Where The Bronx meets Yonkers, they dream big.
And for Caitríona Clarke, dreams don't come much bigger than the bold plan to reimagine the venerable Aisling Center as the beating heart of New York's enduring Irish presence.
Taking its name from the Irish word for 'vision' or 'dream', the Aisling Center has been 25-years a-growing with its comprehensive programme of outreach and activities to serve the diaspora. But now Aisling Center chair Caitríona is overseeing a project which will ensure the scale and grandeur of the building itself matches the ambition and drive of its legion of volunteers.
Until now, the centre has been based in a hodge-podge of offices in a former supermarket on fabled McLean Avenue, epicentre of Irish New York. Ad-hoc extensions and an ever-lengthening maze of corridors demonstrated both the popularity of the centre's activities — its running club alone has 800 members — and the need for its services. But confined surrounds also confined growth.
"We are like a mini-consulate here," explains Leitrim-native Caitríona who, with husband Séamus, runs the popular J.P. Clarke's bar up the road. "If someone is in trouble, the first port of call is the Aisling Centre. That was especially evident last year when the community responded to the covid crisis with Sláinte 2020 to help the less well-off."
Wonderful having @newbelfast visit the center yesterday! Máirtín may be in the back here, but he’s at the forefront of The Big Irish Campfire, a celebration of Irish America kicking off tomorrow in NYC ☘️ #irishcampfire @IrishEcho pic.twitter.com/rK5hhNAK64— Aisling Irish Center (@Aisling_Irish) August 26, 2021
Determined to up their game, the community champions at the centre came up with an audacious plan to buy out the entire supermarket block and to create a purpose-built community hub for the burgeoning irish community 'rockin' The Bronx'.
When that deal was complete - and paid for with some assistance from Dublin - the rebuilding phase began.
Last week, a year and about $1.4m in building works on, the project was entering its final stretch with staff confident it will open before the end of this their 25th anniversary year. Some support has come from the Irish Government but the bulk of the costs have been shouldered by stalwarts of the local Irish community. "Contractors have been more than generous," says centre chairperson Caitríona.
When it opens, the reborn centre will boast 10,000 sq ft of premium space with its own dance studio, catering kitchen (the Aisling homeless project prepares sandwiches for the needy on a weekly basis), counselling spaces, committee rooms and a large function hall.
Thank you to Bernard Keilty who dedicated his donation to the 'Traditional Irish Musicians who bring so much joy to the community"— Aisling Irish Center (@Aisling_Irish) March 29, 2021
Donate TODAY by clicking on this link to visit our "Donor Brick Wall" and to help finish the Aisling Center:https://t.co/YzEqS4CXZz pic.twitter.com/Wc8beXvota
While geographically in Yonkers, the Aisling Irish Center is so close to New York that you can hear the faithful offering up their prayers in St Barnabas' church across the street — in The Bronx (see video below). Nevertheless, support from the city of New York for the group's activities reaching into the Big Apple has been patchy. Likewise, support from the Irish Government, while welcome, is far from a constant flow.
Which leaves the community to shoulder the financial burden of the capital outlay for the new premises and for running costs. But with the flow of new immigrants from Ireland reduced to a trickle, is this the time to double down on investing in the Irish community? Most certainly, insists Caitríona. "In fact, that's all the more reason to undertake this work now. We want to ensure that we maintain what we have built in this great community and then make sure it's passed on in great shape to the young generation coming after us. That's why we have prioritised the youth development work of The Mulcahy Scholarship and Foróige which celebrates our culture and values while building up the leaders of tomorrow. For us, this new centre is very much a bridge to the future."
Up in McLean Avenue, where the Aisling dream meets reality, there is much hard work to be done. As the immigrant Latino plasterers and joiners manoeuvred between the youthful volunteers of the Aisling centre, children of previous generations of immigrants, there was a tangible feeling of common purpose. There was elation, certainly, as the finish line hoves into view but perhaps also a feeling of liberation — from Covid, for sure, but also from the restrictions of the old, cramped premises to a new, brightly-lit, state-of-the-art complex.
A beacon for a new day and a dream — or an aisling — come true.
You can donate to the Aisling Irish Center rebuilding drive by buying a brick or an Aisling top online or by joining a 6K walk/run on Saturday 23 October. All details on the centre website.