The Irish American community needs to keep Irish county associations alive and kicking!
It's been said that the Irish county associations in New York have seen better days, and certainly there’s some truth to that.
The biggest problem? Lack of emigration is making it difficult to replenish memberships.
These days, the Irish coming to America do so not off a boat to take the offer of a job from a relative, lonely for home but desperate to make a life for themselves here.
The new Irish, for the most part, arrive with college degrees and temporary work visas of varying lengths, and don’t seem to feel the need to link with a group of fellow county men and women. They can hop on a plane and be back in Ireland in a matter of hours, which wasn’t the case “back in the day” when the county groups were bursting with emigrants longing for a connection to home.
If any of the new arrivals had made their way to the Kerry Hall in Yonkers last Friday night, for the 50th annual Kerrymen’s St. Patrick’s dinner dance, they would have had a fantastic time and walked away with a few more friends for sure.
The Kerrymen – and women, who were finally allowed to join in 2011 though the “men” in the name remains – know how to throw a party. There were about 200 people in attendance, a sell-out, and the Kerry Hall was packed tight with people who identify with the Kingdom. A good few of their next-door neighbors from Cork came for the night out too.
The sense of community and pride and friendship was palpable. Maybe it was the smaller space of the Kerry Hall compared to other venues that made for a cozier, welcoming atmosphere.
Actually, scrub that. The reality is that the folks who paid $85 at the door to celebrate Kerry on Friday night are some of the sweetest, friendliest people you could ever want to meet.
Yes, it’s true I’m biased. My mother was from Kerry, and I made my way up to Yonkers with my Aunt Nora, her sister and the sole surviving Ryan from Goulane, Rathmore. Nora, who turned 92 years young this week, came to New York in 1949 and travels back “home,” as she still calls Kerry, every single year without fail – with or without myself or her daughter Peggy, who also came to the Kerry dance.
The Pride of Moyvane sang Happy Birthday to her and someone else who had a big day. Father Brendan Fitzgerald, the pastor of nearby St. Barnabas, got up to sing a tune and got a big cheer when he offered a special dispensation for those wondering if they could eat the Irish sausages and other meats during a Friday in Lent.
Pride of Moyvane played ceili music for a bunch of quite serious dancers who performed Kerry sets and jigs and reels as good as anything you’d pay money to see. There were adults of all ages on the floor, and even a couple of kids showed off their moves. It felt like we were all back in a country pub in Ireland, dancing and singing and having the craic.
I heard great stories of old and was fortunate to be sitting next to the sweetheart known as Mike Fogarty of Co. Tipperary, a past president of the United Irish Counties who was with his wife Margaret, a Kerry woman and heroine of the Fogarty family according to her proud husband.
The Fogartys live in Bronxville now – Mike, at 91, still drives – in a co-op building where their daughter also resides. They have a son in Arizona too, but tragedy struck early in their married life when they lost three children to disease. Not only that, back in the 1960s Mike worked as a foreman but was out of work for eight years due to a workplace injury.
“And Margaret picked up the slack,” he said proudly as his wife listened on. “She worked with New York Telephone during the day and took a job at the old Gimbels department store at night. She kept everything together for us. A mighty woman.”
That she is. Margaret remains involved with the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, which started hosting annual fundraisers every October at Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers thanks to her friend Kevin Kennedy, everyone’s favorite Galway man who never traveled without a camera. Kevin passed in 2016 and it was thought that the fundraiser might cease, but Margaret and her fellow committee members have kept it up and plan to keep on going.
Friday’s dance paid tribute to a couple of honorees. The former mayor of Yonkers John Spencer was one because he greatly helped to facilitate the creation of the Kerry Hall when he was in office more than a decade ago.
Spencer isn’t a Kerryman, and worse, according to the evening’s emcee Gerry O’Shea, his people were English and one of them was a famous poet who wasn’t too fond of people from Cork.
“He said that they were the most cantankerous and contrary people he ever met. Very unfair of your distant cousin, of course -- although I know a few people that say that the poet was indeed very perceptive,” O’Shea said to laughter, with the Cork table only too happy to join in the fun.
Dermot Myers, a past president of the Kerrymen’s, was the guest of honor. He left Kerry in 1986 for New Jersey and joined the Kerrymen’s a few months after arrival. His fellow members, he said, are the best friends anyone could ask for and were rocks of support when he was ill nine years ago.
“The association came through big time for me,” he said. “They had a healing Mass for me, so many members made their way to Montefiore Hospital, then Helen Hayes…I couldn’t be more thankful.”
It’s a point the newly installed Kerrymen’s President Frank O’Keefe was eager to make as well. “Any time we ask anyone for help in this association, they are more than happy to do it,” he said.
David Tubiolo, the young Westchester County legislator, was sipping Guinness and mingling with his constituents, an honorary Irishman for the night. And Anna McGillicuddy, the deputy consul general of Ireland, spoke from the heart about her own Kerry roots.
“My God is my father proud of me to be here tonight!” McGillicuddy said of her dad, a native of Cahirciveen in Kerry. McGillicuddy’s job representing the Irish government is non-stop around St. Patrick’s Day, and it was clear that the Kerry dance was one of her highlights.
No doubt the atmosphere is just as warm and welcoming at the dances hosted by the other county associations. How great it would be to see a new effort put forth to keep them thriving because as the Kerrymen showed on Friday night, they still have so much to offer.