Thursday, February 21, 2013

'Irish Philadelphia' Roots Run Deep, Says Author Poxon

Marita Krivda Poxon, author of "Irish Philadelphia" (Arcadia Publishing, 2012), simply put, was born to write this book. Her skills as a research librarian certainly played a part, as well as having managed archives at several libraries, but not nearly as much as her obvious dedication to preserving Irish history and the almost palpable feeling of pride and love that serves as the overarching theme of this book about her hometown. Recently she answered some questions for The Wild Geese's Maryann Tracy.

What is the book about?

The book is a pictorial history of the Irish who arrived in Philadelphia in the 17th century and traces their achievements through three centuries.  It includes more than 200 historic images, which include engravings, historic photographs, and other printed material including programs, letters and charters.  

Marita Krivda Poxon
These images come principally from the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center, the papers of the Dr. Dennis Clark and of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick housed at the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the Commodore John Barry Club – the Irish Center, the MacSwinney Club, the Joseph McGarrity Papers at Villanova University, and the Irish Edition newspaper. 

The book begins with the Colonial Irish and covers the development of the first Catholic churches, the Nativists Riots of 1844, the arrival of the Famine generation by the thousands to Philadelphia, and the place that Philadelphia played in the establishment of the Irish Free State. 20th century photographs attest to the appearances by notable Irish politicians, including Eamon de Valera to Sean MacBride to Gerry Adams.  The book also reviews the plethora of Irish organizations in Philadelphia, including the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, begun in 1771, the various Ancient Order of the Hibernian chapters, the Donegal Society as well as other county societies, the Philadelphia Ceílí Group and others. 

Joseph McGarrity, left.
Another chapter features prominent “lace curtain” Irish families from the area who amassed large fortunes including Jack Kelly, Grace Kelly, John McShain, Joseph Trainer, Henry McIlhenny, Patrick Stanton, and others. The Irish Edition newspaper's Tom Keenan has contributed many of the recent photographs scattered throughout the book.

Did your Irish roots and your studies at Trinity College Dublin influence your decision to write this book?

I always preferred the Irish side of my family.  My mother’s maiden name was Finnegan and her own father, Peter Finnegan, hailed from County Sligo although born in Liverpool, England.  My mother, Margaret Mary, spoke lovingly of her father, who made sure she took Irish step-dancing lessons and encouraged singing of the old Irish ballads.  Her brother, my Uncle Tom Finnegan, was deeply involved with The Donegal Society at The Irish Center (in Philadelphia), serving numerous years as its president or grand marshal of their annual ball or of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. I studied at Temple University, majoring in English.  I spent a summer studying in Scotland and Ireland, which convinced me that I wanted to do post-graduate work in Ireland.  I was accepted at Trinity College Dublin in 1968, where I studied for over two years. I later got a degree at Drexel University and became a research librarian working in universities and colleges. 

When I retired a few years ago, I began writing regional history starting with researching my own historic home and neighborhood in Philadelphia, called Oak Lane.  But I have always loved Irish topics, and a few years ago discovered the writings of Dr. Dennis Clark, a professor at Temple University, who has written at least 10 studies of the Irish in Philadelphia.  However, he did not provide any photographic or pictorial content.  I felt that I could enhance some of his research findings and make a contribution to the scholarship on this subject in a book format that is very popular and readable by many -- not just scholars.

Tell us about your interest in preserving Irish history.

I had been in charge of the archives in a number of libraries where I worked and started to do short historical presentations with old photographs, learning how to scan and digitize them.  I feel that photographs can tell history in powerful ways that are rich and deep, giving an emotional directness and reality-based picture of the past.  I became fascinated when I read Dennis Clark’s "The Irish in Philadelphia: 10 Generations of Urban Experience," wondering if I could find historic photographs of the people he mentioned.  As a research librarian familiar with Philadelphia’s historical societies, museums, and university collections, I felt it was a perfect fit for me to combine my skills. I could locate and bring to life photographs that would highlight the contributions that the Irish have made in the development of Philadelphia, my home town.

Is there a large population of Irish descendants in Philadelphia?

If you go back to 1850 or so, Philadelphia’s population was over 220,000 when Boston’s was 113,000.  Philadelphia had 72,000 Irish, while Boston had a population of 35,000 Irish.  After the arrival of the Famine immigrants, Philadelphia had an industrial growth rate of 54% to 65% over the course of 30 years or so.  There are hundreds of thousands of descendants of this 19th century influx of immigrants who continue to populate the city and its extensive suburban counties including Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks counties, which participate in Philadelphia-based Irish societies as well as developing their own offshoots of groups like the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.

