Jane McCarter O’Dowd, with her husband Robert and her parents John and Breda McCarter.
By Peter McDermott
The New York Irish Center this afternoon at 4 p.m. introduces its inaugural celebration of Women of Ireland and Irish America. (Go to newyorkirishcenter.org for details.)
“This year we honor Jane McCarter O'Dowd for her years of service with the New York Irish Center,” the center said in a statement. “Jane cultivated a robust cultural program at the New York Irish Center, bringing together children, adults, and senior citizens through various cultural programs, from theatre to arts & crafts to film and more. She brought her enormous talent to the Ireland Funds, continuing in the mission of displaying the inclusivity of Irish culture.”
The Irish Echo asked McCarter O’Dowd a few questions about her life and work.
Tell us something about your family background, education, and formation in Ireland.
I grew up in Buncrana, a hidden gem in Donegal, and an idyllic place to grow up and call home. The second eldest in a house of five siblings, we were very lucky in every sense. Mum was born into a family of educators and Dad's family ran a factory. They both instilled in us all a sense of community, hard work, gratitude, empathy, and the importance of paying it forward.
I found my love of community and arts as a student in Scoil Iosagain - one of the first primary schools in Ireland to create a forum for children of all abilities and was influenced by the principal Sinead McLoughlin and the head of Drama Patricia Tinney. To put it simply, when the bell rang for break we all played in the one playground together. This philosophy continued at Scoil Mhuire, a secondary school that values each and every student, their individual traits and talents, and how they can contribute to a better world. While at the University of Ulster Magee studying Drama with Psychology, I had the pleasure of working at Fort Dunree Military Museum as a tour guide which gave me a new appreciation for local heritage.
Soon after, I was thrilled to join the Derry Playhouse team, and after visiting New York in 2007 my husband Robert and I fell in love with the city and vowed one day we would call it home. It would have been very easy to push this notion to the back of our minds and leave it but if we didn't take a chance then we knew we never would, so in 2011 we landed in JFK starting our New York Chapter.
Starting anywhere is never easy, though my uncle Willie kindly introduced me to some of his friends, and between this and the kindness of strangers, we began to carve out our life in New York City. You never forget all the help and support you were given when starting out, it stays with you and goes full circle when you are in a position to help the next couple get started. We still cannot believe we’ve been here for 10 years now, and I was delighted when my brother Joseph moved to New York in 2018 and took up a position at Sloan Kettering Memorial.
Did you bring a particular philosophy to your work at the New York Irish Center?
Growing up in a close-knit community near the border gave me an appreciation for the importance of diversity and collaboration, both of which influenced my role as the New York Irish Center's first Arts and Cultural Director, and making sure that our programming offered variety and accommodated everyone.
Give us an idea about the range of events, activities there.
The New York Irish Center is a very special place that caters to everyone. Fr. Colm Campbell and Paddy Reilly were visionaries when they founded the Center on the edge of Queens at a time when Long Island City was in the early stages of developing into the gorgeous neighborhood it is today - so close to JFK, the gateway where the New York/USA Adventures, hopes, and dreams begin for so many. Pre-Pandemic the doors were open 7 days a week. Paul Finnegan made sure that everything at the center came under three pillars Community, Culture, and Care. All of the programming and every one of the groups that reside in the Center reflect these values.
I have no doubt that George Heslin along with Ryan, Karen, Stephen and Peter will continue with these pillars in mind. They’ve already come up with a number of innovative programs that are socially-distant and mindful of the times we now live in. The New York Irish Center never stopped serving the community during 2020. The team is amazing and has a wonderful Board supporting them.
What about favorite events that you think really worked out well?
It's so hard to look back on the eight years of programming and 13 books and pick out a favorite. For me, there’s a couple that stands out for different reasons. Establishing the New York Irish Center ‘s “Tír na nÓg” children's’ festival in 2012 was certainly one of these. At the time, I was shocked by the extortionate summer activities on offer throughout the city, and the strain this put parents under. There’s absolutely no need for that kind of pressure to be placed on hard-working parents and it was something I wanted to address and offer an alternative to. The Tír na nÓg Children’s Festival is a two-week summer program that offers children aged 5-12 an opportunity to learn more about Irish Heritage (and Ireland) through four courses in Drama, Dance, Visual Arts, and Music, taught by professionally qualified teaching artists every day with a showcase finale. We were able to offer this program for $250 per child which included all materials and teaching costs. Kids affectionately called it “Irish Camp" and parents were thrilled that their kids were both enjoying learning about their Irish heritage and having affordable entertainment in the summer.
