Making lemonade from lemons in San Fran.

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Lands End in San Francisco. [PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT]

By Anne Cassidy Carew

During this pandemic, the last 12 months, our lives have changed tremendously. Some of us lost friends, family members or neighbors, the elderly have been isolated for protection, unemployment, mental health and hunger have skyrocketed, students and teachers have transformed the concept of learning and businesses have adapted or were swallowed up by this virus.

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I walk two to three miles to the beach everyday and during that walk I notice more older folks and families out with their young children. Have we gotten back family time during this pandemic? Have we had an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and others because now we have time? Did we find something that we loved, and are good at, that we didn’t know we could do or had the chance to do? Benjamin Franklin said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” I think this statement has never been more true. Who would have thought I would be an ambassador for the Spar Craic Run 1k, 5k, 10k on March 17 - a global run that began in Belfast benefiting Aisling events.

Librarian Jennifer Drennan at the Patrick J. Dowling Library.

I was president of the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco from 2019 to 2020. Our building is a 20,000-sq. ft. facility built in 1975 by a volunteer workforce and is two blocks from the ocean. In recent years, if it wasn't a rusty exposed HVAC on the roof, pigeons in the ceiling or a broken elevator, it was a decline in events and revenue that greatly impacted the sustainability of the Center. We metamorphosed from a members-only 501c7 social club to a 501c3 non-profit organization and in late 2019, early 2020, we were beginning to see the fruits of our labor. Local bands were starting to play, younger generations of Irish San Franciscans were attending events and becoming members of the Center, and artists from around the country and Ireland were performing regularly in our building. Sharon Shannon was scheduled to play in March 2020 at our block party and we were going to record and share with the world.

Mia Otellini, Evelyn Reid, Charlie Donohue and Abby Peterson are learning Irish dancing on the new outdoor stage.

San Francisco City Hall has a long held tradition of raising the Irish flag before the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and, although the event went ahead as planned on Friday, March 6, later that evening the City shut everything down as part of the first Shelter in Place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As an 11-person board, we scrambled like sheep at the crossroads to reorganize ourselves. We conserved where we could and turned off large walk-in refrigerators that had been operating for over 40 years, plugs were pulled on TVs, computers and electrical items not in use, garbage cans were made smaller and the belt was pulled tighter as the months in lockdown dragged on.

The board met every week for almost five months in an effort to minimize expenses and keep the building safe. We developed a fundraising program to help us through the pandemic, and worked with staff to not allow our Center to close permanently. We also resurrected our cultural programming activities having seen it decimated earlier in the spring. We started with building an outside wooden stage for local Irish dancers to practice and perform on.

The Irish Center is the fifth of such institutions in a line of 170 years of San Francisco history. Check out our Youtube video that was created honoring our 45 years on 45th Avenue. We had a great deal of San Francisco Irish heritage riding on our shoulders.

Irish dancing teacher Michael Dillon pictured with Arianna Abbott, Clodagh Bourke and Niamh Bourke at the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco.

We worked with local food vendors in providing dinners to go, to generate some much needed revenue to help pay our bills. We launched a St. Patrick’s Appeal that was to run from May to September with the lofty target amount of $75,000. Because the pandemic continued and excluded us from the inside of the building we extended it till December and raised over $150,000. We established an outdoor dining facility called Wawona Gates where people could come, safely, to listen to Irish music, have a meal, see old friends, take Irish dance lessons or shop with local artists displaying their wonderful creations. It was a lesson in back to basics about our mission as a non-profit cultural event space.

Alongside our outside space we realized the idea of an Irish Shoppe-selling the comforts of Irish goods and bread, available to our local community. Bags of Tayto, Irish cookies, candy, flour and soup mix, Keogh’s crisps and UICC masks all became top sellers. Our cultural gem, the Patrick J. Dowling Library, continued to accept library book donations, and the staff and volunteers were kept busy sorting and shelving. Irish language classes with Comhaltas all moved online and our scholarship program never missed a beat as we delivered close to $50,000 to students heading to high school and college.

Yes, through adversity we transformed to a greater community center that supported people through music, food and a safe outdoor space to see familiar faces. A place where one could find normalcy, peace and be less isolated. Younger generations came out to the Wawona Gates and the older generation popped by the shop for a quick chat and some bags of Tayto and candy bars. We held food and clothing drives and shared it with our community partners to distribute it to the most needy in our community.

We commenced 2021 with our 1,800-sq. ft. tent installation and live Irish music and food, an Irish bread competition, a St. Brigid’s chat with Sr. Mary Teresa from the Brigidine order and “Mael Brigde" author of her new book, the Irish shoppe selling new items, and monthly genealogy, historical and library talks. We continue our partnerships with the 20-plus Irish organizations and clubs. Music is in the air (on Zoom) - join us on March 17 and 20 at 7:30 PST “Paint the Bridge Green” event with Mundy and Phil Coulter and many other local artists from around the world.

Irish dancer Kasey Watson.

We may be 6,000 miles away from Ireland but you when you partake in our cultural events and you close your eyes and hear the Irish music, munch on a bag of Tayto crisps, chat with Josephine from Cork at the Shoppe or sip a Guinness you might feel a bit closer, a deeper connection and realize that the distance is only an illusion.

We have many wonderful events planned: whiskey tasting with special guests. A new exhibit called, “Jig: A dedication to Irish dancing in San Francisco during the past 150 years.” A photographic exhibition of the private collection of Patrick J. Dowling, the creator of our library who captured photos of the San Francisco Irish community during the 1960s and ’70s. A traditional tea party that gathers generations together. Artists in residence, Irish storytelling and heritage programs for kids, author and artist chats, and many more. Check our facebook page or website for details:

Join me in raising a glass of lemonade — Sláinte!

Anne Cassidy Carew was president of the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco from 2019 to 2020.