By Brendan Clay
In 1983, a couple emigrated from Ireland’s County Cavan to Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania where they got married and started a family. The husband had come to America before and worked at Cavan Construction with his brother. When he returned with the woman who would become his wife, they had no family to rely on besides the brother, and so they found a sense of community in the Cavan Society of Philadelphia.
“In order to have friends and family and connections and jobs, they found people from Cavan and joined the Cavan Society and started going to all these events where the Cavan Ball would be a thousand plus people,” says their daughter Kellie Farrelly. “Whereas now we’re trying to get upwards of 200, 250, [or] 300.”
Last year, the 25-year-old Farrelly became the youngest president of the Cavan Society in its history, and she wants to make sure its traditions persevere with a new generation. Growing up with her parents Thomas and Rosie and her sisters Shannon and Fiona, Farrelly was a model of the involved Delaware County Irish-American.
She played Gaelic football in the Delco Gaels’ Youth Club, danced in the McDade-Cara School of Irish Dance, and even danced with her sisters as part of the Cavan Society’s St. Patrick’s Day float. Today she is a graduate of West Chester University where she studied economics and finance, and she works as a food service manager for the food service provider Aramark.
“I run a café and catering for our building down in center city,” she says. “I just so happen to be at the headquarters. Doing what our company does but at our headquarters.”
She is still involved with the McDade-Cara School, she is the captain of the Philadelphia Notre Dame Ladies Gaelic Football Club, and she participates in fundraisers for the Delco Gaels. This makes her the ideal person to take the reins at the Cavan Society.
“I became a member three years ago after graduating college and I knew I had a bit more time on my hands,” says Farrelly. “After serving one year’s term I really wanted to make a difference and I wanted to get more younger people involved.”
Membership in the group—which is made up of a majority of older Irish-born members with a significant minority of Irish-Americans born in America—has declined lately, with older members passing away without an influx of young people to fill their ranks. Since Irish immigration to Delaware County is not as robust as it was in the past, the group’s primary role as a society for the Cavan County immigrant community is no longer a reliable source of new membership.
Farrelly became president in April 2016 and she’s spent the past year getting to know the behind-the-scenes realities of the organization so she can work on plans for the future. Social media will play a big part, of course. Right now the group’s main Internet presence is a Facebook page, which is perfect for current members, but a presence on Twitter and other social media platforms might be a part of the future. The big focus is on the Cavan Ball. The ball is held every October and includes a grand march.
“Close to midnight we have men in tuxes and girls in gowns and we march down the hall and we get a rose,” explains Farrelly. “And it’s just a nice event for the older ones to see the younger ones attending the event.”
Recently the crowd at the ball has skewed young with parents bringing their teenaged children to keep them involved, and general attendance has been dropping off to the point where they were considering not doing the ball last year. Instead, Farrelly got the support the Gaelic Athletic Association and successfully rallied people to get higher attendance with more attendees from her generation.
As America moves towards a new stage of the Irish identity, groups like the Cavan Society will play an integral part of the evolution of Irish-American culture. And it is the younger generation who will define this evolution. But though Farrelly intends to focus on the youth of the society, she is careful to stress that the older generation—people like John Joe Brady, Barney McEnroe, Rose Angstadt, Tommy and Crissy Farrelly, George Farrelly, and her own parents Thomas and Rosie—were what made the organization possible and maintained it for so long. And they still remain its heart.
The Cavan Ball will be held on October 7th this year at the Irish Center. Information about that event and the Cavan Society in general can be found at their Facebook page, The Official Cavan Society of Philadelphia.