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By Joshua Brandt
The organizers of San Francisco's annual Crossroads Irish-American Festival approach history the same way a chef might skin an onion, letting each layer reveal its unique flavor. So for this year's event, the first layer is the Irish-American immigrant experience, the second layer is the Irish experience in San Francisco, the third layer is the history of the Irish in Noe Valley, and the last layer--the core--is the story of the Irish families still living on Sanchez Street. Or Duncan Street. Or 24th Street.
Block by block, Crossroads aims to document the life experiences of Irish-American residents so that future generations can have a clear sense of their past. In previous years, the festival focused on neighborhoods such as the Richmond, the Mission, and the Sunset. This year it is celebrating the Irish experience in Noe Valley.
The festival, running March 8 to 16, will include a panel discussion on "The Noe Valley Irish" on Monday, March 10, starting at 7:30 p.m. The event, which is free and open to all, will be held at St. Paul's Parish Center, 221 Valley Street between Church and Sanchez streets. Attendees are encouraged to bring stories, photos, and other memorabilia connected to the Irish experience in Noe Valley.
Among the panelists will be several longtime Noe Valley residents of Irish descent. Agnes Farrell, who will be speaking with her daughter Monica Curran, has lived in Noe Valley since 1918, when horse and buggies still roamed Church Street (see story at right). Panelist Karen Hanning, whose family owned the predecessor to the famed Mitchell's Ice Cream from 1860 to 1890, will share her family's recollections about the Valley. Also attending will be Julianne Reidy, a third-generation San Franciscan with deep roots in the area.
In addition to the panel discussion, the festival will hold a series of literary and arts events at several other venues around town, including a panel at the Main Library with poet and author Daniel Tobin; a retrospective on the Gaelic Athletic Association at the Irish Cultural Center; and an evening with bluegrass musician Peter Rowan and band, at the Plough & Stars. Also as part of the festival, Noe Valley resident and American Book Award winner Daniel Cassidy will give a talk on Irish slang on March 13 (see below, left). For a full listing of events, view the Crossroads website at www.irish americancrossroads.org.
Now in its fifth year, the festival has achieved support and sponsorship from Intersection for the Arts, the San Francisco Library, and the Irish Studies Program at New College of California. But its organizers say Irish-American cultural history deserves further exploration.
"The history of the Irish in this country has been largely rendered invisible," says festival co-director Hillary Flynn. "Because the dominant paradigm in this country has been fair skin and light eyes, the Irish have been able to assimilate more rapidly than other cultural groups. But they've lost something in the process," she says.
"In the quest for assimilation, in order for the O'Flynns and the McSweeneys to move beyond the 'No Irish Need Apply' signs [of the mid-1800s], there had to be an internal amnesia," Flynn says. "Historical amnesia became necessary. It was a matter of survival."
To unlock the memories, the festival will keep celebrating Irish Americans, neighborhood by neighborhood.
"We want to focus on community," says Flynn. "These are stories from the heart. This is family as history."