St. Patrick's Day banquet of the Ancient Order of Hibernians at
 the Irish Center in Philadelphia, March 17, 1959.
What makes them unique?

If you take the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick as an example, I think what makes Philadelphia’s groups so unique is that our societies are among the oldest in America.  The Friendly Sons predated the establishment of the U.S. by five years, being founded in 1771.  The neighborhoods in Philadelphia still maintain many of the historic churches, such as St. Malachy’s; Old St. Mary’s, where Commodore John Barry is buried; and Old St. Joseph’s, the city's first Roman Catholic church and where the first Catholic mass in Philadelphia was celebrated.  This sense of history makes this a sacred place for Irish Americans since immigrants [here] have found religious freedom as well as economic, political and intellectual advancement for centuries. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of your research and writing of the book?

I discovered a private club called the MacSwiney Club, located in nearby Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which houses the original minute-books of the Clan Na Gael, an offshoot of the Ireland’s Fenian Brotherhood.  Joseph McGarrity, a Carrickmore-born man. The Tyrone native made a fortune distilling whiskey in Philadelphia and funded the Easter 1916 Uprising.  The extent of the involvement of McGarrity and other local groups in this revolution was truly astonishing for me to discover.  The Friends of Irish Freedom, started by McGarrity, raised millions of dollars for this cause.  [Future Irish Taoiseach] Eamon de Valera and McGarrity were close friends, as were many other founders of the Irish Free State.

Is there anything you found particularly challenging in your writing?

(Philadelphia Famine Memorial, photo courtesy of Tom Keenan)

It was hard to limit the historic information in Chapter 1, where I discovered dozens of Irish-born heroes of the American Revolution, as it was to tell the story of the connection of Philadelphia’s Irish in the 19th and 20th centuries with the establishment of the Irish Free State.  In the late 19th century, when I would read the accounts in old newspapers and pamphlets and lectures, it was hard to keep all the political movements straight since the complexity of Irish history was mirrored in the complex reactions of factions in Philadelphia.  I tried to show photographs that could mirror how history unfolded.  But it was messy and complex at times.  I tried to keep issues such as Sinn Fein and Noraid and the Troubles as simple as I could.

What’s your next project?

I hope to continue to find photographs to tell the story of the Irish in Philadelphia.  This time I want to find more photos from the 19th century neighborhoods where the Irish settled, including Kensington, Port Richmond, Moyamensing, and East Falls.  I hope to also write feature stories on some of the prominent Irish persons, like Grace Kelly and her Irish Library in Monaco, Henry McIlhenny’s Donegal Castle and other such topics. WG

Monday, February 18, 2013

St. Patrick's Day Art Competition for Children

New York - The Consulate General of Ireland in New York has launched a St. Patrick's Day/Lá Fhéile Pádraig Art Competition, which is open to children from 6 to 16 years.  Enter through participating schools and organiations or independently, through the Irish Arts Center in New York.

The competition has been designed to further the knowldge of St. Patrick, his cultural signficance to Ireland, and why St. Patrick's Day is celebrated around the world.

Information on how to prepare for the compeitition, materials needed, and procedures can be found on the Consulate General's website.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

‘Airswimming’: Forsaken Women Find Love in Margins

By Megan Finnegan Bungeroth / Special to The Wild Geese

New York -- The Irish Rep might seem an odd choice of a venue to stage the United States premiere of a play by a British playwright chronicling the tragic stories of two British women in Britain. But this production of “Airswimming,” Charlotte Jones’ first play, is a feat in its ability to show the particular plight of two individuals while illuminating a much larger, shadowy world that engulfed thousands of women, in Ireland as well as other European countries, in the 1920s.

This week, the world is still buzzing anew about the atrocious conditions under which thousands of Irish women were kept in servitude in the Magdalene Laundries from 1922 to 1996. In a report released by Irish Sen. Martin McAleese, the Irish government finally admitted that there had been "significant state involvement" in placing women in what amounted to labor camps against their will, after insisting for years that the responsibility fell solely to the orders of Catholic nuns who ran the Laundries. Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny has stopped short of issuing an official apology to those women and their families, however, which has enraged many activists and reignited interest in the sordid world in which the residents were trapped for so long.

