March Madness in the Irish American community is defined by parades, parties and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations galore.  The coronavirus wiped many of them out in 2020, and public tributes to our heritage remain virtual for 2021. Debbie McGoldrick reached out to some Irish Americans to see how life has treated them during the past 12 dreadful months of Covid.

Norbert Hennessy

Last year started out very interesting.  I was in Ireland at end of February for my twin sisters’ birthdays, something I’ve done practically every year. 

I remember Dublin Airport was so eerie and quiet coming back. News had just broke that travel to Europe was being curtailed and people didn’t know what to think. My prostate cancer screening showed elevated PSA readings around that time and I was fighting with UnitedHealthcare over a pivotal test that was requested by Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for my radiation treatment and was being denied. They tried to override oncologist Dr. Sean McBride (a good Irishman), and he expedited the appeal to no avail. 

Norbert Hennessy.

Norbert Hennessy.

So I decided to drive 1,300 miles to UHC headquarters in Minneapolis, and 19 hours later, after driving non stop from New York on Sunday, March 15, I presented myself (thankfully my wife Norah joined me on the trip) and we positioned ourselves in the lobby for the next three days, only to leave each evening at 5 p.m. at closing time to find a hotel to sleep. 

Strange, but on St. Patrick’s Day, which was a Tuesday, we watched the corporate staff wheeling their computers and printers out on dollies as the office complex was going to close that week. That’s how Norah and I spent St. Patrick’s Day 2020. 

Word eventually got up to the president of UnitedHealthcare’s affiliate Optum, Dan Schumacher, and he called me on Wednesday morning and profusely apologized for what we had been put through.  He gave me his personal cell phone number, guaranteeing me that within an hour a letter of approval would be presented to me by his staff, or call him back. Ironically, he was already working from home. 

We were on our way back to New York at noon.  Driving back we were practically the only ones on the road. Service station stops were all closed. Bathroom visits proved difficult. 

I eventually had the test performed at Sloan Kettering and started my 40 days of radiation. It was so strange five days a week going to the hospital with quiet roads and empty streets. 

Norah has been working from home since last March. Our son Daniel gave up his apartment in Manhattan and moved back to the nest, and has been working from home also. David is also working from home. Our daughter Kate changed careers and is a student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, working remotely from home but she has moved to Philadelphia as lab work is part of the curriculum. It was nice all being together again, eating meals together, hanging out, but this time no baby sitters needed. 

I spent 27 years in the bar business and I feel terribly for so many businesses not able to perform at capacity.  It’s so hard for the Irish community especially, as lots work in the hospitality industry. 

Going forward, my cancer PSA readings after the six-month waiting period are negligible. I have had my two Moderna vaccinations.  My family have each had their first vaccines with the second coming on March 23. 

Looks like our country is getting back to somewhat normal. Hopefully we’ll have herd immunity soon and eventually it’ll be like getting a flu vaccine. 

I’ve never been away from Ireland for so long. I’m so looking forward to getting back again soon. 

(Norbert Hennessy, a native of Co. Tipperary, is the former proprietor of the famed pub Hennessy Headquarters in the Bronx which, back in the day, provided videotape of the GAA games and RTE shows from Ireland to the New York Irish clamoring for them. He is now an energy business consultant with over 50,000 customers)

Bernadette Gavin Palmieri

Bernadette Gavin Palmieri and her husband Brian.

Bernadette Gavin Palmieri and her husband Brian.

On March 9, 2020, Gavin’s Irish Country Inn opened for our 59th season as the Gavin family. We were pumped.  The economy was thriving and we rebuilt our day tour St. Patrick’s motor coach business with 20 tours expected, two sold-out St. Patrick’s Day weekend getaways at the inn and over 80 family reunions pre-booked. 

Then on March 15, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced take-out only in New York City.  You could feel the trend, and by the 16th upstate would be take-out too.  On the morning of the 16th, I made the decision to not open March 17 and at 11:15 a.m. Cuomo announced indoor dining in upstate must shut down. Being an all-inclusive inn, we were not prepare to switch to “take-out” only immediately and made the decision to close. 

What now? We needed to act fast. Cash flow was tight, so an Irish American friend, one of our angels, Chris Hackett, offered to buy my Irish Tea Shop building immediately. We agreed and closed the same day that our first PPP loan came in which my local bank, the Bank of Greene County, and my CPA went above and beyond to secure. 

That gave us till July 1 to figure things out. Luckily, things start to reopen in late May and June. By July 1 we had a nice crowd at the inn and built an outdoor stage. 

We never reopened our pub that season, except for the last three weekends in October. We managed to survive the season and secure the disaster loan thru the SBA.  Getting the disaster loan enabled us to refund over $50,000 to customers who were unable to make it in 2020 and not agreeable to roll over to our 2021 season. It also gave us cash flow to get through the winter. 

