Those We Lost

Ivan Cooper.

By Mary Gallagher, Assistant Editor
August / September 2019

Ivan Cooper

(1944 – 2019)

Irish civil rights activist Ivan Cooper died in late June, aged 75. A founding member of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour party, Cooper is best known for his leadership of the anti-internment march in Derry that erupted into 1972’s Bloody Sunday.

Born in Killaloo, County Derry, to a Protestant family, Cooper started out as a unionist, but his allegiances shifted when he saw the discrimination and violence Catholics in Northern Ireland were up against. He joined Derry’s civil rights movement, becoming president of the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee.

Standing out as the only Protestant leader to march with the nationalists, Cooper was shunned by fellow church members – some of whom refused to share a pew with him, but his determination did not flag. “Ivan Cooper was born to break the mould,” current leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, averred. “A man of sharp contrasts, sharp intellect and, it must be said, sharp tongue, he stands as a giant in the story of this island.”

Cooper held fast to the demand for justice that would last his whole life. “In my church the commandment says ‘thou shalt do no murder’,” he insisted when asked years later about the prosecution of the soldiers who fired on the nonviolent protestors, killing 14, “and I believe in that commandment.”

“He was always there for us. He was one of the stalwart supporters of the Bloody Sunday families, and even in later years, when he was ill, he always made a point of coming to the annual services of commemoration and he was always proud to stand with us,” said John Kelly, brother of Michael Kelly, a victim of the massacre. “I regard Ivan Cooper as a hero.”

Cooper leaves behind wife Frances, daughters Bronagh and Sinéad, and grandchildren Cashel and Luca.

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Brendan Grace

(1951 – 2019)

Brendan Grace.

Actor and comedian Brendan Grace died of lung cancer in early July, aged 68. Best known for his role as Father Fintan Stack in the beloved Irish TV series Father Ted, Grace was also a successful folk music performer with multiple hits to his credit.

Born and raised in Dublin, Grace left school at 13 to become a messenger, which proved both dangerous and unexpectedly lucrative when he was knocked off his motorbike; the settlement he was awarded allowed him to buy his family a new house. At 18, he found his calling in the entertainment industry when he helped form the Gingermen folk singing group, eventually going out on his own to release hits including “Cushie Butterfield” and “Combine Harvester.”

Grace’s talents as a comedian were revealed when, in a stall for time before a performance, he shared some of his witty observations on Irish life with the crowd – a resounding success that opened up a new field of material for him. He continued comedy through the end of his life, from a debilitating mini-stroke to the cancer diagnosis 10 days before his death that forced him to cancel a planned tour.

Comedian and star of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Brendan O’Carroll, spoke of Grace’s impact on Irish comedy on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ 1. “He opened doors for so many of us, and leaves a legacy of love and laughter that will echo through this land and we will all mourn his passing.”

“He had a niche within comedy in Ireland,”

he continued. “There’s nobody there to fill that.”

Grace is survived by his wife Eileen and their four children: Melanie, Brendan, Amanda, and Bradley.

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John F.X. Mannion

(1932 – 2019)

John F.X. Mannion.

Proud Syracusan and devotee to the Irish peace process John Mannion died in late May, aged 86. A dedicated servant to his community, Mannion was a patient teacher and leader who was one of the first Irish Americans to rally U.S. involvement in Ireland during the Troubles.

Born in the Bronx to Irish immigrants John and Ellen, Mannion’s spirit of service was grounded by his parents, who helped many incoming Irish find a place to live and get settled. Mannion attended All Hallows High School, going on to graduate from the University of Notre Dame. There he enlisted in the USAF’s ROTC, and served in the Korean War.

After discharge, Mannion worked his way up the ranks of the insurance industry, becoming chairman and CEO of Unity Mutual Life Insurance. He was active in politics and made friends wherever he went, including the late Bill Flynn, whose activism in the Irish peace process was inspired by Mannion’s own passion for the cause.

“He had a magnificent ability to make people feel important,” Mannion’s son Patrick told Central NY News. “It doesn’t matter if you were the only person or there were 1,000, you always felt like you were the only one in the room.”

Mannion leaves behind wife Stephanie; sister Eileen; children Patrick, Kristin, Terence, Sean, and Kerin; 19 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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Eugene McCarthy

(1943 – 2019)

Eugene McCarthy.

