Philly center provides services, home away from home

By Peter McDermott

There's no such thing as a free lunch, they say. But don't tell them that at the Irish Immigration Center in Upper Darby, Pa.

Indeed, on a recent Wednesday, West Cork native Declan Forde got both lunch and an Irish passport.

The Dublin-born executive director Siobhan Lyons summarized the center's goals as "supporting immigrants, promoting citizenship, and strengthening the Irish community" in the Philadelphia area.

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The long-standing midweek seniors' lunch falls under the rubrics arguably of the first and third categories. The center, meanwhile, assists with both Irish and U.S. citizenship applications. It also deals with Irish and U.K. passport renewals, green card applications, family-based immigration petitions and issues relating to housing, employment, driver's licenses, social security and tax I.D., and emergency medical treatment.

"The center has a particular mission to help the most vulnerable: the elderly, the undocumented, those who've been in prison, or those who've been arrested and are facing deportation and anybody in difficulty," Lyons said.

The executive director added that the community's organizations all want to promote Irish heritage and culture and to strengthen the ties between Ireland and the diaspora. However, she believes that they can achieve those goals most effectively if they work together. Journalists Denise Foley and Jeff Meade of the website agree and they visited the center on that Wednesday afternoon to discuss ways to better coordinate the activities of the diverse community.

Meantime, several of the senior citizens lingered for an hour or so. Donegal native Susan Bradley said: "I come to chat with my friends. I look forward to this day."

Pat Lyons, who is from Belfast, said: "Some weeks we tell funny stories about growing up -- things you thought you'd forgotten about. We laugh for hours."

Marie McGrath has always remembered that Sarah McGillian, seated next to her, was a champion at marbles when they were children back in Strabane, Co. Tyrone. That was when they were in grammar school together, but they went their separate ways in their teenage years. The two reconnected after they immigrated to the Philadelphia area and have stayed close ever since.

Fifty years ago, people came to America for adventure, McGrath recalled, or were sent by a parent to keep a watchful eye on a sibling. It often wasn't for a job. "There was plenty of work in Tyrone," she said.

Once hired to child-minding positions in the Philadelphia area, many young Irishwomen found themselves to be virtual slaves. They recounted on that last Wednesday in July their individual escape stories.

The 75-year-old Forde's unhappy tale, though, goes back to his childhood. His parents both died when he was a small child. After staying with relatives for a couple of years, he was sent at age 8 to the Fishery School in Baltimore, West Cork, a clerical-run industrial school, the worst of such institutions, according to reports, in terms of the degree of abuse and neglect suffered by the children. He left when he was 16.

He has a few good memories of the school. Future Taoiseach Jack Lynch and fellow Cork legend Christy Ring, for example, visited to show off their hurling skills. He's sure that neither man was aware of the crimes being committed behind its walls, although some other visitors may well have been.

In America, he met his future wife when they were both working at Boston Children's Hospital - he was in administration, she a student nurse. They are now great-grandparents. His family have all done well, he said.

"I've had an interesting life, all things considering," Forde said.

He dropped into the center one day a few months ago. It happened to be a Wednesday. "I didn't know it was here," he said. "Siobhan told me to come back at lunchtime."

In contrast, Kathleen Murtaugh, who grew up on the Roscommon/Mayo border, has been a regular since the lunch started some years ago. "They are very nice people here," she said.

About once a month, the center hosts a guest. John Byrne and a fellow musician entertained the 40 or so who showed up the previous Wednesday. The archbishop of Derry and the consul general to New York are among those who've spoken at the lunchtime gathering.

Regulars at the center have also traveled to meet well-known personalities. "Pat and I got to go to New York to meet President McAleese," Murtaugh said about the recent U.S. visit by Ireland's head of state. "We met her husband, and her brother and sister-in-law," she said. "They are all very nice people."

To help with this busy schedule the center has Mairead Conley, who on a recent night was crowned Rose of Tralee for both Philadelphia and the Mid-Atlantic region.

"I've been coming here four days a week since last August," said the deputy director for community planning. "It's been quite a year.
"There's never a dull moment," said Conley, who plans to do post-graduate study with a view to working in the non-profit sector. "It can be challenging especially when assisting the undocumented. But I've learned to deal with deadlines on a daily basis."

Generally, though, for a few hours each Wednesday the atmosphere is relaxed, while senior citizens, small children and those from every age group in between enjoy a meal together.

"Siobhan goes out of her way for everyone." Pat Lyons said. "It's a family here."

[PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT] Declan Forde inspects his new Irish passport with Siobhan Lyons, the executive director of the Irish Immigration Center.

The Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia is located at 7 South Cedar Lane, Upper Darby, Pa. 19082. Tel: 610-789-6355; Fax: 610-789-6352. Email: Website: