Siobhan Lyons has been executive director of the
Irish Immigration Center for five years.
By Peter McDermott
Siobhan Lyons has a problem.
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It’s one, though, that is testament to her success as executive director of the Irish Immigration Center of Philadelphia.
“We are working beyond our capacity,” said the Dubliner, who is marking five years as executive director in Upper Darby, Pa.
After she took over, the IIC assumed greater responsibility, in tandem with other such centers around the country, in caring for older members of the Irish community.
“Now, we have 500 seniors on our list and 250 of them are regular participants,” the Dubliner said, referring to events like the weekly lunch on Wednesday.
And the numbers of people seeking and getting help — passport applications, legal advice and visa advice, for example – go up in all categories each year.
“The Irish Immigration Center has made great strides,” Lyons said. “But there’s clearly more of a demand than we can service.”
She added. “And we’ve pretty much outgrown our space. We have to raise more money so we can expand services.”
As part of that process, she would like to increase the full-time staff to three.
“At first, it was me and some volunteers,” she said.
Then, in March 2012, full-time help arrived in the person of Leslie Alcock, a native of County Carlow.
“Siobhan was looking to expand and to hire a social worker. She’d interviewed a few people [in Philadelphia],” Alcock said. “And then reached out to the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers.”
Paul Dowling of Chicago Irish Immigrant Support suggested as a candidate Alcock, who has a Master’s in social work from University College Dublin.
“I love it. Siobhan is great,” she said. “It’s a great community here. I’ve met wonderful people.”
It’s been Alcock’s first extended period working outside of Ireland. “I really like it in Philadelphia,” she said. “I have the best of both worlds: I live in the city, where there’s a mixture of people, and work out here in Upper Darby where there’s a sense of Irish community.”
Executive Director Lyons was well-traveled even before she reached her late teens. Her father was an Irish diplomat who served in Nairobi, Washington D.C., London and Singapore, among other places when she was young. She studied Arabic for her degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and worked for two years at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.
Lyons came to Philadelphia initially with her Canadian husband, and after they divorced some years ago she opted to stay.
While she may be far from home, she is geographically closer to it than any other close family member. Her two brothers are based in Singapore, while her sister is in Australia. Her mother is deceased and her father, who is remarried, lives in Malaysia. Her grandmother in County Mayo was the last link to home until her death in 2011. Still, she goes back when she can and traveled to last September’s All Ireland final at Croke Park with a group from Philadelphia’s Irish community.
That community is her focus for most of her waking hours.
Lyons is always concerned about the bigger picture and some of the bigger questions.
“What is the purpose of the Irish community? What does it mean to be Irish American?”
“It needs to be more cohesive and it needs to be more ambitious,” she argued.
“So many millions of people, many of them are working at cross purposes,” Lyons said. “The numbers of Americans who identify as Irish are going down for the first time. What are we going to do about that?”
Irish Americans obviously have a big presence and a lot of clout in the City of Brotherly Love. But Lyons said that there are two kinds of Irish American — those who active in some way, and those who mainly identify as Irish around St. Patrick’s Day.
“What can we to do to increase their engagement?” she said, referring to the latter group.
“There were Irish signers of the Declaration of Independence; the Irish were involved with the Constitution,” Lyons said, adding that Commodore Barry was from Wexford and that William Penn had Cork connections.
“I wonder what people will say in 100 years about our contribution to America today,” Lyons said.
The Irish Immigration Center is located at 7 South Cedar Lane, Upper Darby, Pa. 19082. Tel: 610-789-6355; email: [email protected].
PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT