The First Word:
A Visit to Irish America
I’ve come to think of Irish America as an actual place unto itself, sort of like in an Irish fairytale where someone is magically transported to another world. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to take a trip to that place without ever leaving American soil.
That’s how it was for me the week after Easter. It began when I took two friends, visitors from Northern Ireland, to the Irish Consulate in New York to see the Archbishop Hughes Exhibition, and ended two days later at the Consul General’s Residence, singing along to the Irish ballad “The Cliffs of Dooneen,” at a Comhaltas Ceoltóirí éireann event.
In between, I visited Breezy Point in Queens, where Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly performed the ribbon-cutting on the rebuilt Catholic Center, and later, in Manhattan, I attended the Kelly Cares “Irish Eyes” dinner – the annual fundraiser for the foundation run by the coach and his wife Paqui.
All of this followed on the heels of a visit to CBS Studios to interview the brainy, beautiful, and so talented Norah O’Donnell for our cover story; and earlier, a long and delightful telephone conversation with actor Ed O’Neill, the star of Modern Family.
My encounters brought to mind my favorite and oft-quoted line from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
I learned that Norah O’Donnell finds inspiration in the legacy of her Irish grandmother who, at age 12, was working in a linen factory in Belfast. And how Ed O’Neill’s determination was honed by growing up in an Irish family in a steel mill town – his sense of humor was honed there, too.
The Archbishop Hughes Exhibition at the Irish Consulate was a reminder of the work of Irish nuns and priests who championed education in America. Hughes himself, who emigrated from Northern Ireland with his family in 1817, built a national system of parochial schools, hospitals and orphanages, that became a safety net for Irish immigrants who flooded New York during the famine years.
Meanwhile, my trip to Breezy Point, an Irish enclave on Long Island that was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, showed me a community where Irish pride is strong, neighbors stick together, and family, friends and faith are paramount. And where, thanks to money from Coach Kelly’s foundation and others, the very heart of the community – the Catholic Club, which has served the community since 1922 – is once again beating strong.
All in all, my foray into Irish America was thrilling, and it ended on the most tender of notes. The Consul General Noel Kilkenny and his wife Hanora, both being from Clare, have a special appreciation for traditional music. So, in celebration of the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Comhaltas Ceoltóirí éireann Convention, which took place in Parsippany, New Jersey, April 25-27, they opened their home to Irish and Irish-American musicians who were participating in the event.
Songs were sung – a beautiful rendition of “Carrigfergus” in Irish and “The Cliffs of Dooneen” – and tunes were played. There was even a dance or two. But it was a group of musicians from Pearl River, New York, who won my heart.
Watching these young Irish Americans, who had taken home the top prize in the Under-12s competition at the Fleadh Cheoil in Ireland two years ago, brought joy to my heart, and also gave me the added reassurance that Irish America is alive and well, and will continue on into the generations to come.