The global outrage only makes “Airswimming,“ first produced in 1997 at London's Battersea Arts Centre, shine brighter in its moment, making us remember that the thousands of faceless women who suffered were actually real people with real personalities who found myriad ways to see themselves through abominable situations.

“Airswimming” is a tightly written, two-woman play that imagines the interior lives of Miss Annie Kitson and Miss Lucy Baker, real women who were locked up in an insane asylum in England for the crime of having children out of wedlock. Their true story shocked the country when they were finally released in 1972, having spent collectively more than nine decades shut away from their families (who abandoned them and had them committed as “moral imbeciles”) and society. At the time, the British government’s National Association of Mental Health estimated that nearly half of the 52,000 inmates of the country’s mental hospitals did not, in fact, belong there at all; like Kitson and Baker, they had no diagnosable mental problems and were no less capable and functional than the average British woman on the street. And yet . . .

The most interesting question raised by “Airswimming,” one that hangs in the small, claustrophobic room that constitutes the entire stage in Irish Rep’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, is how sane individuals can possibly survive for 50 years surrounded by others insisting they are unwell. Dora and Persephone, the first names that Jones bestowed on the Kitson and Baker characters, may finally get released at the end of the play and returned their lives, but they certainly don’t escape unscathed.

Through 50 years of incarceration

Photo by Carol Rosegg: Aedín Moloney left, 
and Rachel Pickup
The audience meets Persephone (Rachel Pickup) for the first time as Dora (Aedín Moloney), who has been locked up for several years, is introduced to her new companion. Dora has already started to disappear into the persona she’s created out of obvious self-preservation -- that of a soldier. She barks orders at a terrified and deluded Persephone, who initially insists that her family will come back to fetch her and that the whole misunderstanding will be cleared up.

Within the first two minutes, Dora establishes the world into which Persephone has been thrust, although the newcomer refuses to accept it.

“Here we need strong elbows,” Dora tells her. “We have no need of a nicely turned ankle, an elegant wrist, a swan-like neck. No, here you need damn good elbows.”

Persephone fantasizes about being rescued by Reggie, the married, older man who fathered her child, and becomes increasingly agitated as she realizes that her fantasy will never come true. It’s not until Persephone relinquishes her grasp on her former world that she is able to survive.

The play flashes between earlier and later scenes, bringing the audience through over 50 years of incarceration with these women. The device of time-switching allows the viewer to understand the tedium without having to experience it firsthand, and it also shows the profound effects that Dora and Persephone -- who are affectionately dubbed “Dorph” and “Porph” in their own private world -- have on each other.

While Dora enacts her military escapism, Persephone swans around in a Doris Day wig, singing the actress’ songs and lauding her all-American, apple pie-perfect persona; she uses Doris Day’s own mask of cheery wholesomeness to get her through the darkest times in her life.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Porph: I have never been one for artifice. It is a characteristic I despise. I am always exactly what I am. I always show exactly how I feel. 
Dorph: What are you talking about? 
Porph: Doris said that. 
Dorph: I might have known.

The excellently acted and directed play lets us swirl around and dream and go “airswimming” with Dorph and Porph, while feeling the depths of Dora and Persephone’s shared despair when they inevitably confront the bleakness of their lives. Director John Keating has staged the play to highlight both the dreariness and sparkling moments, accentuating the humor without sacrificing the gravity. But the beauty, the reason why the airswimming and the dancing and the playing work to draw us in without even touching the realm of cheesiness, is because of the profound love that Dora and Persephone develop for each other. In the end, this production of “Airswimming” is not actually about the plights of the wrongfully imprisoned women of England and Ireland and all the other countries where that still happens. It’s about two women, slowly coming to the realization that they will never be rescued, and so they rescue each other. WG

“Airswimming,” produced in association with Fallen Angel Theatre Company, is playing at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd, St., New York, NY, through Sunday.  For more information, visit Irish Rep’s website at 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Welcome to ‘The Wild Geese Kitchen’

(Right: The dining room at Lynham's Hotel, Laragh, County Wicklow, Ireland.)

We at The Wild Geese are as committed as ever to exploring — and celebrating — the heritage of the Irish worldwide, and never has that mission been more flavorful as now. This week we are launching a new section to our coverage, titled simply “The Wild Geese Kitchen.” Everyone sits up and takes notice when the subject is food. Why? Because everyone loves food! For a long time, in many parts of the world, Mother Ireland was not praised for her prowess in the kitchen. We’ve all heard the slanderous joke about the seven-course Irish meal. But that's all changing: Increasingly, dramatically, foodies are looking to the Emerald Isle as a real player in the world of modern cuisine.

