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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Influx of the O’Westsiders : Cooperation and Opportunity Foster a Growing Presence for the Local Irish Community

It had all the spirit of an old-fashioned house-raising. Friends, and friends of friends, were rushing to prepare the Mean Fiddler, a new pub on Wilshire Boulevard, for its grand opening. With the 8:30 p.m. event only minutes away, they were still nailing down the carpet and painting the walls.

By the time the music started at about 10, a boisterous crowd had accumulated, the workers had put down their tools and the bartenders were passing pints of Guinness over the counter, wiping perspiration from their foreheads between orders.

The opening attracted an amalgam of customers, not all of them Irish, who greeted each other like old friends. Accents were heard from all over the British Isles--Ireland, England and Scotland--and the faces were both young and old.

Even the owners of O’Brien’s, an Irish pub and restaurant on Wilshire with a second location on Main Street in Santa Monica, stopped in for a pint--a collegial show of support.

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“We’re trying to establish Santa Monica as the center for the Irish community,” said Willie O’Sullivan, owner of O’Brien’s on Wilshire. “We want to make it so that there’s so much going on around here, the Irish don’t want to go anywhere else.”

The Westside is a nexus of Irish activity in Los Angeles, a fact likely to be very much in evidence during Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The area has become a Celtic hot spot as young Irish immigrants have moved into Westside communities, particularly Santa Monica.

Data from the 1990 census shows that more than 56,251 Los Angeles residents consider themselves exclusively of Irish ancestry. No breakdown is available for West Los Angeles, but the number of residents who claim solely Irish descent was 432 in Beverly Hills, 1,011 in Culver City, 1,627 in West Hollywood and 3,589 in Santa Monica.

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“I’ve lived here for 14 or 15 years, and when I came, there was no Irish community,” said Jim Sullivan, correspondent for New York-based Irish Echo, a 65-year-old weekly Irish newspaper, who lives in Santa Monica. “Now you’re seeing an increase in the number of Irish professionals who work in communications, software and entertainment. They have more disposable income and can afford to live on the Westside.”

The most obvious sign of the Irish presence is pubs; the Westside boasts at least half a dozen watering spots that Irish purists consider authentic.

But there are other, subtler signs of the Westside’s Irish subculture: Irish dance classes, an Irish theater group that does weekly readings of mostly Irish plays, groups that play traditional Irish music, events hosted by Irish social clubs, an Irish import shop and weekly Irish sporting events. An Irish cultural center is even being planned.

Some Westside Irish have actively taken sides in the conflict in Northern Ireland, where Catholics have been fighting against Irish Protestants for a united Ireland, independent of the British crown. But for the most part, local Irish mingle easily among themselves and with others, finding in Los Angeles a common ground often absent in their homeland.

“We’ve put it away; we’re living in a metropolitan community and we have more in common with each other than (with) other cultures that are here,” said Gabriel McKeagney, a 27-year-old who grew up in Northern Ireland.

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The Irish have long been players on the Los Angeles scene. William Mulholland, a native of Ireland, supervised construction of the aqueduct that brought water to the Los Angeles area starting in 1913. But it was during a period of heavy Irish immigration to the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s that significant numbers of Irish began filtering into the area.

They were centered at the time in Hollywood, near Beverly Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, and at 6th Street and Western Avenue, where they would meet in an Irish pub called the Blarney Castle.

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The Irish community has since grown, but in a decentralized way, forming pockets in Orange County, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

On the Westside, the Irish have long had social activities and gathering spots.

The Irish Import Shop, which sells Irish food, newspapers, music cassettes and memorabilia, has occupied a Hollywood storefront for 34 years. Owner Richard Jones has become a clearinghouse of information about Los Angeles for new arrivals from Ireland.

And high-priced, society-page charity affairs hosted by the Irish American Fund--led in part by Jimmy Murphy, owner of Jimmy’s restaurant in Beverly Hills--have become a tradition.

But the local Irish community has taken on a higher profile in recent years as the Westside has become a magnet for Irish immigrants in their 20s and 30s.

The reasons for the trend are unclear. Some say that three Santa Monica companies with operations in Ireland--Retix, Isocor and Quarterdeck--have attracted Irish workers and visitors. Others say the Irish simply appreciate the Westside for the same reason many others do--for its rent control, ocean breezes and active social life.

Then there are more sentimental explanations.

“Because Ireland is so small, people can feel lost here,” said O’Sullivan. “If we live near the beach, we have some gauge on the size of it . . . and I’m used to living near a coast.”

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Whatever its cause, the influx has boosted the local Irish community’s visibility.

Young Irish socialize in Irish pubs and listen to local bands, some of them playing “rocked-up” versions of traditional Celtic music.

Besides the Mean Fiddler (formerly called Fair City), at least two other pubs have opened on the Westside in the past year alone--O’Brien’s on Wilshire and O’Brien’s on Main. Each offers live Irish bands, some of them playing instruments common to traditional Celtic music: for example, the bodhran (a type of drum), the uilleann pipes and the fiddle.

Among the regular headliners are the Young Dubliners, an Irish rock band with a vast local following; Ken O’Malley and the Twilight Lords, who play traditional Celtic music; the Descendants, who play Irish folk music, and Gaelic Storm, another group of traditional Irish musicians.

“We have a lot of pride in being Irish--our way,” said O’Sullivan, the 36-year-old owner of O’Brien’s pub. “Young Irish have rejected the type of Ireland that their parents loved--an Ireland suppressed, restricted, dominated and humbled by the (Catholic) Church. The younger generation is changing that.”

