John Francis Welsh, from Salt Lake City, passed away, while Irish connections around the globe solder amid the Coronavirus crisis.
While locked down at home, I received a call from Peter Donegan, one of Ireland’s award-winning landscape architects who designed the Irish World War I centenary Peace Garden at the Château de Péronne, in the heart of the Battlefields of the Somme. July will see Peter back at the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society’s RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.
However, Peter wasn’t calling me about his ‘Northern Roots Oldham Garden’ project for the July RHS event. From his garden in Ballyboughal, County Dublin, which judging from the volume of the birds’ singing, must be a real haven, I could hear how deeply he was moved by the death of a man called John Francis Welsh, one of the founding members of the Hibernian Society of Utah, and a resident of Salt Lake City. John passed on 15 March, in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis.
We are all overwhelmed by the pandemic, its global death toll and the images of the critically ill. The unprecedented disruption of life on every scale rightfully monopolize global headlines with news of the virus, its fulminating spread, the optimism of its recent regression in Wuhan, the national lockdowns and international projects for testing and treatments.
With everything going on, I sensed Peter was worried, that John’s death might go unnoticed by many of the people he touched and helped who live outside SCL, Utah. Peter himself is one of those people and he feels that John was a solid link in a diasporic chain. In the same way that he selects and incorporates stone in his award-winning gardens, Peter wanted to make sure that John’s tale was inscribed somewhere for Irish at home and abroad.
Forty-three years ago John was sitting in his SLC local with his friends. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and a few pints later they wondered what on earth were they doing sitting in a pub, in a city where there was no SPD Parade? They got up from their stools, gave a nod to the bar owner, who might have been thinking, I hope this madness isn’t traced back to my establishment, and off they went. Now, anyone who’s ever been involved in the launching or organization of any kind of parade knows how it’s a complicated affair involving licenses, city hall permissions, deliberation to find the appropriate date and time of day, etc. Off the boyos went, devoid of any plan and not a logistic between them. They were just convinced that SLC needed a St. Patrick's Day Parade and they had the spirit to try and instigate something that just had to be.
In the words of Meghan Welsh-Gibson, John’s daughter, who follows in her father’s footsteps as a second-generation president of the Hibernian Society of Utah, and one of the organizers of SLC St. Patrick's Day’s parade, “on that fateful afternoon John, along with his friends Emmett Quinn, John Brockert, and Mike Rodman and with ten other eager followers, proceeded to exit ‘Stanton Street’ pub, their local watering hole, and have a parade of their own by marching down 400 south. When they hit 300 East they were met with three of SLC’s finest motorcycle cops. They were half expecting to be dragged off in irons for disturbing the peace but instead were delighted to see the cops direct traffic around them”.
The story continues that by the time they got back to the ‘Stanton Street’ pub, the bar owner had heard about the unexpected warm reception of their pioneering parade, and had already filed for an official license for a St. Patrick's Day parade the following year!
After that, John never missed a parade and was instrumental in the execution of each parade including the SLC St. Patrick's Day parade 2019. The 2020 parade which was scheduled for the eve of his passing, like most parades around the world, was put on hiatus for safety reasons, and as if in mourning, didn’t take place without its founding father.
Meghan said her father “was so proud of his Irish heritage and he instilled that same pride in each of his ten children”. A mourner posted, “John always had a Smile and a Twinkle in his eye. We loved his Irish Tenor, his ready Jokes and, of course, his Irish Brogue.”
Peter Donegan met John on the occasion of the St. Patrick's Day 2017 parade in SLC. He was in SLC to give gardening classes and also had the important mission of delivering five authentic stones from Blarney Castle, Cork to the Hibernian Society of Utah on behalf of Sir Charles Colthurst. Peter, along with being one of our most talented landscape architects is also an accomplished speaker, with a Billy Connolly style humor. The Hibernian Society of Utah invited him to speak at an event where Mary Robinson also spoke. When I remarked that it was appropriate that it was he who delivered stones from Blarney Castle, he reminded me that the Blarney stone actually bestows “the gift of eloquence” and that the “gift of the gab”, which is often confused with “the gift of blarney”, is in fact only in the halfpenny place. In his projects, we see how Peter delights in stones, especially those embedded with centuries of history.
A strong bond was forged between Dublin and SLC on Peter’s two-week visit in 2017 and he still keeps in touch with Michael O’Donovan, another founding member of the Hibernian Society of Utah, who took him under his wing for the duration of his visit. Since his visit, he has also been invited back on several occasions for skype interviews on KRCL radio. You can catch his “St. Patrick's Day without a pub in sight” 17 March 2020 interview with Lara Jones (here, at 34:43) where after their conversation Lara also pays homage to John and his amazing initiative in launching the first-ever SLC St. Patrick's Day parade.
At a recent event in the Irish Cultural Centre Paris, the Irish Ambassador, HE Patricia O'Brien told the audience that we, as members of the diaspora living in Paris, were in a sense also ambassadors for our country. Up to this pandemic, I have viewed the Irish at home and the Diaspora, as being two tribes of one people. However, in the current circumstances, I have also seen how a third tribe; Irish people living at home who due to the nature of their work spend an enormous amount of time with the Diaspora abroad, play such an important role in a circle of Irish-ness. People, with one foot in Ireland and the other among the diaspora, are solid spokes in a Celtic Ouroboros wheel of life.
Peter is one of these people. While stamping an Irish mark on international landscapes, he also sows his love of Irish culture abroad. One of the most striking features of his Peace Garden, in the midst of the Somme battlefields, is a semi-circular low wall like seat inspired by the ‘Dún Ducathair’ fort on Inis Mór, which stands in the shade of the garden’s many hawthorn trees. He also brings home news and influences from abroad and manages to keep in touch with the people he meets on what he describes as his “magical mystery tours”. That explains why the passing of an inspirational man in Salt Lake City, touched such a cord in a man in his Ballyboughal garden, that he telephoned an Irish woman living in Paris, whom he met in the Battlefields of the Somme, to tell the story.
On the 23 March in an open letter entitled “What is the Corona/ Covid-19 Virus Really Teaching us?” in one of its 14 points, Bill Gates stated that the virus “is reminding us of the shortness of life and of what is most important.” I realized that for me going forward (god willing) I’d like to spend more time in Ireland. Speaking with other French-based Irish friends, I found out I wasn’t alone in reaching this conclusion.
Rebuilding and fuelling the future of Ireland post-Covid-19 will involve the power and soft power of all the tribes of Ireland and I’m looking forward, in my own microscopic way, to somehow being part of it.
In a recent message Sinéad O’Connor told Irish people, “it’s in our blood to survive and rebuild. We have done it several times in our history, the Famine, 1916.”
In a spirit of Irish-ness, and without political connotation or agenda; the words “we will rise again” come to mind.
Read more: Coronavirus live updates from Ireland
 The Ouroboros is a Greek word meaning "tail devourer," one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world. The past (the tail) appears to disappear but really moves into an inner domain or reality, vanishing from view but still existing. A symbol of eternal return.
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