United Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco changes some rules

Completed and dedicated in 1974, the United Irish Cultural Center of San Francisco has been a gathering place on St. Patrick's Day for over 45 years.

As St. Paddy’s Day approaches, whether people be Irish or not, no doubt pubs and restaurants in many places will be filled with patrons eager to celebrate the day. One such place is the United Irish Cultural Center of San Francisco on 45th Ave near Sloat Blvd not far from Ocean Beach.

When it was established in 1974 over 45 years ago, the Sunset District of San Francisco and surrounding areas had a significant population of residents and merchants of Irish-Celtic and European Ancestry.

While on assignment for The Sunset Beacon newspaper, this reporter surmised that it could be said by some, that establishing and building the UICC was a testament to the thousands of Irish immigrants who migrated to the United States. From records – going back to the time of the ‘Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, more than 604,000 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 SF. “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 and due to this coincidence of timing there was a strong Irish population in situation 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 as such, 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 1970’s.

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,” so to speak.

The United Irish Cultural Center circa 1974 when it was dedicated. Courtesy of the UICC of San Francisco archives.

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 that was offered to them.

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 is not just here in San Francisco but throughout the United States. Earlier this year, back in January, she flew to NYC 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 1970’s, it was primarily a social club, like so many other ethnic, civic, fraternally and religiously-theme inspired clubs of the past, from another time and era. Clubs like “The Sons of Italy,” “The Elks,” “The Daughters of the American Revolution” and so forth.

Today such organizations are loosing members. One reason as noted in the New York Times 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 and soon to be entering into the work-force generations have a much different outlook on such things as ethnicity, religious and other social affiliations.

Again, 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 non profit,” said Carew. This new business structure allows donors and members a tax deduction when making a donation to the UICC.”

And, by making this business structure change, the UICC is poised for the 21st Century, 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 had 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. 33 million of these live in the United States and, finally, of these, 2.5 million live in California – (more than any other State in the Union).”

Carew and the UICC staff are looking forward to providing new cultural programing in the coming years. Also for all those eager to join in the annual celebration at UICC, she said. “We need volunteers for Saint Patrick’s Day Week. And, We need volunteers for “45 Years on 45th Avenue” Jubilee on April 25th.”

For more information about the St. Paddy’s Day Celebration the upcoming 45th Anniversary Jubilee in April visit the United Irish Cultural Center web site or call 415-661-2700.