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Aran sweaters and red-haired children, a common site along the parade route.

Holyoke's Irish Heart

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Aran sweaters and red-haired children, a common site along the parade route.

“On my father’s side, he had three first cousins who were priests – Father Sullivan, Father George Friel, and Father Charles Friel. On my mother’s side, six were priests and three were nuns. And even in my generation you had a huge amount of Irish that became priests and nuns,” Bob Loughrey says.

Education and the church became the stepping stones to future success for the Irish in Holyoke and in other places across America. “At least 80 percent of elementary school teachers in Holyoke were Irish girls. My aunt Florence and Ellen Walsh were schoolteachers. The school door was open to them where other places were not,” Bob says.

That tradition continues. The Irish still have a presence in the school system, as they do in the political life of Holyoke. This year’s parade grand marshal Chris Patton Zacoc, an educator in Holyoke’s public schools for 35 years, was the subject of Amongst Schoolchildren, a bestselling book by Tracy Kidder, who spent a year monitoring Patton in her classroom.

 

The Humor

At the mass, the bishop can barely contain himself when the organ acts up and every beautifully sung hymn ends on a long mournful note because of trapped air in the pipes. Grinning, he thanks the choir “and the leprechaun in the organ.”

At the J.F.K. Award dinner, humor abounds as Mayor Mike Sullivan, who in an alternative universe would be a stand-up comedian, gives a good old-fashioned ribbing to honoree Joe Loughrey, a boyhood pal. Meanwhile, my sister Honora, friend Irene, and I enjoy sitting around the dinner table with Kateri Walsh, who chairs the Ambassador Committee, her husband Dan, a former Marine, and sons Chris, Daniel and Bennett.

Chris regales us with stories of his trip to Ireland as Daniel tries to get a word in on the finer points of Irish culture, and Bennett, a lieutenant colonel, just back from his third tour in Iraq, tells us what the Shannon stop-off means to the American troops coming and going to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kateri, who was honored with this year’s George E. O’Connell Award for her parade committee work, says she is “never happier” than when she has all her seven children together. They would all join her the following morning at the Mayor’s Breakfast and later on the parade route.

 

The Mayor & The award

The Mayor’s Breakfast, where I receive my Ambassador’s Award, is at the Yankee Peddler, which despite its name has a distinct Southern feel. The main dining hall is a beautiful room with a magnificent chandelier from the old Metropolitan Hotel in New York City, and a balcony where the Grand Colleen Ashley Tucker and her entourage hang out. The Mummers entertain, the Marine band plays, and Sgt. Dan Clark sings “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” just for me.

I was welcomed by David Pinsky who represents Tighe & Bond, sponsors of the Ambassador Award (James Tighe was an Irish immigrant to Holyoke who worked on the Hydroelectric dam which replaced the wooden structure in 1900. Tighe went on to become city engineer in 1911). I received several citations from city and state representatives, and numerous gifts, and I am moved by the experience and at the same time worried about what I will say when my turn comes to speak.

Luckily, Mayor Mike Sullivan does the introductions. A native son, who has been mayor for 10 years, Sullivan is passionate about Holyoke and prized for his sense of humor. He has everyone laughing so hard that I begin to relax. I realize, not for the first time, that in Holyoke, I am amongst my own. And so, I proudly accept the Ambassador’s Award on behalf of all the Irish immigrants who went before me.

The mayor has Kerry and Mayo roots: “My grandmother Bridget Kennedy was from Slea Head, and my grandfather Michael Sullivan was from Brandon Mountain. On my mother’s side, my grandmother Una Lavelle was from Belmullet, Co. Mayo, and my grandfather Nicholas O’Neill was from Cahirciven, Co. Kerry,” he writes in response to a follow-up e-mail I sent requesting more information on his family background. “As a second-generation Irishman, I loved sitting off to the side when I was young to hear stories of glory, tragedy and opinion spun with thick brogues that were only translated through tumblers of Four Feathers or Seagram’s Seven.

“My Nana Sullivan was the only one I knew who was sweet and fierce with equal measure in all matters. She would approach the local butcher with praise, asking about his family, his wife, his new car and then when he would reveal the price of hamburger she would use all that against him in an instant. ‘No wonder your flock are going to college and you are driving a new car – with the price of meat in this store it’s a wonder you don’t have a chauffeeeeeur,’ she would exclaim. It was a great lesson in politics. She also cared for me and my youngest sister while my mother was at work. I ended up having to go to speech class when I began elementary school because I would say ‘ba-a-ll’ and ‘ca-a-ll’ instead of ball and call, or ‘windell’ for window, or, as everyone in Holyoke still says, ‘pa-day-da’ for potato. The therapy broke my brogue.”

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