A Compelling Story, a Great Honor

irishphiladelphia.com – reprinted with permission


Liz and Pearse Kerr

As a Catholic and a nationalist living in the Cliftonville neighborhood of North Belfast in the late 1970s, young Pearse Kerr was accustomed to being treated with suspicion and contempt—and often brutality. Orangemen forced his family out of their first home, threatening to burn it down. Out on the streets, British soldiers frequently stopped, questioned and searched him, even though they knew him by name and had stopped and questioned him many times before. Once, on his first day of high school, a soldier struck him with a rifle butt, knocking him over a wall.

He wasn’t even surprised when, in the early morning hours of August 18, 1977, British soldiers smashed the door of his house at 233 Cliftonville Road, rousted him out of bed and hustled him off to Castlerea Interrogation Center. Nor was he surprised by his treatment once he got there. “It might sound bad, and it was,” he says. “They broke my wrist, dislocated my neck, fractured a rib, choked me unconscious, and generally pushed me around… It was nothing out of the ordinary at the time. They beat me pretty good … but they didn’t kill me. It was well-known what was going on. It wasn’t shocking or anything. It was just part of life over there.”

Kerr spent three months in custody.  He was in Castlerea Interrogation Center for seven days and then transferred to Crumlin Road Prison.  All told, he was incarcerated from August 18 to November 26. Unlike many prisoners of the time, Pearse Kerr—named after the Irish nationalist and leader of the 1916 Easter Rising Pádraig Pearse—was an American. His parents Brendan and Betty Kerr, originally from the Falls Road in Belfast, had moved to Philadelphia in 1957. Pearse was born not long thereafter at Temple University Hospital. Given his status as a U.S. citizen, Kerr’s imprisonment triggered a huge backlash in the Philadelphia Irish community, and he was released thanks to the intervention of Daily News columnist Jack McKinney and Northeast Philadelphia Congressman Joshua Eilberg.

Kerr’s harrowing story, together with his continued activism here after his return to the States, rarely fails to move people who come to know him. Evidently, Kerr’s experience caught the attention of the committee organizing the 2011 Burlington County St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They recently named him their grand marshal.

Arguably, given that St. Patrick’s Day represents all things Irish, it was a good choice. Few local people could better symbolize Irish pride.

In Kerr’s household, that pride always came first. While living in the States, his father was one of the founding members of Irish Northern Aid and was active in Clan na Gael, another Irish republican organization.

“I was brought up with an Irish nationalist mindset, he says. “There’s no taking that away.” He also knew well that his first name stood for something. It certainly meant something to the British in Belfast, he says. “When that’s your name, spelled like that, they know exactly who you are.”

For Kerr, his time in prison left no lingering scars, but it did affect the way he looked at life: “It was maybe a solidification of what I was always taught.”

He also knows how lucky he was. Many prisoners were not nearly so fortunate. Even at the time of his release, he was uncertain what fate had in store for him. His jailers entered his cell, tossed a bag at him and ordered him to pack his clothes.

“Nobody said to me, you’re getting released,” he recalls. I thought I was being sent to Long Kesh (site of the 1981 Hunger Strike). They took me to a court in the city center. When I got to the courtroom, I was standing in the dock and, out in the foyer, I could see my father. And I knew I was going to be released.

“We got a taxi and we went to my grandmother’s house. The following day I flew to Philadelphia for a ‘Free Pearse Kerr’ rally … which I had the pleasure to attend.”

Even though he has been in the States for years, the experience still resonates, and his Irish pride continues to make itself known through his many local activities, including AOH Div 25.

That’s why the Burlington County honor means so much to him.

“I had no idea. I didn’t know I was in the running,” he says. “I was shocked, I really was. It’s such an honor to be chosen. I love Ireland and I love the AOH and I love the Irish republican movement. To be able to represent all that means the world to me.”


Building the Irish American Museum

In life it is said that the best ideas are the most obvious.  In the case of a small group of Irish Americans from Connecticut, their vision of building a national Irish American museum in our Nation’s Capital has been staring them in the face for years and now they are taking steps to make it a reality.  The Irish American Museum of Washington, DC will be a major cultural institution that will bring Irish-American history to life for visitors of all ages and for all American’s to see.       According to Carl Shanahan, a founding director of the Museum, The history of the United States is the history of Irish America and that history deserves its rightful place in our nation’s capital. He continued to explain that, The museum belongs in Washington to reflect the national character of our story; the Irish legacy is evident all across this country.

The museum will be one of ethnic identity and join the likes of similar museums in DC honoring African Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans and most recently German Americans.  The goal, according to Shanahan, is to explore the experience of the Irish people from immigrations through the evolution of their communities as well as to acknowledge their struggles and triumphs.  James Dougherty, another founding director, explained that The story of Irish America must be preserved and the story must be told. Every day a little bit of our history fades away. We must record and preserve that history before it is gone.

AOH National Historian Mike McCormack noted, How many times have we said I wish I could have been there to help during the Great Hunger, to fight with Pearse in the 1916 rising, to work with Michael Collins, or to lend a hand at any other crucial time in Irish history – but I was born too late.  Revise that thought!  We were born at just the right time to do all those things and more for to keep their memory alive for posterity is to aid them more than any aid they received in their lifetimes.  This museum is a critical effort and it’s what we are all about.  Now is our time to be a hero for Irish history.

Early plans for the museum include housing in temporary gallery space until a permanent building can be built; site locations for a prestigious permanent establishment are presently under investigation.  The museum will provide future generations of Irish-Americans with a proper sense of their history.  With very limited space for museums available on the national mall, the search will include property of historic significance in the early Irish history of Washington DC which also allows convenient access to visitors.

Education will be a key component of the museum to showcase 250 years of Irish-American history through innovative exhibitions, education and cultural programs.  This will be done in a state of the art facility designed to pay proper tribute to all those of Irish descent who played a role in the birth and development of the United States of America. The Museum will be a living and constantly developing entity. The core elements of the initial plan include exhibits of historical artifacts from the earliest Irish settlers up through the present.  Also included will be oral history projects recording the memories of individuals who contributed to the Irish American story; a library of donated and collected books, films, magazines, newspapers and recorded music; a historical research center; a genealogical research center; an auditorium for presenting plays and musical performances that tell the Irish American story and a gift shop where visitors can purchase books, films and other items of Irish American interest.  A cafeteria will serve quality food including dishes that would have been familiar to Irish immigrants.  A publishing department will also develop and publish books and films on the Irish American experience. Also planned is a state of the art cinema to present audio/visual material produced by the Museum and by outside sources on topics of Irish-American interest.

Raising money for such a facility and operation will take a significant amount of time and effort and it all began in 2007, when the Board of Directors of The Wild Geese, an Irish American cultural organization based in Fairfield County Connecticut, authorized its President and Vice-President to pursue the establishment of an Irish-American Museum as a standalone tax exempt organization.  They appropriated $30,000.00 as seed money to form the organization, and produce publicity material. The Wild Geese have subsequently granted an additional $5,000.00. The Museum has been incorporated and has been granted section 501(c)(3) tax exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service.  According to Patrick Flaherty a founding director of the Museum, the organization must raise $10 Million to build, maintain and endow the museum in perpetuity.  They are soliciting funds from numerous sources including corporate sponsors, foundations, governments and individuals.

More informational can be found at their website www.irishamericanmuseumdc.org which is also in the process of being expanded.