Other signs of increased activity include the weekly ceili (KAY-lee) dance classes, held on Tuesday evenings at St. Ambrose Church hall in West Hollywood. Although the classes have been ongoing since the late 1980s, only in the past few years have they truly burgeoned. The dancers, about 30 in all, range in age from their early 20s to more than 70, and last July they won first in a national ceili championship competition.

“I always wanted to do this back in Ireland, but you were called a sissy. Over here, anything goes,” said Patrick Murphy, a 24-year-old from Santa Monica who recently joined the St. Ambrose Ceili Dancers. Murphy is a manager and part-owner of the Main Street O’Brien’s and the lead vocalist for Gaelic Storm. “When I came to America, I started to miss Ireland after awhile, and that’s when I wanted to get more involved.”

St. Ambrose also serves as home base for the Irish Theater Arts Center, which in the last year has hosted free weekly readings of plays, most of them written by Irish playwrights. Hollywood notables have joined in the readings, including Martin Sheen, Colm Meaney, Fenoula Flanagan and Jean Smart.

Appealing to more mainstream interests, the Great American Irish Foundation last fall sponsored the first annual Celticfest--a festival held at UCLA featuring Irish, Scottish and Welsh musicians and artisans. More than 10,000 people attended, according to festival organizers.

Even officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and other local police units have formed a group, called the Emerald Society, to promote Irish heritage. Started three years ago with 50 officers, the Emerald Society now has a total membership of about 500, said William McNeely, Emerald Society president.

Supporters of an Irish cultural center are hoping to tap the new abundance of young Irish residents to back the project, which was considered years ago and has now resurfaced. So far, they have raised only $30,000 in contributions--well shy of the several million they need.

“We’re depending on the support of more young people, but we haven’t had their participation,” said Finbar Hill, who is helping to coordinate the Irish Center project. “I don’t think we can do it without them.”

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The Irish community is overwhelmingly Catholic on the Westside. But unlike in Northern Ireland, the local Irish Catholics mix readily with Protestant Irish and the English.

“Los Angeles is a place that teaches you not to look at people as to whether they’re Protestant or Catholic--there’s an affiliation between both,” said James Bogues, a 28-year-old accountant and a Catholic who grew up in a town 70 miles outside Belfast. His family runs a jewelry shop in the North that he says has been damaged 17 times by bombs.

No scene better illustrates the chumminess than Saturday mornings at the Cock and Bull pub in Santa Monica, which broadcasts live rugby and soccer games from Europe. On a recent weekend the place was packed at 6:30 a.m. with several hundred Irish and English fans.

For all the friendliness, the local Irish community is not tension-free.

Irish Northern Aid (known as NorAid), which supports the cause of the Catholics in Northern Ireland, has a mailing list of about 400 in Los Angeles, most of them Irish Americans. For years, the group has demonstrated in various parts of the city, including the Westside. Their activism was at its height in the early 1980s, when Irish Republican Army members imprisoned in Northern Ireland staged hunger strikes.

“In 1981, when (IRA activist) Bobby Sands died, we marched to the British airlines terminal at LAX and tried to buy a ticket on a plane to England for this skeleton we had draped with a black cloth,” said Eamon Hughes, an active member of NorAid. “But they wouldn’t let us because they said it would be too disturbing for the other passengers.”

Though NorAid has slowed its activities, partly because of the ongoing peace talks between the IRA and the British government, some of its supporters remain bitter.

“Generally, I avoid English people--not that I dislike them, but if you get in a position of talking about Northern Ireland, you can get strong reactions,” said Travers Devine, a member of NorAid who lives in Hermosa Beach.

The tension also is felt by some Protestant Irish, the minority in Los Angeles’ Irish community.

“I don’t get involved in (Irish Catholic) events,” said Harry Bennison, a Protestant from Northern Ireland who has been in the United States since 1967. “When people get a few drinks, they want to sing their songs and we want to sing ours. It’s just better to let them go their way and we go ours.”

Said John Rickerby, a Protestant who left Northern Ireland more than 20 years ago: “I still don’t feel 100% comfortable about going into Irish pubs. I still feel strange with people whose ethos was at one time different than my own.”

Despite such sentiment, examples abound of cooperation within the Westside Irish community. Last week, a Northern Irish government-run small business agency (called the Local Enterprise Development Unit, or LEDU) held a conference in Westwood to encourage Northern Irish expatriates to return to their homeland and start small businesses.

Though the agency itself is run by a branch of the British government, the event was coordinated by Newport Beach resident Aileen McKeagney, a 24-year-old Catholic from Northern Ireland. And the tone of the meeting was not slanted either toward Protestant or Catholic interests, pointed out some who attended the meeting.

“We’re trying to get away from labeling,” said Bill Montgomery, vice president of business development for the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board, a government agency that, like LEDU, is encouraging businesses to open offices in Northern Ireland.

Inspired, Gabriel McKeagney says he is planning a trip back home--for good. But others prefer to remain on the Westside, enjoying the freedom--and possibilities--of life in Los Angeles.

“It’s great to be able to come here and be on equal footing and have positive feelings instead of negative ones,” said Bogues, a resident of Brentwood. “We’d never have the same opportunities in Ireland as we do here.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Irish Heritage The number of residents who reported Irish ancestry in the 1990 Census.

City All Irish Mainly Irish Part Irish Total Beverly Hills 432 1,053 730 2,215 Culver City 1,011 2,268 1,757 5,036 Los Angeles* 56,251 115,431 80,204 251,886 Santa Monica 3,589 6,700 3,636 13,925 West Hollywood 1,027 1,872 1,204 4,103


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