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article imageOp-Ed: St. Paddy's Day over, gathering of Irish is more than drinking Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Mar 19, 2014 in Lifestyle
San Francisco - Lombard Street in San Francisco's Marina District was filled with St. Patrick's Day revelers on Saturday, March 15. Like most major cities the "wearing of the green," was an excuse to go drinking whether Irish or not.
For some it was an extended weekend, starting on Friday afternoon. While here in the U.S. the holiday has always been associated with drinking and partying, for the Irish themselves, the opportunity to gather is what is more important than just drinking. "Americans think Ireland is about St. Paddy's Day, with rainbows and little leprechauns dancing around a pot of gold," said Paul Lee. A hairstylist and former salon owner, Lee expressed his thoughts a few years back when he sat for a chat in his "Celtic Cutter's shop on 9th Avenue near Irving Street.
At that time he was promoting a CD he made from a live skit he performed at a local pub entitled, "Live at The Blackthorn - 20 Minutes with Paul Lee - Knights of the Red Tie Incident."
The Little Shamrock on Lincoln Way near 9th Ave in San Francisco s Sunset District has been serving ...
The Little Shamrock on Lincoln Way near 9th Ave in San Francisco's Sunset District has been serving drinks for more than a century. One of the oldest Irish pubs, it is still a gathering place.
"First of all, St. Paddy's Day is an American holiday," he said. "It was invented by the Irish here in America and the story tellers omit the part in the leprechaun legends where some of them can be really bad, said Lee, not a wee bit of mischief. Some stories have them as being very cruel."
He pointed out that while most Irish have a deep fondness for their home country, it is a place filled with a complex and difficult history. "Parts of Ireland can be tough," Lee said.
He said many times growing up he got into fights. Long before the Euro-dollar and the recent upswing of the world economy, strife, unemployment and unrest was common in Ireland, he said. This was due in part to years of oppression and prejudice, dating as far back as the 17th century, and by an "ascendancy" caste system that is difficult for outsiders to understand.
Lee, who immigrated to San Francisco from County Louth, believed then and still believes today that one of the reasons why Irish like to gather is because of an unspoken link or bond. Anne O'Brien Hickey who was the author of a book about the Knights of the Red Branch dance hall in San Francisco would understand what Lee meant in his point of view about Ireland. An organization similar to the Elks, Odd-Fellows and Masons, the KRB was an organization that originated in Ireland and continued its membership in America.
As one of the former archivist-librarians at the United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco's Sunset District, Hickey collected enough data, photographs and information to compose two definitive history books about the Irish in San Francisco.
"Irish people, being very social minded, are loyal to family." "They love to help each other out," Hickey said. "Many benefits and fundraisers were held at the KRB dance hall (and other places). It was the community's way of helping their own when in need," she said.
Some historians note that because of the potato famine in 1845 that lead to the starvation of over a million people in Ireland, the extensive migration to America and Canada began. San Francisco was one of the major cities where the Irish flocked.
To her surprise Hickey pointed out when she talked about the initial research she did for her book, "all 32 counties of Ireland were well represented." "It was as if another Ireland had been established here," she said.
While San Francisco is smaller than other cities like New York, or Boston, the Irish had a profound impact on the City. Lee and others would agree with Hickey's findings and evidence of such is everywhere in San Francisco. Many of the streets in SF and surrounding areas are named after Irish, such as O'Farrell, Brannon, O'Shaunessey, Larkin, Hickey and Callan, just to name a few.
The pub is usually the most common spot to gather. And, as Lee noted to this reporter more than once, "pubs in Ireland are more like going to a lodge, not a bar. It is a family-friendly place." Less than a block from where Lee had his Celtic Cutter's hair salon, is "The Little Shamrock," it has been on Lincoln Way at 9th Ave for over 100 years. Many Irish in its early existence flocked there. The original owners would have family photos of patrons on the wall. Many of those old photos remained at the Little Shamrock until the late 1970's.
"The Little Shamrock deserves mention since it's one of San Francisco's two oldest bars, the oldest being the Saloon in North Beach," says Ingrid Taylor in her review of Irish Pubs in San Francisco for About.com. "Entering the Little Shamrock feels like coming home to the living room, even if the room is, well, lived in. You'll find clusters of sofas with game tables and a hearth."
The same goes for Durty Nelly's on Irving Street near 25th Avenue. A large warm fire place ads a much different ambiance than just a bar with whiskey and beer. It greets visitors and encourages them to stay and eat, talk not just drink.
Hickey would agree pubs were more about gathering than just drinking. Anywhere the Irish gathered was important to them. "Just think about it," she said. (If you were Irish, especially back in the 1800's to early 20th Century). "You are 6,000 miles away from home. You are a stranger in a new land. And, not knowing anybody you then hear your language being spoken, your type of music being played and so on. What a welcome feeling that would be," she exclaimed.
"Irish people are unlikely to boast about their lives," said Hickey when she talked to this reporter some time ago when her book, "Ballroom of Romance - The Knights of the Red Branch Dance Hall Revisited," was first published. The Irish, like many people from various parts of the world, came to America to build a new life.
Fascinated how the Irish arrived here with very little and often alone, Hickey's book emphasizes the fact that "within a short amount of time, they established themselves," she said. Determination and a drive to succeed were the tools that allowed many of them to not only survive, but to flourish.
"After World War II in the 1950s and 60s," Hickey said, "the Irish became more settled and new places emerged as centers for people to gather." The Irish Cultural Center near Ocean Beach carries on where the Knights of The Red Branch organization left off.
Built in the 1970s, the Irish Cultural Center has remained the place for Irish congregate, especially for special occasions like weddings, graduations and such. Open as a restaurant, many who are not Irish like to eat and enjoy live music there.
Even as the diverse cultural mix of San Francisco continues to change, the Irish and their culture in some ways, like the revelry that occurs on St. Patrick's Day, still remain and are present in the neighborhoods. Pubs and cultural centers like the UICC according to Hickey were and are important because it helped the Irish stay connected with their homeland.
Originally from the East Coast, Hickey was born of Irish-immigrant parents. She eventually moved West, settling in San Francisco. Hickey confessed, she was enthralled about learning more about Irish history, "there's a magnetism that just draws me in."
Anna Hollander who now owns Lee's salon, renaming it Anna's Hair Gallery, noted, "Paul was very grateful for the opportunities he found in this country." "Sometimes people don't realize or forget the opportunities there are here in America."
And, perhaps that is one reason why immigrants like the Irish and many others endure. They carry on because despite hardships and set-backs they see good opportunities others do not. And, like the green clover that spouts every spring time, the hope for the future is always near. This is perhaps something that all people, not only the Irish hope for.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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