Surrounded by water, Ireland possesses bountiful natural resources in the form of quality, fresh seafood; salmon, lobster, mussels, scallops, prawns and oysters; an abundance of fresh vegetables, including the versatile potato; organic and free-range meats, smokehouse delicacies and Artisanal cheeses and breads.

(Left: Shepherd's Pie, one of the recipes from blogger Irish American Mom.)

In the coming weeks and months, we will highlight some of the outstanding Irish food and spirits and the hundreds of upscale Irish restaurants popping up all over the Emerald Isle and throughout the Irish diaspora, along with the Irish "fusion" dishes they are serving. And remember, we want your input. Contact us with story ideas, and please share your favorite dishes and your favorite restaurants with us!
                                                                 -- Maryann Tracy, Producer of ‘The Wild Geese Kitchen’

Shrove Tuesday -- Last Call for Irish Pancakes: 'Kitchen'

Céad míle fáilte to the inaugural column from 'The Wild Geese Kitchen,' produced by Maryann Tracy. Please send your story ideas, recommendations, recipes and feedback for us to Go raibh maith agat!
Before we find the recipe for the perfect Irish pancake, we must first learn why there is a 'Pancake Tuesday' in the Irish calendar. Pancake Tuesday, transpiring this week, is another name given to Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins in the Catholic calendar. This falls on a different day each year depending on when Easter lands. 

The name Shrove comes from the old English word "shrive," meaning to confess, as on this day Catholics would confess their sins and ask God for absolution in their parish church before returning home, where they would announce to family members what they intended to give up for Lent.

Lent, of course, symbolizes the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. In remembrance of this, rich foods, candy and other treats are given up for 40 days. Throughout the world, great feasts are held on the eve of Lent.  In Ireland, this feast happens to feature pancakes. Pancakes were chosen as pancake recipes helped exhaust stocks of milk, butter and eggs, which were forbidden during the Lenten period. It is also common for people to give up alcohol or smoking, with the money saved being placed in a collection box for the poor.
Once upon a time it was forbidden to marry during Lent, so the weeks preceding it were busy for the matchmakers, working feverishly to find suitable candidates for marriages before Ash Wednesday arrived. Households left with unmarried daughters by Shrove Tuesday tried to earn them better luck for the coming year by allowing them to toss the first pancake. Their pancake-making skill was seen as an indication of their romantic chances the next year. If the young woman could toss the pancake and receive it back into the pan, she would marry within the year. If it didn't turn or was dropped, she would remain single. 

Often the mother of the young spinsters placed her own wedding ring into the batter for the first pancake. If the first toss was a success, then the cake would be divided among the unmarried guests. The individual who received the piece containing the ring was considered doubly fortunate -- they would marry within the year, and it would be a perfect match. -- Sharon Slater and Maryann Tracy

Pancakes from the kitchen of Irish American Mom

A Traditional Irish Pancake Recipe

The following recipe for a traditional Irish Pancake is brought to you courtesy of blogger Irish American Mom


  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/4 stick butter (2 oz melted)
  • 1/4 stick melted butter (for frying)
  • freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (for serving)
Ingredients awaiting the call of Irish American Mom

Step 1: Make a batter by whisking together the flour, salt, eggs and milk.

Step 2: Add the melted butter and continue to whisk to form a smooth, thin batter.

Step 3: Heat an 8-inch skillet over medium-high heat, and brush with melted butter.

Step 4: Pour about 1/4 cup of batter into the pan and tilt the pan from side to side to cover it in a thin layer of batter.

Step 5: Reduce to medium heat. When the top is beginning to look dry after 1-2 minutes, flip the pancake and continue to cook for an additional 30-60 seconds on the second side.

Step 6: Transfer the cooked pancake or crêpe to a plate, and cover with foil to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining batter. This recipe yields between 12-15, 8-inch wide pancakes, depending on how thickly they are poured.

Step 7: When the pancakes are cooked, pour 1-2 teaspoons of lemon juice on the inside of each pancake, then sprinkle with sugar. Roll each pancake to form a cylindrical shape. Serve immediately.

Step 8: Alternative pancake fillings include jam, chocolate spread, maple syrup or golden syrup.

Servings: Approximately 15

Tell us your traditional dish for the beginning of Lent.