It’s been a slow winter, but now, two days before St. Patrick’s Day, the 2021 reservations are coming in and our opening weekend went well.  This week, we are lucky to have Andy Cooney for March 17-21 who has also gone above and beyond to work with our Irish immigrant inn which has been operating since 1923. 

This season is our 60th my family, the Gavins from Yonkers and Irish roots from Co. Mayo, have run the inn.  We survived 9/11, the 2008 economic recession and are still here during the pandemic. 

Not going to lie.  This was my hardest year running the inn. It has made me stronger as a person and has made me appreciate all we have. 

My uncle, Father James Gavin, a Capuchin priest, passed away on Easter weekend. The same day all our loans for the building closed. We have a lot of angels watching over us and will continue to put our head down and keep going! 

We are open from March 12-October 18 – come visit us at www.gavinsinn.com.

(Bernadette Gavin Palmieri, with her husband Brian, is the third-generation owner of Gavin’s Irish Country Inn in the Irish Catskills of East Durham, the property previously run by her Co. Mayo-born grandmother Nellie and her husband Jim, and then by her parents Jack, from Yonkers, and Margaret, from Cabra West, Co. Dublin)

Loretta King

Loretta King.

Loretta King.

MY experience with Covid-19 has been like so many others. I have lost several friends to Covid and others have been sick.  The mandated isolation has been one of the biggest challenges. 

The confinement has taught me to appreciate the things I have always taken for granted such as visiting with family and friends and sharing a laugh. I miss dancing or giving a friend a hug.

The positive side of isolation is that I now realize that the simple joys of life, as well as good health, really are the true blessings.  And, it has taught me empathy for those who live lives of loneliness, even in a non-Covid environment. And for this new awareness, I am thankful.

I have never waited as eagerly for spring and the warmer weather as I have this year! I am delighted when I hear the birds singing. 

I cannot wait to see friends, celebrate life events, and even go to the beach. Hopefully, I will be able to walk around town without a mask so that I can smile at people and see their faces! 

(Loretta King is the first female president of the Kerry Association of New York and owner of LiKing Digital Marketing)

Dan Dennehy

Dan Dennehy.

Dan Dennehy.

March 2020: The looming and growing threat of Covid illness ended any cavalier thoughts of carrying on with the normal brisk calendar of St. Patrick’s season events.

The lockdown brought me closer to my wife Siobhán and our two university student daughters, Ashling and Cara. I’m thankful for the many chats over dinner at home that we may not have had otherwise.

Technology allowed us to stay close to our family, friends and practice our faith remotely. Sadly we couldn’t hold our friends and families as they prayed for their sick or attend the wakes, yet we mourned and offered inspiration and our love, as best we could remotely. The Irish adapted well in Covid, as many had previously watched family weddings, birthdays and funerals via Skype for years.

In short order, Siobhán and I incorporated our various long-made networks to participate in the great work of The Meitheal and Slainte 2020, to safely do our part for those in urgent need in our communities, in two very effective efforts.

A sad yet poignant day in 2020 was escorting Malachy McAllister to his deportation. A cruel Trump administration may have brought his fight to that point, but Malachy was joined by his AOH brothers, friends, family and Father Brian Jordan every step of the way, and entered the building unbowed, ready to face the future.

Spring is in the air, vaccines are going into arms, and the gloom of populism is evaporating.  I hope for many happy reunions and a modern version of the Roaring 20s, with prosperity, travel and goodwill for all!

(Dan Dennehy is the Ancient Order of Hibernians New York state board immigration chair, and the founding chair of the Hudson Valley Irish Center and annual festival)

Kathleen Biggins

Kathleen Biggins.

Kathleen Biggins.

March 11 was D-day in the radio newsroom on West 57th Street.  CBS was one of the first companies "hit" with an outbreak, and all personnel were evacuated from the building. I wasn't at work that day, but was told not to come in for the rest of the week. 

Half of our team was sent to Washington, D.C. Little did they know they'd be working there for three-plus months. The rest of us built satellite newsrooms, copy desks and anchor positions at our homes. We're still living the #WFH (work from home) life.

At my other job, hosting A Thousand Welcomes on WFUV, Fordham University radio, 90.7 on the FM dial in New York, I had put a standby show on tape the week before, but emailed the general manager, Chuck Singleton, saying I didn’t think I'd be in to do the show that week (March 15) and that I was getting "freaked out," and could they run that standby show. 

That one standby show led to two months of reruns before we were able to figure out what equipment I'd need to move forward with new programs. I am now #WFH for WFUV, too. I have no access to my CDs and can only play digital music in my set-up. But things work fairly smoothly, and neither I nor the station have any complaints!

