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At its heart, Holyoke, Massachusetts, is still Ireland Parish, which is what it was known as back in the 1800s when immigrants, mainly from the Irish-speaking area of Dingle, Co. Kerry, settled there and found employment working on the dam and canal system, in the paper manufacturing plants and textile mills.
It was a tough existence but they survived, and today in this area of Massachusetts on the banks of the Connecticut River, their descendants are more likely to be judges, politicians, teachers and doctors than blue-collar workers. But the struggle of those early immigrants is not forgotten, and the pride that Holyokers hold in their Irish roots is evident, especially on St. Patrick’s Day.
Depending on the weather, and who is doing the talking, the parade status varies between being number one or two worldwide. According to some, the city of 40,000 people draws upwards of 350,000 spectators from Boston, the neighboring townlands of Springfield and Chicopee, and as far away as Chicago.
This year’s parade took place on Sunday, March 22. The weather was crisp and sunny and a sense of fun prevailed. Families held parties on sloping front yards and cheers rang out from porches and sidewalks to the marchers along the 2.6-mile route. The feeling is a little more Mardi Gras than Hibernian with some 40 marching bands and as many floats taking part. This year, for instance, the Grand Colleen float featured giant ice cream cones and a chocolate box, and the Hawthorne Caballeros led off the parade with pulsing music and Latin-inspired costumes – a nod, perhaps, to the large Puerto Rican population that now call Holyoke home.
The parade is nothing if not inclusive. The Philadelphia Mummers with their brilliant costumes and accordion and banjo music liven up the crowd, while the Second Marine Aircraft Wing Band strike a reflective note as they call to mind the tradition of Irish-Americans in the Armed Forces, and today’s young men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Canadians, Poles, and Puerto Ricans all immigrated to Holyoke in large numbers, but none so large as the original Irish settlers who are still prominent in the running of the city and the parade. The celebrations run over several days and keep the 250-strong Parade Committee busy all year planning events such as the Colleen Pageant, 10k Road Race, Bishop’s Mass, J.F.K. Award Dinner (John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie were guests of honor at the 1958 inaugural dinner), and the Mayor’s Breakfast, at which yours truly was presented with this year’s Ambassador Award.
I first heard of Holyoke from the late, great Eoin McKiernan, who penned The Last Word column for Irish America for many years. Eoin was the first Ambassador Award recipient in 1992 and became an ardent fan of Holyoke, promoting the parade whenever he could. But it was at the urging of Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, founders of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre who served as last year’s Ambassadors, that I finally made the trip. I’m glad I did.
I arrived in Holyoke, three and a half hours north of New York City, at noon-time on Saturday, just as the 10k road race was ending. I had barely put a foot down when I was met by a welcoming party of Fred Sullivan and Jack O’Neill, who soon had me off and running to a whirlwind of engagements.
As we went along, Fred, a labor lawyer with offices in New York and Holyoke, and Jack, a pharmacist of long standing, filled me in on the city’s colorful history.
Holyoke was known as Ireland Parish back in the 1800s, when it was a way station on the road between Springfield and Northampton – a place for weary travelers to refresh themselves at one of the taverns in the area. The first post office, called “Ireland,” was established on June 3, 1822. Another post office called Ireland Depot was opened on February 26, 1847.
By that time, Boston entrepreneurs had seen the potential of the broad plain and the 57-foot drop in the Connecticut River at South Hadley Falls, and devised a plan to dam the river and turn the area into America’s first planned industrial city.
Irish workers began construction on the dam, which was completed on November 16, 1848. (There’s an old saying, “To build a canal all you need is a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and an Irishman.”) The wooden structure proved no match for the mighty river and less than a day after it opened the dam was swept away to the famous words, “Dam gone to hell by way of Willimansett.” Undeterred, construction began on a second dam. This time engineers put an apron in place for support, and the dam held.
One of the laborers on the dam was Irish immigrant Daniel O’Connell who died soon afterwards in a cholera epidemic. His son, also Daniel, a water boy on the same river project, became the family’s sole support. Daniel went on to found Daniel O’Connell & Sons Contractors which is still in operation today.