Like back in 2020, it’s anything but a normal St. Patrick’s Day this year. With Albany’s parade canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic for a second straight year, WAMC’s Jackie Orchard reports the holiday might serve as a way to reflect on the immigrant story and what it means to conquer hardship.
Elizabeth Stack, Executive Director of the Irish American Heritage Museum, says one of the best things about being a national museum of immigrant history is the sense of community. She says it used to be a homing beacon where people could come and share their experiences -- but the pandemic has taken that away for now. She says it stings the most around St. Patrick’s Day.
“It’s just that you’re missing out on the contact with people,” Stack said. “We normally have a craft market around St. Patrick’s Day. That’s not happening. So, all of the content is happening but it’s online. So we have very interesting talks to come the rest of the month and the run is on for a week but everyone is celebrating, singly, kind of, you know.”
Stack says the two largest sources of revenue for the museum are the yearly gala, also a COVID casualty, and St. Patrick’s Day events like the Soda Bread competition and the Sweater Run, which she says has gone virtual with markedly less participation this year.
“We’ve had people contact us to say, ‘Look, I love doing it I did it the last three years but I don’t want to run on my own’ or, ‘I’m sick and tired of the treadmill.’ So people who would normally run for $25 are not running,” Stack said.
The museum’s new location next to the Albany Pump Station, sharing a courtyard with the Olde English Pub, hasn’t even had its grand opening yet. They moved just weeks before the pandemic shutdowns last year. Stack says she remembers the exact day the museum closed, because she was on WAMC’s Vox Pop Food Friday.
“On Friday the 13th last year we were gearing up for the biggest week of our lives in our new home which we had just been in for a month, and only open to the public for two weeks,” Stack said. “We recorded with WAMC and came back and, there had been rumblings, people were concerned with the parade, and all of a sudden Friday it kind of hit the fan, and by the time we returned here to the museum we were told we were closed.”
Stack is in the United States on a work visa. She says during the pandemic, immigrants like her aren’t allowed back into the U.S. if they leave.
“My granny is 86, 87 years of age, so she’s cocooning at home in Ireland,” Stack said. “So, you know, you’re kind of just hoping that nothing goes wrong because – and we did actually have a death in the family and I wasn’t able to go home. That’s the first time I’ve been abroad when someone dies.”
Stack says the past year has been filled with “mixed blessings.” She says the shutdown gave them time to renovate the museum, building more interactive sections like a thatched Irish cottage and a cold water New York flat people can walk through. But she says going virtual was a steep learning curve.
Stack remembers starting out with just her cell phone, uploading some short videos of exhibits on Instagram. Stack says she had to get creative to grow an audience on social media. Like when they had a fiddler for their Sidewalk Sale of Irish books, music, and gifts in October. Or showing some of the museum’s portraits of prominent Irish figures in June, or a look at the museum’s workhouse model around National Famine Commemoration Day in May.
Stack says she had to turn her attention to an aspect of museum management she never had to prioritize before: reaching an audience virtually.
“We weren’t prepared to go online,” Stack said. “It’s very difficult, I have to say, to monetize things online. So you try to straddle the gap of, our education mission still exists. And it took us a good few months to get Zoom. We only got Zoom because we’re part of a project through the Museum Association of New York, IMLS. If we hadn’t gotten that grant, our technology was far behind.”
But Stack says once she embraced the technology, it broadened the museum’s reach.
“I’m giving about 30 talks this month,” Stack said. “To Chicago and California and Maryland – places that the museum itself wouldn’t have been able to reach because you just cater to a local audience most of the time.”
The museum now livestreams Irish bands, crafting exhibits like basket weaving, and historical talks multiple times per week. Stack says all of those events are free, so what’s keeping the museum running is membership donations.
“We were very lucky,” Stack said. “Our community rallied, our membership has stayed where it was if not increasing so people are renewing people are donating. We ran a couple of small little fundraisers for COVID or Thanksgiving. So we’ve been very lucky in lots of ways. And our overheads are not huge. I’m the only salaried employee. So we’ve found a way to navigate but we are certainly down in income, there’s no doubt.”
Stack says on this St. Patrick’s Day, she’s reflecting on what it means to be Irish, what it means to be American, and what those two nations have in common when it comes to hardship.
“This pandemic really made me think about what the ancestors of the Irish-Americans today went through,” Stack said. “Like most famine refugees lived for seven years only. They didn’t come to America and have a long, happy successful life. They really did die within seven years, a lot of them. So, you sacrifice a lot, you work hard, and you hope that things will get better. And I think that’s kind of what the pandemic has been about. You have to hunker down. You have to really discover what’s important.”
As the vaccine rollout points the way to the end of the pandemic, smaller St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are planned.
Donald Joseph Kelly, better known as Irish Don Kelly, inherited his love of Irish music from his great grandparents, who were Irish immigrants. Kelly has been playing Irish music for over a decade in the Capital Region. Kelly, from Watervliet, was setting up for a livestream event at the museum when I dropped by.
“My great-grandfather came over from Tipperary in Ireland in the late 1800s during the tail end of the famine. And when probably 6 million people emigrated from the island,” Kelly said.
Kelly says when he hears Irish music, he feels the warmth of the heritage. He says it gets into your soul.
Stack says now that the parade isn’t happening, it feels like a hole in the holiday. Which is ironic because she says the parade is an American tradition that was brought over to Ireland.
“It was the immigrants asserting their pride, first of all that they maintained their heritage but demonstrating that they were good American citizens,” Stack said. “So the American parades are a little more formal. All of the cops, all of the firemen, all of the Army. To show, you know, ‘we came here and we contributed and we’re respectful of our past and happy to be here in our present.’”
Stack says if you’re an American, somewhere in your blood is the spirit of an immigrant.
“So, St. Patrick’s Day this year might make us more mindful of the sacrifices that the people who came before us went through and might make us more appreciative of what we have today as Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, but also to see that we can get through it,” Stack said. “We’ve been through tough times. I watched an Irish comedian at home and he said, ‘We were waiting for this to happen. We like a dose of bad news every 20 or 30 years,’ so maybe the Irish are built for bad news. But I think that’s important. To celebrate what we have still maintained, even though we’ve been through such a hard time. Whether that’s 1845 or 2020.”
Stack says the museum has something for everyone, covering the Irish presence in military, culture, labor, education and even what she calls “the naughty ones.” The more infamous characters.
“I’m excited to tell a national story and that kind of investigates or encourages you to look at your own background,” Stack said. “You don’t have to be Irish to appreciate the human story behind this move and this transformation of what it is to leave home and find a new home.”
Today, on St. Patrick’s Day, I wouldn’t be doing my duty without bringing you some Irish phrases to shout over your pints. Stack was happy to oblige.
“’Slàinte’ of course is the most important one which is technically a toast and it just means ‘good health’ and then ‘céad míle fáilte’ is ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’ or ‘welcome.’ You would say ‘beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig dhuit’ to say ‘Happy St. Patrick’s Day,’ it’s ‘Blessings of St. Patrick’s Day’ and ‘go raibh maith agat’ is ‘thank you.’”
No matter how Irish you are today, céad míle fáilte and slàinte!