By Peter McDermott
A new era begins at 10-40 Jackson Ave. on Oct. 1.
While the New York Irish Center has been largely empty and silent since lockdown, a momentous changing of the guard will take place there on that Thursday morning. For its longtime executive director Paul Finnegan will hand over the reins to Origin Theatre Company founding director George Heslin.
Finnegan told the Echo Sunday evening that a “thoughtful succession plan” had been put in place by the board.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
He had begun to feel in 2019 that he’d achieved what he’d set out to do at the center in Long Island City in Western Queens. “My work was done and maybe it was now time for a fresh injection of creativity and ideas,” he said.
Discussions with the board began early in 2020, before the global pandemic hit. The outgoing executive director said, “George seemed like a great candidate.”
The Limerick City-born Heslin revealed when contacted Sunday that he had a series of interviews with the executive board and then was offered the position in recent weeks. It was “great news” and he was “delighted.”
He told the Echo, however, “It is difficult as founding director to leave after 19 years.” He added that he is helping the board of directors find the right successor to take Origin into its third decade. He will act as an advisor in the transitional period, just as the outgoing executive director will guide him in his first weeks in Long Island City.
“The board has been very supportive. It’s wonderful to have such great people around both organizations,” Heslin said.
“I feel extremely proud of the work that I’ve done. I dedicated 11 years to the center,” said Finnegan, who lives with his wife Rosa and their son and daughter in Glendale, Queens. “It’s time to embark on a new chapter in my life.”
In a statement, the New York Irish Center said Finnegan had raised “more than $10 million for operations and capital campaigns for extensive building upgrades, 100 percent debt mortgage elimination, and a vastly expanded cultural profile, with public events in theatre, music, film and language arts. He has helmed the establishment of a reliable support base, including New York City and New York State public funding, Irish government funding, and strategic support from major Irish trusts.”
The NYIC said that Finnegan, an engineering graduate from his home-town alma mater NUI, Galway, who also has a master’s in business from Baruch College, “developed increasingly progressive and community-active programs: the ‘Story Continues’ networking series is designed to more fully understand Irish cultural identity, including intra-racial and non-traditional family dynamics, which is particularly timely as both the United States and Ireland grapple with their unique social legacies.”
In the dozen or so years his predecessor led the NYIC, Heslin conceived and oversaw the development of Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival. The NYIC, under its former program director Jane McCarter, hosted and produced numerous productions and events that were part of the annual festival.
Heslin believes that a “great part of the success of any organization” are in its partnerships, and in that sense, the NYIC and Origin are similar.
In the case of Origin, supporting partners have ranged from the Government of Ireland, notably via the Irish Consulate, and the Ireland Funds to the small businesses he’s gotten to know better since he moved to Woodside in recent years. “It’s a fantastic community,” he said. “It’s a vibrant community.” (The Heslin family back home in Limerick has been important, too, to him personally in its support.)
Being convenient to neighborhoods such as Woodside, Sunnyside and Maspeth, and also being just one stop on the 7 train from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, the NYIC he said is “well-positioned” to continue to open its doors and work with the community.
He wants to build on the “exceptional job” that Finnegan has done with regard to its social and cultural programs.
Heslin said, “I will listen to the community. It’s very, very important to listen, particularly during these times.”
The center’s signature seniors program “is doing great work, but there’s a new whole set of circumstances to work through with Covid.”
He knows that there are a “lot of parents in the community who really need support right now with online activities, sometimes something as simple as online story-telling in the afternoon. We can build platforms around that.”
Although indoor events are still not possible, he would like to do something with the window area for children leading up to and on Halloween.
He envisages at some point setting up a teenage choir. “The idea is that it would become a flash mob,” he said.
Heslin would like to work closely with bars in the area and believes the center could support traditional musicians by hosting events in garden venues that would allow social distancing.
“How do you build on the online programming right now, but eventually that can morph into on-site programming as well?” Heslin asked. Again, he sees the opportunity and potential. “Having a hybrid of both is going to be exciting,” he said. “It allows the possibility for including more communities.”
Online programming also creates new opportunities for links with organizations in Ireland. The new executive director would like to explore the idea of international partnerships in the context of the seniors program.
Finnegan said that the founder, the late Rev. Colm Campbell, wanted the “community to have a home.” As it evolved, the center’s leaders saw that an effective way to provide that was with arts events. “We’ve brought it to a place where it developed as a cultural outlet,” the executive director said.
In tapping a high-profile arts leader as his successor, the board is clearly making a statement about its commitment in that area.
Heslin was educated by the Jesuits at Crescent College in Limerick. An actor by vocation, he did a nine-month course in directing at Ireland’s national theatre company, the Abbey, and a four-year degree course in drama at Trinity College Dublin. After graduation, he had stints working with the Gate Theatre and RTÉ’s soap opera “Glenroe.” In London, in the 1990s, he got a production job on Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia: Here I Come!” After taking up an opportunity to come to the U.S., Heslin spent two years in Uta Hagen’s master class in acting, and in the year 2000, after a period dividing his time between Limerick, London and New York, he decided to make his life in America.
Aside from his work with Origin and the 1st Irish Festival, he has directed scores of plays over the past decade.
“People are craving creativity in the community,” Heslin said.
‘Assisting those who have greatest need’
The following are statements commenting on the departure of Executive Director Paul Finnegan:
Consul General Ciarán Madden
The New York Irish Center is a key partner for the Ireland’s Consulate General in New York, and we are delighted to support their work.
“From a previous role, I knew Paul a little before I arrived in New York and he was extremely welcoming when I got here and ever since.
“I want to commend his innovative programming in recent years, including around LGBTQ+ issues and racism, celebrating and promoting the diversity of Irish America, as well as his focus on culture. This was all, of course, in addition to the ongoing vital work of the NYIC, under Paul’s guidance, at the heart of the Irish community in Long Island City.
“Through the worst of the pandemic, Paul was also part of the core team responsible for Sláinte 2020, helping assist those in greatest need in our community. With Sláinte 2020, Paul and the others, showed a remarkable coming together of the Irish community.
“Through Origin Theater Company, George Heslin is another longstanding partner of the Consulate. We look forward to collaborating with him and supporting him in his new role.
Elizabeth Lusskin, President LIC Partnership, and Executive Director LIC BID
“During Paul’s tenure, the Irish Center has become not only a vibrant home for the Irish community, but also a true neighborhood cultural institution and de facto community center, hosting performances, meetings, information sessions, and providing essential services. Paul has also been a trusted and impactful partner and leader, including taking on the roles of Board Member of the LIC Business Improvement District and Block Captain for LIC Springs, our local festival, and much, much more. We look forward to continuing our partnership now with George and the great team at the Irish Center. But we will miss Paul and thank him for all his service to the community.”
Sean Mackin, Chair, New York Irish Center
“In his 11 years at the helm, Paul Finnegan has charted a course for the New York Irish Center that has been as exciting as it is gratifying from an institutional standpoint. Under his stewardship we have not only increased our services and deepened our support of a very broad Irish immigrant community, but we have found ourselves building our profile and reputation in the borough of Queens and in the booming Long Island City neighborhood we are a part of.
“Efforts to bring in more arts and culture programming and also our experiences collaborating with other organizations to develop unique social welfare events and services have made us stronger and transformed our building – which we now fully own! — into something which we believe would have made our departed founders Paddy Reilly and Fr. Colm Campbell very proud.
“Our entire board joins me in congratulating Paul for a job well done and for leaving the Center much stronger than when he started.”