COVER STORY : A Complicated Clan : Area Irish-Americans keep their culture alive, largely through Valley groups.
The Irish are taking it on the chin this St. Patrick’s Day.
The O’Hollywood St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which celebrates the biggest Irish pride day of the year, was canceled for lack of funding.
As with many things Irish, there has been a history of bickering and dissension over the quality and venue of the parade, or, well, parades.
One St. Patrick’s Day parade was put on in downtown Los Angeles from 1984 to 1990. That parade, largely run by merchants who found independent sponsorship, moved to Century City in 1991 and 1992. Then there were the Beverly Hills St. Patrick’s Day parades in 1985 and 1986 put on by Jimmy Murphy, the Irish-born owner of Jimmy’s, a fashionable Beverly Hills restaurant.
Pasadena’s Chamber of Commerce had its version of the parade from 1981 through 1985. And Hollywood started putting on the “official” parade with funding from the city and dubbed it the O’Hollywood St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1985, a year when four parades occurred simultaneously. This year, however, the $10,000 in funding from the city for the Hollywood parade fell through. All the other parades are off.
To ensure there isn’t a similar denouement next year, the Irish Fair Foundation Inc., which became involved with the O’Hollywood St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1986, and the Greater Los Angeles Irish American St. Patrick’s Day Committee--sister organizations based in North Hollywood-- have garnered financial support for the 1994 event. Organizers hope there will be one magnificent, cohesive parade next year.
Such slights notwithstanding, the L.A. enclave of Irish-Americans who support and spread Irish culture here--called “the Irish village” by one local Irishman--stridently thrives on largely in the San Fernando Valley and, in recent years, has even made considerable gains.
A new monthly Irish newspaper, The Irish Times, began publishing in October, taking the place of three Los Angeles-based Irish newspapers that failed in years past. Ceili (pronounced kay-lee), the Gaelic word for a traditional Irish dance social, has been revived through the efforts of a North Hollywood dance teacher. And Des Regan’s Irish American Band, an institution in the community, has played for the last 26 years throughout Los Angeles, maintaining a frantic pace of performances at Irish fund-raisers, pubs and parties. Regan, a resident of Sylmar, has even done musical tours of Ireland, where he is well-known.
And every year for the last 50 years, a Los Angeles woman and man have been nominally honored as the Irishwoman and Irishman of the Year in a ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall--an honor that, were you Irish, would be the highest compliment.
But what has long been the curse of the Irish, who tend to be clannish, in Los Angeles is the community’s lack of cohesion, the absence of an Irish community center and the obstacles posed by the population’s dogged diaspora.
Those qualities have not gone unnoticed by Irish Times publisher Tom Kelly, a resident of Canoga Park for the last five years and a native of County Cork, Ireland. Before he came to Los Angeles, Kelly never thought of himself as a newspaperman. After completing course work at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Kelly wrote business plans in the late ‘80s for small, start-up publications, which he says, was all the more reason to avoid the business.
With Tom McConville’s “The Irish Hour” (on Glendale radio station KIEV-870 AM) the only information source for Los Angeles’ dissipated Irish community, Kelly decided a newspaper was in order.
“The Irish community needed some glue to pull them together and I figured this would be a start,” said Kelly, who puts the 20-page newspaper together at his house and funds it with advertising revenues. “You don’t come out expecting to get it right immediately, especially with a community as complicated as the Irish. The definition I love of the Irish that explains that best is: ‘You put two Irish people in a room together and you get three political parties.’ We’re difficult to understand and we don’t agree on much.”
Kelly’s paper is largely reader-driven, filled with local stories on the Irish community, news and sports from Ireland, features, Gaelic-language quizzes and a three-month calendar of regional events. The paper circulates among about 8,000 readers from Ventura to Orange counties and sells for a $16 yearly subscription.
Kelly is banking on the 990,000 area people who identified themselves as Irish-Americans on the 1990 U.S. census.
More than a year ago, Kelly founded the Emigration Assistance Coalition, a committee of Irish-American immigration lawyers, Irish government representatives and professionals. The committee wrote and published a guidebook for newly arrived Irish emigres that is about to have its second edition. The booklet, whose demand exceeded everyone’s expectations, offers advice to emigres on an array of subjects--including driving in Los Angeles, legal counsel and job hunting--some of which sounds like intonations one might hear from an Irish mother.
