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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Influx of the O'Westsiders : Cooperation and Opportunity Foster a Growing Presence for the Local Irish Community

March 16, 1995|MARY MOORE

It had all the spirit of an old-fashioned house-raising. Friends, and friends of friends, were rushing to prepare the Mean Fiddler, a new pub on Wilshire Boulevard, for its grand opening. With the 8:30 p.m. event only minutes away, they were still nailing down the carpet and painting the walls.

By the time the music started at about 10, a boisterous crowd had accumulated, the workers had put down their tools and the bartenders were passing pints of Guinness over the counter, wiping perspiration from their foreheads between orders.

The opening attracted an amalgam of customers, not all of them Irish, who greeted each other like old friends. Accents were heard from all over the British Isles--Ireland, England and Scotland--and the faces were both young and old.

Even the owners of O'Brien's, an Irish pub and restaurant on Wilshire with a second location on Main Street in Santa Monica, stopped in for a pint--a collegial show of support.

"We're trying to establish Santa Monica as the center for the Irish community," said Willie O'Sullivan, owner of O'Brien's on Wilshire. "We want to make it so that there's so much going on around here, the Irish don't want to go anywhere else."

The Westside is a nexus of Irish activity in Los Angeles, a fact likely to be very much in evidence during Friday's St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

The area has become a Celtic hot spot as young Irish immigrants have moved into Westside communities, particularly Santa Monica.

Data from the 1990 census shows that more than 56,251 Los Angeles residents consider themselves exclusively of Irish ancestry. No breakdown is available for West Los Angeles, but the number of residents who claim solely Irish descent was 432 in Beverly Hills, 1,011 in Culver City, 1,627 in West Hollywood and 3,589 in Santa Monica.

"I've lived here for 14 or 15 years, and when I came, there was no Irish community," said Jim Sullivan, correspondent for New York-based Irish Echo, a 65-year-old weekly Irish newspaper, who lives in Santa Monica. "Now you're seeing an increase in the number of Irish professionals who work in communications, software and entertainment. They have more disposable income and can afford to live on the Westside."

The most obvious sign of the Irish presence is pubs; the Westside boasts at least half a dozen watering spots that Irish purists consider authentic.

But there are other, subtler signs of the Westside's Irish subculture: Irish dance classes, an Irish theater group that does weekly readings of mostly Irish plays, groups that play traditional Irish music, events hosted by Irish social clubs, an Irish import shop and weekly Irish sporting events. An Irish cultural center is even being planned.

Some Westside Irish have actively taken sides in the conflict in Northern Ireland, where Catholics have been fighting against Irish Protestants for a united Ireland, independent of the British crown. But for the most part, local Irish mingle easily among themselves and with others, finding in Los Angeles a common ground often absent in their homeland.

"We've put it away; we're living in a metropolitan community and we have more in common with each other than (with) other cultures that are here," said Gabriel McKeagney, a 27-year-old who grew up in Northern Ireland.

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The Irish have long been players on the Los Angeles scene. William Mulholland, a native of Ireland, supervised construction of the aqueduct that brought water to the Los Angeles area starting in 1913. But it was during a period of heavy Irish immigration to the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s that significant numbers of Irish began filtering into the area.

They were centered at the time in Hollywood, near Beverly Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, and at 6th Street and Western Avenue, where they would meet in an Irish pub called the Blarney Castle.

The Irish community has since grown, but in a decentralized way, forming pockets in Orange County, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

On the Westside, the Irish have long had social activities and gathering spots.

The Irish Import Shop, which sells Irish food, newspapers, music cassettes and memorabilia, has occupied a Hollywood storefront for 34 years. Owner Richard Jones has become a clearinghouse of information about Los Angeles for new arrivals from Ireland.

And high-priced, society-page charity affairs hosted by the Irish American Fund--led in part by Jimmy Murphy, owner of Jimmy's restaurant in Beverly Hills--have become a tradition.

But the local Irish community has taken on a higher profile in recent years as the Westside has become a magnet for Irish immigrants in their 20s and 30s.

The reasons for the trend are unclear. Some say that three Santa Monica companies with operations in Ireland--Retix, Isocor and Quarterdeck--have attracted Irish workers and visitors. Others say the Irish simply appreciate the Westside for the same reason many others do--for its rent control, ocean breezes and active social life.

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