The vital role of the United Irish Counties

Gael of the Year Niall O'Dowd, New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn,
and Rose Cosgrove Distinguished Service Award recipient Gerry O’Shea.
(Photo by Margaret Purcell Roddy)
I was guest of honor at the United Irish Counties dinner in New York last Friday night.

It was the 108th annual banquet of the organization, comprised of members from county associations all over Ireland.

Close to 500 attended and there was every accent in Ireland on display which made 32 in all, as well as some American ones.

The United Irish Counties is a backbone of the Irish-born community in New York. It began in a slightly different form back at the time of the famine to help those desperately in need who came flooding off the ships seeking a new life.
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There is no equivalent in America of county loyalty. It is a deeply ingrained sense of belonging that permeates every Irish person from the time they are born.

Counties are given certain characteristics. Cork people are said to be rebellious, Cavan people tight with money, Kerry people great at sport and so on.

The engine of Irish sport, the GAA, is driven by county loyalty. When you watch, as I did, Dublin play Kerry before 80,000 at last year’s All-Ireland football final you are watching the very essence of the county identity, the city versus the countryside, the metropolis versus the rural.

That county identity is fiercer even than national identity for many. Playing Gaelic games for the honor and glory of the county and village you come from is considered a massive honor.

The United Irish Counties organization has done herculean work to help hundreds of thousands of Irish over the century and a half since it was founded.

It has prevailed, despite massive ebbs and flows in Irish emigration, regular predictions of its demise and, nowadays, the new era of Facebook, Skype and the Internet which make it that much easier for people to stay in touch.

The organization’s members are ordinary Irish from all over Ireland, and many Irish Americans too. There are no millionaires here, no LinkedIn type deal to keep in contact for business reasons.

Instead there is an honesty, a decency and an old fashioned sense of the Irish experience and hospitality that seems timeless.

The biggest joy is when the announcement is made at the dance about which county organization will be the first to march up Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day, a huge honor that is regularly rotated.
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The announcement was made on Friday night which counties would lead the way this year. It was as eagerly anticipated as a lottery win.

There was a wonderful family sense to the occasion I found. Alana, my 12-year-old utterly Americanized daughter, found herself doing the old country dances like the siege of Ennis and the walls of Limerick and said she had never enjoyed herself more.

Neighbors from long ago in Ireland met and chatted about the changes back home and the latest gossip, the McLean Avenue Band played all the old tunes, the night grew longer and the crowd had a ball. A wonderful Irish ritual was underway.

New York Senator Charles Schumer dropped in, as did City Council Speaker and future mayoral candidate Christine Quinn as well as City Comptroller John Liu. Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny was in attendance. The political clout is understated but very real.

There is a wonderful history of the organization on their website, click here for more details.

Any Irish person in the New York area looking for a friendly, family type organization that does a lot of good should consider joining. It is truly a home from home.

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