And where there are Irish mothers, there is Imelda McCann, sort of the collective mother for the San Fernando Valley’s Irish community. For more than nine years, McCann has owned Shamrock Imports, one of the largest Irish import shops in Los Angeles and the only one in the Valley. To walk into McCann’s North Hollywood shop, lined with Irish china, crystal, sweaters, teas and cookies, is to come as close as possible to walking into a shop in Ireland. The requisite Irish black tea and a plate of Irish cookies are on a table in the center of the shop. And, for those who don’t know already, no said a thousand times still means yes in Irish.
“I always offer everyone a cup of tea and Irish cookies,” says McCann, who was named Irishwoman of the Year in 1987. “The message I want to give people is Irish warmth and hospitality. If you were in Ireland, they would offer you a cup of tea and a cookie.”
And for most of the Irish who live in the San Fernando Valley, the shop’s Irish comfort food takes the bite out of homesickness and a longing for all things Irish.
"(Irish) people come in and say, ‘Thank God, you’re here,’ ” says McCann, who recently supplied the television sitcom “Cheers” with Aran sweaters for a St. Patrick’s Day episode. “And I get little thank-you notes from people like this one that says, ‘Thanks for having a little bit of Ireland in the Valley.’ We’re a community, the Irish, and we connect with each other here in the store. I get excited to come to work because of the customers I meet. But there’s two mornings in the year that are the best, St. Paddy’s morning and Christmas morning, when I think of all the people who are home cooking bacon and sausages (delivered to the store weekly from Ireland) because of my shop. And I smile. And, of course, there is the Irish tea people love. There’s just nothing like it.”
A large part of Irish cultural heritage in Los Angeles is spread through Irish social customs, one of which has undergone a considerable regeneration. Irish step dancing, a tradition that suffered for nearly three decades in Los Angeles for lack of musicians and teachers who knew the music and the dances, has been revived largely by the efforts of Margaret Cleary, a North Hollywood resident who began teaching Irish step dancing to adults in 1987.
“I was in an Irish bar and someone found out I was a teacher and they asked me to do a few steps,” recalls Cleary, who is a three-time world champion Irish step dancer. “I did, then people asked me to start teaching. I was surprised by the amount of dedication. A lot of the adults wished they’d had the opportunity to learn when they were young. I love doing it because I was brought up with everything Irish. he culture, the people, the music. It’s in your blood. It’s like a disease, really.”
Mary Ann Murphy, president of Ireland’s Own Social Club, based at St. Therese Parish Hall in Alhambra, said that in the ‘40s and ‘50s, newly arrived Irish and Irish-Americans would meet weekly for a ceili at the house of a woman who played the accordion. When the woman died, it became difficult to find musicians who knew the music, causing a subsequent decline in the tradition. Then Cleary began teaching it, first at a Hollywood venue called The Celtic Arts Center that recently burned down, then at St. Ambrose Parish Hall in West Hollywood.
“Maggie (Cleary) is really the one who revived it,” Murphy said. “When I went to the first ceili held in 1988, there were roughly 47 people there. At one last January, there were 260 people there, 25 of them Australians here on work permits.”
Cleary’s troupe, a group of 16 adults who are called the St. Ambrose Ceili Dancers, were the Western Regional Ceili Champions for 1992, when the competition was held in Newport Beach, and will compete nationally in Chicago in July if funds can be raised.
Irish dancing ranges in complexity from the simpler “Siege of Ennis” and “Walls of Limerick” to the “Haymakers Jig” to the very complicated 16-hand reel. Most of the energetic dances can be performed by as many as 100 people or, in the case of the jig, can be done solo.
Cleary’s dancers competed locally at the Feis (Gaelic for competition) Rinnce Conejo Valley two weeks ago at the Pacific Lodge Boys’ Home in Woodland Hills. Her adult dancers took first place in all five team dance competitions held for the 350 attending dancers from around Southern California. Nicole Stine-Maws, a 13-year-old from Granada Hills, won three first places and two seconds. Christina McCaul, a 7-year-old from North Hollywood, won a third place in what was her first foray into competition for “The Reel,” a solo soft-shoe dance.
Irish dance is synonymous with traditional Irish folk music, inseparable in these parts from the name of Des Regan, a County Galway native who immigrated to the United States in 1955.