Eugene Gerard McCarthy died in early June, at the age of 76. A gentle, devoted friend who held his causes close to his heart, McCarthy’s love for his Irish heritage and the Marine Corps he served in knew no bounds.

“Gene” was born in the Bronx to parents Florence and Catherine, from Anascaul and Ballydavid, County Kerry, respectively. He attended Cardinal Hayes High School then became a Marine before embarking on a lifelong career in insurance. He received many awards for his work, was counted as an expert among his peers, and lectured at the University of Notre Dame and NYU.

He was diligent, even in his off-hours, acting as chairman of the Knights of St. Patrick, a director of the Irish Cultural Institute, and a board member of the Physically Challenged Foundation, with memberships in the Insurance Round Table of New York, the Ireland-U.S. Council, the Union League Club, and the New York Athletic Club.

“Gene was one of a kind and our dearly loved friend,” offered friends Eugene and Adele Hutchinson in an online tribute. “We will miss his warmth, humanity, and sense of humor. A great American and a great Irishman.”

McCarthy is predeceased by his parents, his sister Kathleen McCarthy Tobin, and his former wife Annemarie. He is mourned by his wife Sheila, daughter Deborah, son Jim, and four grandchildren: Caitlin, Brendan, Anna Kathleen, and Seamus Eugene.

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Maureen Mulhall

(1922 – 2019)

Maureen Mulhall.

Irish immigrant and cofounder of Mulhall’s Nursery, Maureen Mulhall, died in late May, aged 97. A resident of Omaha, Nebraska, Mulhall was also a loving wife, mother, and grandmother who encouraged her loved ones to aspire for greatness.

Born near Lough Key, County Roscommon to a family of six children, Maureen’s father died when she was 12, forcing her to leave school to go to work. She eventually made her way to Dublin, working as a cook at the American embassy. She met the head groundskeeper, John Mulhall, and the two fell in love. With the encouragement of their former employer, Ambassador Francis Matthews, they moved to Omaha, where John’s aptitude for growing things turned into a business, and they opened Mulhall’s Nursery out of their garage. While Maureen’s work was behind the scenes, her practical nature balanced her husband’s vision as the business began to flourish, Maureen filling any necessary roles with skill.

Regretting her own abandoned education, Maureen pushed her children and grandchildren to take advantage of what she could not – especially her granddaughters, who didn’t dare disappoint their grandmother. “Although she may look small, she is mighty,” granddaughter Macy, who is now a chemical engineer, wrote of Maureen for an assignment.

“She was one of the strongest women I have ever…will ever know,” confirmed her son Sean, who runs Mulhall’s with his brother Dan.

Maureen was predeceased by her husband John and their son Kevin. They leave behind other sons Jim, Sean, and Dan, and nine grandchildren.

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Noel Whelan

(1968 – 2019)

Historian and Broadcaster John Bowman (left) and Noel Whelan (right) Director Kennedy Summer School. Photo Patrick Browne.

Irish lawyer, political commentator, and advisor to the Fianna Fáil party in Ireland Noel Whelan died in early July, aged 50. His zeal for justice for all made him a constant activist and, as his wife Sinéad put it at his funeral mass, “the person to whom everyone turned when they had a problem.”

Born in Ballycullane, Wexford, Whelan’s father Séamus’ career as a Fianna Fáil councillor nurtured an interest in politics that lasted all his life. Whelan studied history and politics at UCD. Hired by Fianna Fáil headquarters just out of school, he jumped headfirst into the political arena and quickly moved up the ranks to become political advisor to the minister of state for E.U. affairs.

Though his campaigns for a seat in the Dáil and Seanad (Ireland’s houses of parliament) were unsuccessful, Whelan remained engaged with politics while pursuing a law degree and developing his practice. The success of several campaigns – most notably Ireland’s marriage equality referendum – was due to his vast knowledge of political trends and strategy.

“He understood and knew every constituency and local electoral area across the country,” remembered Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin, “and could, off the top of his head, remember quotas from an election held back in the ’80s.”

Whelan shared that proficiency with the world in several publications, including a legal textbook, election guides, and a column in the Irish Times.

“He brought intelligence, fairness, and clear thinking to any debate,” Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris said, and “changed Ireland for the better.” This was underscored by Whelan’s commitment to undertakings like New Ross’s Kennedy Summer School, of which he was founder and director.