I essentially have a radio station in my spare bedroom.  The left side is WFUV operations; the right side is CBS News, Radio.

While my work life changed dramatically, my personal life did, too. My fiancé, John, had been hospitalized for a procedure at the end of February 2020. He contracted Covid at the beginning of April at a rehabilitation facility in New Jersey where we live. He fought a very tough battle and actually came through it after a month, but because of his fragile health the virus ravaged his system, and he passed away in August. 

He is not counted among the more than half-million souls who've lost their lives to this wretched virus, but rest assured, if he never came down with the illness he would be here with me now. I was allowed to be with him during the last week of his life, for which I am forever grateful.

Despite my personal loss and the losses others have suffered, I am able to look at the bright side. I am thankful to have two jobs that allow me to work safely from home, when so many others have lost their livelihoods. I've been able to slow down and appreciate the beauty of where I live, by the Jersey Shore. A short drive to the beach and toes in the sand are a balm for the soul. I have more time to listen to podcasts, like Shannon Heaton's "Irish Music Stories." And like everyone else, I've been spending time in the kitchen.

I am hopeful for the future -- as of this writing, I've received one dose of the vaccine. By Easter, I'm hoping to be able to spend time with my family. 

I don't foresee a rush of people working productively at home heading back into their offices any time soon. I'm hoping that sometime by late summer or early fall we'll be able to enjoy live music once again. 

That's one of the things I've missed most. The craic at a session, dancers battering out sets, the sound of voices raised in song and laughter. It will come again. I have faith.

(Kathleen Biggins is a news writer at CBS News, Radio, and the host, since 1986, of the beloved Sunday morning Irish radio show A Thousand Welcomes on WFUV, 90.7 FM)

Treasa Goodwin Smyth

Treasa Goodwin Smyth and her husband Tommy Smyth.

Treasa Goodwin Smyth and her husband Tommy Smyth.

My husband Tommy Smyth and I were going to the St. Patrick’s dinner on March 11 at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan when the rumors started swirling that the Fifth Avenue parade would not be held. This was a hard blow as we have been involved in the TV end of the parade in one form or another for 30 years. 

Then of course we got the word no parade or no Mass.  We could not believe that it would come to this.

We stayed in our house as much as possible during the pandemic and followed all the CDC guidelines. At that time I was training a group of Irish runners called the Queens Aisling Irish group and about two weeks into the running the number of cases was escalating in New York and I decided this was not a wise course of action. Our group focus was incorporating fitness and running into a healthy lifestyle. It was decided not to meet up until things got better, and Covid numbers decreased again. 

It was just last Sunday that we got back to training again following the social distancing and CDC guidelines. It was so great to see everyone again and I think we all did more talking than running!  I also was coaching Shannon Gaels camogie and this also had to stop.  I’m hoping to get back to that soon again.

Then we had an issue with our radio show, Ireland Calls, as several of our sponsors were restaurants and pubs.  They fell away, and even at this stage we are hanging on by a thread. 

We watched Mass on TV every Sunday and still do. We also got our local supermarket to deliver the food shopping.  It was really a lockdown, especially when things got so bad in Elmhurst Hospital where I worked for many years as an RN. I had retired from nursing but went back to nursing to help out a bit with Covid. I am glad I did. 

Our son Anthony lives in Australia and he came home to New York during the pandemic. While he was home he has a pneumothorax (collapsed lung).  This was quite stressful, and he was very ill. I was only allowed to see him very briefly each day while he was in the hospital.  That said, I was very lucky as I know a lot of people who couldn’t see their loved ones at all. 

When Anthony recovered he was unable to get back to Sydney.  It took five weeks from the date he had the ticket booked until they let him fly out. He was then put into a hotel for two weeks on his arrival in Sydney. 

We also couldn’t see our daughter Lisa.  This was very stressful as we wondered how both our children were doing and all our family in Ireland and friends.  My twin sister Sinead and I celebrated a big birthday this past December we had a big party and trip planned to celebrate with family that didn’t happen of course!  Maybe next year. 

Tommy and I say we are very lucky none of us got Covid and we have our health. We have so many friends who lost loved ones and could not see them before they passed or attend their funeral. This is very hard on families, so very sad. 

Our situation was just an inconvenience overall, when for so many lives has been changed forever. 

We are hoping and praying that this pandemic will be under control soon, and life as we knew it will return to some normality. Reflecting on this past year, it has reminded us all of what is, and what’s not, important. We realize that life can change at the drop of a hat and never take things for granted.

(Treasa Goodwin Smyth, a native of Co. Cork, provides color commentary each March 17 for the WNBC live broadcast of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, and hosts a radio show, Ireland Calls, with her husband Tommy Smyth, the noted soccer pundit, Gaelic Park commentator, and WNBC parade co-host)

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