Regan’s Valley-based band is an institution annually at the Irish Fair, to be held June 19 and 20 at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, and at any of the Irish dances or fund-raisers for Irish immigrants who have fallen on hard times.
“Irish Hour” radio host McConville characterizes Regan’s band as “the best there is on the West Coast.” Another Irishman describes him as a cross “between Willie Nelson and Lawrence Welk.”
But when asked about his own venerable status in the Irish community, Regan says simply, “More or less, it comes with age and having been around for a long time. When I first came to California, there was only one Irish pub. Now there are many all over” where Irish music can be heard.
And Regan, in his years here, has played at nearly every one of them and watched the American appetite for Irish music increase and evolve. Once the owner of one of the most popular Irish bars, Des Regan’s Irish Pub in Burbank, Regan has showcased young Irish bands like The Wolfe Tones and Stockton’s Wing. He closed the bar two years ago after 20 years because he “grew tired of it,” he said.
Now Regan’s band can be heard regularly at Ireland’s 32 and Kavanaugh’s, both in Van Nuys, and at almost every Irish dance social.
But perhaps what immediately comes to mind when one thinks of embracing Irish culture in Los Angeles is the Irish Fair, a huge festival of music, food, drink, wares and dancing that draws about 40,000 people every June.
In addition to putting on one of the biggest Irish extravaganzas in the nation, the nonprofit Irish Fair Foundation has joined the city in putting on the Irish Day Civic Ceremonies at City Hall to honor the Irishwoman and Irishman of the Year.
The individuals, who are recognized for their contributions to the city’s Irish-American community, will be honored today at City Hall by City Councilman Nate Holden, who, according to this year’s honorary Irishwoman, Dolores Nolan, “is the most Irish one of all the council members because he comes to a lot of the Irish functions.”
This year’s ceremonies will be carried out with all of the respective Irish pomp and circumstance. Translation: Irish soda bread, tea, bagpipers, Irish step dancers and Des Regan’s Irish American Band.
Holden said his relationship to the Irish community started “when I came to the City Council and they needed a representative to start the parade, that’s when I gave them my support. That’s something I’ve been doing for years. I’m one of the family. I even have a button that says, ‘Nate O’Holden.’ ”
Along with Nolan, a Panorama City resident, Finbar Hill, an Irish businessman who lives in Beverly Hills, will be honored.
Nolan, born to Italian parents who owned ice cream shops in Dublin, lived in Ireland into her 20s and says, “I am the only one who speaks Italian with an Irish brogue.”
A banner reading " Cead Mile Failte " (Gaelic for “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes”) hangs above the entrance to her kitchen, characterizing the Irish penchant for hospitality. Paintings of the Irish countryside and a page from the Book of Kells (775-800 A.D.), a compilation of gospel writings with elaborate illustrations by Irish monks, adorn the walls. Irish crystal and china are ubiquitous.
“This is an Irish house,” says Nolan, who serves up MacGrath’s Tea, an Irish black tea, and a stack of French cookies to a visitor. “It’s very embarrassing to win this prize. I am very honored and will be for the rest of the year.”
Then, in the Irish tradition of self-deprecation, she adds, “There’s lots of Irish women in the community who do a lot more than me.”
Nolan came to the Los Angeles in 1957, met and married her husband (who was born in County Westmeath, Ireland) three years later. She has been an unrelenting behind-the-scenes, non-credit-taking worker at Irish functions ever since. One Irishman said he can’t think of an Irish event where she hasn’t been arranging flowers, taking tickets or helping someone find a seat.
Although Nolan says what she does bring “a little bit of Ireland to California,” talk of St. Patrick’s Day makes her a bit nostalgic for her homeland.
“When I was a child, my mother would always buy us new green outfits, and because St. Patrick’s Day, a religious holiday in Ireland, fell during Lent, the church gave us a dispensation and you could break the fast,” reminisced Nolan. “So we’d have all this wonderful candy and get sick from eating it.”
And this Wednesday, when Nolan celebrates the one day of the year when green beer is served at nearly every bar, the mood will be no less ceremonial or nostalgic.
“What’s great about St. Patrick’s Day here is all of America becomes Irish for the day and people get a little insight into the Irish,” a pride-filled Nolan said. “I usually make up corned beef and cabbage in the morning, and it’s kind of cute, my Afghanistan and Filipino neighbors dress their children all in green and drop by for some stew.”