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Irish Americans Decry Lack of Heritage Center

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It made no sense to Irish Americans Jim McMahon and Bill Robertson.

Why did Jewish Americans have the Skirball Cultural Center, black Angelenos the California African American Museum in Exposition Park and Japanese Americans a museum in Little Tokyo, while the estimated 1 million Irish Americans in Los Angeles had no museum or major cultural center?

“Everybody has a center except the Irish,” said McMahon, 50, a native of Northern Ireland who became an American citizen in July.

McMahon, who owns a waterproofing business in Simi Valley, noted that there are half a dozen Irish American organizations active in Southern California, including the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, the Los Angeles Police Emerald Society, the Southern California Irish Network, the Irish Fair Foundation and the Celtic Arts Center.

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“There’s a whole lot of them doing stuff for the Irish,” he said, but none of it has translated into a full-fledged center.

Tom McConville, host for 29 years of “The Irish Hour” on KIEV radio, who now has a similar show on the Cable Radio Network, said people have been talking about building an Irish cultural center in Los Angeles “since I came here 30 years ago.”

A native of Portadown, Northern Ireland, McConville said he is part of a group called the Irish Center of Southern California that has raised about $80,000. But McConville said the project is not much closer to realization than it was when it was first discussed about seven years ago, at a meeting in a Westside hotel.

“Everybody was enthusiastic,” he recalled, “but people fell by the wayside.”

Last year, a frustrated McMahon formed yet another Irish-themed nonprofit organization, the Irish National Heritage Foundation, to build a center.

Assisting McMahon is Robertson, 38, of Sherman Oaks, who met McMahon when both played drums at police memorials as members of the Emerald Society.

The men have ambitious plans. They hope to raise $30 million to create a new, Skirball-like Irish-American Heritage Museum, Cultural Education and Music Center in Southern California. McMahon said the center would be in Cerritos, close to the geographical center of the region.

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The center would include a museum, a performing arts center, a genealogical center, a library, a restaurant and a pub. It would also have a business development program to encourage economic ties with Ireland.

Dreaming big, Robertson hopes the center will produce documentaries on such little-known high points of Irish American history as the rescue, in 1876, of Irish patriots and political prisoners in western Australia by an American whaling ship, the Catalpa.

“I learned all about Benito Juarez in school, but I didn’t even know Mulholland existed,” said Robertson, whose grandparents are from Ireland.

William Mulholland, the controversial builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, was born in Dublin in 1855. The city of Downey, Robertson pointed out, was named for another Irish immigrant, John Gately Downey, who became governor of California in 1859.

“We don’t have a big grandiose plan,” said McMahon, of how the men hope to accomplish what others have failed to do. “As they say in ‘Monty Python,’ ‘He’s making it up as he goes along.’ ”

McMahon and Robertson have hired a professional fund-raiser to identify possible donors but have little money in hand. In August, they started the Irish Times, a tabloid newspaper, funded by McMahon, that announced their intentions. The paper also featured columns by five leaders of local Irish American organizations, an attempt to bring together the often fragmented community, they said.

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They are negotiating a lease for space in Chatsworth that would house the first of what they hope will be five satellite centers. Although they have yet to sign the deal, they said they want to open a Valley facility by the end of the year. It would include a performance area, a floor good for Irish dancing--wildly popular since the success of the Irish show Riverdance--and temporary headquarters for the center.

Some leaders of the Irish American community blame factionalism for the inability of earlier efforts to create a center.

“It’s hard to get everyone to fly under one banner,” said Thom MacNamara, an executive with the Game Show Network in Culver City. He is director of the Celtic Arts Center in Studio City. In January, he moved the organization into a strip mall, its first permanent home since its headquarters in Hollywood burned down in 1992.

“Ireland is made up of little kingdoms. Most people would rather be a king than a disciple of somebody else’s kingdom,” said MacNamara, whose center attracts more than 100 people for its Monday night Celtic jam sessions.

The only Irish American museum in the country is a small operation near Albany, N.Y., open from June through September.

Leading the push for a true national museum is John Walsh, head of the Irish American Cultural Institute in Morristown, N.J. His group is conducting a study to see if Americans would support a museum of the Irish American experience in Washington, D.C.

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“Every group has made a contribution to the mosaic of America,” Walsh said. “I think the contributions of Irish Americans would be second to none, but there’s no place their story’s being told.”

George Washington celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Morristown in 1780, said Walsh, rattling off Irish American facts.

“A lot of the heroes of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and the most decorated soldiers of the first and second World Wars were Irish American,” he said. “The railroads, the canals, the tunnels, most of the laborers on them were Irish American, and yet so many of the contributions of the Irish are not recognized.”

Walsh’s organization is asking individuals to contribute $1,000 and corporations $2,500--small enough sums, he said, that donors won’t feel burned if the study shows a museum is not feasible.

Walsh said he envisions a facility on the scale of Washington’s Holocaust Museum and said he would pleased to see Irish Americans contribute as readily as Jewish supporters of that institution have.

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