Whelan leaves behind his wife Sinéad, a former Fianna Fáil advisor herself, and son Séamus.

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Dr. Henry Lynch

(1928 – 2019)

Dr. Henry Lynch

F ounder of genetic researching for cancer Dr. Henry Lynch died in June, aged 91. Lynch’s study of the hereditary nature of oncology led him to uncover the BRCA gene cancer markers and hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (renamed Lynch Syndrome in his honor), revolutionizing diagnostic procedure with the knowledge that at least five percent of cancers have genetic links.

With roots in Kerry, Tyrone, Waterford, and Wexford, Lynch was raised in New York by parents Henry and Eleanor. With a cousin’s identity and his mother’s signature, he enlisted underage in the Navy, becoming a gunner in the South Pacific. Once home, not done putting his 6’5” frame to use, he began a boxing career under the name Hammerin’ Hank. After growing up around the Irish and Jewish gangs of NYC, he was a natural at the sport.

“He was very interested in his heritage,” said his son, Dr. Patrick Lynch, a gastroenterologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Even though he didn’t know a lot about his roots, he loved being Irish.”

Pursuing that interest in heredity, Lynch got his degree in clinical psychology, hoping to find the genetic link that made conditions like schizophrenia a family legacy. After a slight shift into medicine, he obtained his M.D. and a Ph.D. in genetics.

In 1967, Lynch landed at Omaha, Nebraska’s Creighton University School of Medicine, where he remained for the rest of his career. Upon treating an alcoholic patient who insisted that he drank because he was going to die, since his whole family had died of colon cancer, Lynch found the connection between history and science he had been waiting for.

He collected comprehensive data from patients, creating family trees of cancer diagnoses. When his theory was rejected, he only redoubled his research. He finally gained enough traction to launch the Hereditary Cancer Center at Creighton in 1984, compiling one of the first and most detailed hereditary cancer registries in the world, and sharing data and advice freely with anyone who asked.

“He gave me every questionnaire, every consent,” remembered Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, who sought Lynch’s help identifying breast cancer genes.

“He was among the most decent people in academics,” confirmed Dr. Judy Garber, chief of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s division of cancer genetics.

“I knew we had something here,” Lynch said, according to the university’s news center. “I knew we could potentially save lives.”

Lynch’s wife Jane died in 2012. He is survived by identical twin brothers Donald and Warren, son Patrick, daughters Kathy and Ann, 10 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

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Sean McNeill

(1953 – 2019)

Sean McNeill.

Irish entrepreneur Sean McNeill died of gallbladder cancer in late July, aged 65. The proprietor of McNeill Real Estate and Easy Irish Gift Box NYC never failed to offer his time and effort where it was needed, both personally and through work with charitable organizations.

One of eight born to parents James and Mary, McNeill grew up in Roscommon. While working in Dublin, he visited New York and fell in love with the place, determining to make his life there. Though he returned to Ireland, buying a pub in Wexford with his brother Michael, McNeill never lost sight of his goal. In 1994, he settled in New York permanently.

He became a real estate broker, and established himself in New York’s Irish community. Identifying as gay made some friendships hard-won and others nonexistent, but McNeill wasn’t discouraged. “I was not always welcome at Irish events,” he told the Irish Voice’s Cahir O’Doherty, “but I ignored that, and put my face where they could see me.”

That assertive friendliness clinched his acceptance: he became president of the Irish Business Organization of NY and remained an active member until his death. He was a valued supporter of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center and several aid organizations, including Concern Worldwide and Solace House.

“Nothing was a bother to him if he was helping others,” said Christine McGowan, Sean’s friend from the IBO, in an online tribute. “He always made me feel valued and treated me like a friend. That’s how Sean was! He was one in a million.”

McNeill’s selflessness ensured that he had friends by his side. When his medical bills piled to an impossible amount, they started a GoFundMe page just a day before he died, with a goal to raise $50,000. Donations poured in, accruing more than half that before it was announced that McNeill had passed. They continued to come, amounting to over $42,000, from friends wanting to give something back to a man who gave all of himself to the people he loved.

McNeill is predeceased by his parents, his sister-in-law Imelda, and his baby niece Claire. He leaves behind siblings Maura, Catherine, Teresa, Una, Padraic, Michael, Peter, and Una; cousins Jimmy and Mary; and several nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, and grand-nephews. ♦

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