and community leader Tarlach Mac Niallais. Sadly Mac Niallais was the first prominent Irish community leader here whose life was taken by the Covid 19 pandemic, so the NYIC helped organize an online wake on the day he would have been presenting the speakers.
“Losing Tarlach and waking him on the day he was scheduled to present the event was a wake-up call to me. That really brought this challenge home to me. It made me think that this might be the first of other losses and it has redoubled my own resolves to respond as effectively as we can.”
Finnegan says we also have a duty to consider the number of people in the hospitality industry who have been affected by the crisis, and who represent a major part of the Irish community in this city.
“Currently they are only allowed to provide meals through delivery and that's obviously having a big impact on them. So we at the NYIC want to help find initiatives to keep them and their situation at the forefront of people's minds and see what we can do to help them through this moment."
Elsewhere, George Heslin, founder and artistic director of Origin Theatre Company, has had to cancel a month-long festival of new European plays that were scheduled for May.
“The European Month of Culture is a month-long city-wide festival that Origin created three years ago to celebrate European culture,” Heslin explains. “We had about thirty-four projects, but with developments here we have had to postpone the entire program until next year.”
Origin's gala fundraiser was scheduled for May 18, but that has been moved to October 19. Heslin has considered moving some productions online but he admits that's going to be an ambitious project.
Is there anything that we do as an audience to help theatre-makers respond to the new situation? “I suppose the thing is we are looking for is its money and donations. The end of our tax year is June 30 so we have gala after that to pay off expenses to balance your books for the year forward. Financial support is key to operations and paying salaries particularly for artists.”
The theatre community in the city is still looking at Broadway as its guiding light. “Will they manage to come up with a structure and a concept that allows audiences to come back into the theaters?”
“Actors here survive on part-time work from bars and restaurants, having that part-time gig is what allows them to carry out their craft and their art. I know a lot of Irish actors who were on J1 visas have already have returned to Ireland. For artists who are here on green cards having to file for unemployment wouldn't be viewed as a positive thing. They fear it's going to affect their long case.”
Meanwhile, we're still alive, Heslin says with a laugh, we're still planning for the future. “We have our weekly staff meeting tomorrow, so we're pressing ahead until our doors open again.”
The question of how to respond creatively to the current time also preoccupies writer and producer McConnell too. “I think that for me this crisis has led to the realization that we have been working with all of this technology that's available to us, but we've only been working with it at half power.”
“Now, because we're all confined and isolated and we have to use technology as a way to get out into the world, and in doing so we will realize that there's much more we can do with the technology that's available to us.”
One of the projects McConnell has been hired to help promote is called The Great Famine Voices Road Show. It's an opportunity for historians and others to invite people to come and talk about their sense, their connection to the Great Hunger.
“Now they're going to happen online, which I think as far as these programs are concerned, will give more people an opportunity to participate. Our attitude needs to evolve in relation to how we get information out there and how we communicate with each other while we're in this lockdown.
“I think that the tragedy of the Great Hunger still speaks to this tragedy that we're all dealing with at the moment. And I think we're going to evolve and survive and continue on. I love the saying that when you find yourself in a rut, decorate it.”