SF’s Deep Irish History
By Jonathan Farrell
As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, many Irish (and Irish-for-a-day) celebrants will be out at pubs and restaurants throughout the City eager to enjoy the day’s festivities. A popular spot in the Sunset District becomes the epicenter of the “wearing of the green” festivities: the United Irish Cultural Center on 45th Avenue near Sloat Boulevard.
When it was established in 1974, the Sunset and surrounding areas had a significant population of residents and merchants of Irish-Celtic and European Ancestry.
Establishing and building the UICC was a testament to the thousands of Irish immigrants who migrated to the United States. According to records – going back to the time of the “Great Potato Famine of the 1840s” – more than 600,000 people left Ireland for the U.S.
“In a twist of history, the California gold rush by and large coincided with the famine in Ireland,” said Michael Treacy, vice consul of the consulate general of Ireland in San Francisco. “So the 1840s saw a great number of Irish who left in search of a better life attracted to California. This means that a large number of those with Irish heritage living here date their arrival back to the famine and its aftermath. Due to this coincidence of timing, there was a strong Irish population as California took its early shape and was admitted into the union in 1850.”
Despite the many prejudices against the Irish at the time, one of the reasons the Irish were able to mobilize socially and politically, especially in a place like San Francisco, was because they spoke English. And, as some historians point out, they understood the basics of governmental systems since much of American governmental practices are based upon the English and other European influences familiar to the Irish.
Another element was the fact that many of the Irish were laborers and were determined to improve living conditions and social standings. This was something that was denied to them, or at least made extremely difficult in English-dominated Ireland.
Also, because many of the Irish were Catholic and discriminated against, their dedication to education, faith and family culture encouraged them to form bonds that helped them socially and politically.
Yet, no sooner did the UICC form as an apex of the Irish in America, the influence of the Irish, especially in the City, began to diminish in the 1970s.
The prosperity of the post-WWII era that the Irish benefited from and contributed to, at the same time beckoned them like so many to “greener pastures.”
Their grown children and then grandchildren were part of the flight to the suburbs. As highways were built and new housing sprang up outside of the City, the Irish-Americans, like scores of other immigrant-group descendants, sought more space and social-economic mobility in the brand new “little boxes” that sprang up to a new middle class.
Even though many of the “old-timers” and their extended families that lived outside the City continued to gather and attend events at the UICC, gradually the prominence of Irish culture in San Francisco faded.
It was replaced by new waves of immigration and migration from other parts of the world, not of European ancestry. This and many other factors contributed to a decline in the dominance of Irish-Celtic culture, such as a shift in family life, a changing economy and the impact of technology.
In 2018, Carl Nolte of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article about the decline in membership at the UICC. In it he pointed out that the UICC’s membership decline “has roots in the demographic shifts in San Francisco that started around the time of the Summer of Love in 1968. New people moved to San Francisco with different loyalties. And, now there’s a tech boom.”
Anne Cassidy Carew, president of the UICC, recognizes this shift in social demographics realizing that it is not just here in San Francisco but throughout the United States. Earlier this year, she flew to New York City to attend a conference of Irish cultural centers across North America.
These other Irish cultural centers also were experiencing a decline. Yet as Carew noted: “It was a brilliant networking opportunity for the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco to be a part of the Irish Centers of North America.”
When the UICC was founded in the 1970s, it was primarily a social club, like so many other ethnic, civic, fraternal and religious-theme-inspired clubs of the past, from another time and era. Clubs like The Sons of Italy, The Elks and The Daughters of the American Revolution, among others.
Today, such organizations are losing members. One reason is the economy, with its commuting and often flux-scheduled work force. The other, as some social observers note, is the ever-evolving and changing sense of diverse social and collective identities. Today’s young adults who will soon be entering into the work-force have a much different outlook on such things as ethnic, religious and other social affiliations.
Recognizing the major shifts, especially after meeting with other Irish centers, Carew and the UICC staff made an important change. They let go of the previous social club model.
“Last year, we operated strictly as a 501c3 nonprofit,” Carew said. “This new business structure allows donors and members a tax deduction when contributing funds to the UICC.”
And, by making this business structure change, the UICC is poised for the future, with all its complexities.
“This new business structure,” noted Carew “has opened up greater access and support from foundations and the Irish government to promote cultural programs for all.”
Even if the presence of the Irish has dwindled, the impact the Irish made upon San Francisco and the nation is undeniable. And, as Treacy also noted, “The current population of the island of Ireland is approximately 6.6 million people. A vast multiple of this – some 70 million people worldwide – claim Irish heritage and ancestry. Thirty three million of these live in the United States and, finally, of these, 2.5 million live in California (more than any other state).
Carew and the UICC staff are looking forward to providing new cultural programing in the coming years.
Also, Carew welcomes all those eager to join in the annual celebration at UICC.
“We need volunteers for Saint Patrick’s Day week. And we need volunteers for “45 years on 45th Avenue” jubilee on April 25,” she said.
For more information about the St. Patrick’s Day celebration and the upcoming 45th anniversary jubilee in April, visit http://www.irishcentersf.org or call (415) 661-2700.
Jonathan Farrell is an SF Bay Area native who lived in the Sunset for over 20 years and has been writing for the Sunset Beacon since 1993. His parents and grandparents were native San Franciscans who lived in the Sunset District.
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