Another program I remember fondly, was when I collaborated with Ciarán O`Reilly and the Irish Repertory Theatre team on a very special project called “Kennedy’’s Cadets.” During President Kennedy's trip to Ireland, he was fascinated with the Cadet’s Drills and requested a videotape to be sent to him. After the world was shocked and saddened by the president’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy requested that the Irish Defense Force be present at John F Kennedy's funeral and perform the same drill that he was so moved by - It's a fascinating story that isn’t told often enough. A company called Nementon produced an amazing documentary that followed a couple of these cadets on the same journey for the 40th Anniversary. For the 55th Anniversary, we screened this documentary at the Irish Repertory Theatre and had the pleasure of hosting Paula Ui Uallachain and two of these cadets, William Nott,and Michael McGrath, who were able to give the audience a first-hand account of the incredible journey they took. I first learned this unusual piece of Irish history from my dad, John, and was thrilled to collaborate with the Irish Repertory Theatre to help more people learn about the story.
The Kennedy's Cadets event at the Irish Rep, from left to right, Jane McCarter O'Dowd, Paula Ui Uallachain Michael McGrath, Ciaran O'Reilly and William Nott.
During the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the center turned into a relief outpost overnight, fueled by a team of volunteers. Then Consul General Noel Kilkenny and Vice Consul Peter Ryan, along with a number of community leaders formed and led a massive volunteer effort under the banner of the Irish Meitheal to help with the mass clear up of areas left devastated. There were thousands of volunteers boarded onto buses to help that day. Rob and I were in a small team that had to tear down the inside of homes destroyed by water damage. It was hard to believe this was New York. During the second Irish Meitheal I suggested that in addition to the repairs and clean up, it might be a good idea to try to provide seasonal relief for both parents and children who had lost everything in 24 hours - and so close to Christmas and the holidays. Peter Ryan and Brian McCabe found a school in Rockaway to set up our operations for the day and Jimmy Kerr and I sourced a range of games, toys, and shoeboxes.
Inspired by the seasonal toy-drives in Ireland, where the amazing organization Team-Hope would transport 1000s of shoeboxes to children in need, we set about emulating this formula for the children and families affected by Hurricane Sandy. I did tap into my father's factory background, as the operation quickly became known as the Shoe-box-gift Toy Factory run by a team of volunteer elves who worked incredibly hard to pack, wrap, and stack, 800 shoe-box-gifts that day. It soon became apparent that not only after disasters like Hurricane Sandy, that there would always be a need for seasonal relief like shoebox gifts. So we turned it into an annual effort, and on the first Saturday of December the Pop-up Shoe-box Toy Factory would open its doors and the elves would always return. I'm a member of The Manhattan Gaels GAA Club and every year the ladies, and men team members would turn up in their droves to help. The GAA community here in New York is so supportive.
My good friend Andrea Haughian used to write to Santa offering her services as an Elf, so it was a bonus we could accommodate this as well. Eddie Dowling and John Duddy from the Padded Wagon became our transport elves and drove 800 shoeboxes to Jim Killoran and Sesh Chari who played the critical role of delivering these gifts to their new owners.
One event that will always stand out for me personally, was back in 2014 when George Heslin gave me the opportunity to feature my first full-length play “Between Lands and Legends” as part of the Origin Theatre Company’s 2014 1st Irish Theatre Festival. I've always produced short plays for one thing or another but never a 90-minute play and with an all-children cast. The kids were amazing and the parents were so supportive in every way,
Margaret Molloy helped make costumes with her husband Jim, John McGroarty let us rehearse in his building, the McGarry and Whelan families made props - everyone had a job from learning lines to rehearsals drop-offs. My brother William is a sound engineer and had crafted wonderful audio for the show, my husband created the most beautiful artwork, Seamus McDaid of McDaid’s Football Special kindly donated the famous Donegal soft drink, which was a real treat for the young cast.
Emmet O'Sullivan, Senan Garry, Finn O'Sullivan, Evan Whelan, Niamh Renehan, performing, "Between Lands & Legends”
I probably had everyone's head tortured on the lead up to it. I was so delighted that my parents and sister Amy were able to make it out for the debut. If I had known how much stress it would have been beforehand I may not have been so quick to say yes, but George has a natural talent for finding the strength within someone and inspiring you to challenge yourself. At the time, I had founded two drama groups at the center “Emerald footprints,” a children's drama group, which was the main cast, and “Golden footprints,” which was made up of our more mature group, and also members of the senior lunch club. The Golden footprints group was so good to come and support the kids. It was always so much fun when I could bring both groups together. I inherited my love and appreciation for drama from my mother, Breda, who wrote and produced plays as a teacher in Birmingham. Rob's parents are no strangers to the stage either. Drama can so often be underutilized, it has so many benefits for all ages. My sister Cathy has three children, Holly-Jane, James, and John-Henry. They have wonderful imaginations and a natural creative flair - so I’m hoping they got the drama gene too.