The 5th Annual Stars of the South dinner took place on Saturday, Oct. 16th in Atlanta’s Commerce Club. The evening was co-hosted by Irish America and the Keenan Kids Foundation.
Those honored came from a wide cross section of the community and included leading lights in the arts and education, the church and corporate world. Tributes to the ancestors abounded and stories were told of mothers and fathers, and a grandmother who looked across the Kentucky hills and admonished her grandson to remember, “You are Irish and Scots. That’s who your people are and that’s your legacy,”
Betty Scott Noble, whose grandfather founded Agnes Smith College in 1889 to honor the vision of his mother, who emigrated from Ireland in 1816 at the age of 17, was particularly eloquent. She described herself an “ornery” Scots Irish woman and proud of the label. Proud, too, of her father’s side of the family, the Calhouns and Pickens, and the contributions that Scots Irish Presbyterians made in the areas of education and politics – in the very founding of America. There was even mention of an ancestor who paid a guinea for a rat during the siege of Derry.
Steve Cahillhane paid tribute to his Donegal mother, who was present, telling how at 18 she arrived in New York and met the Irish-American man she would marry. They put four children through college on a fireman’s pay, and then she and her husband went to college themselves and graduated.
Dr. Stephen Cross talked about how his Irish heritage proved to be the incentive for founding Georgia Tech’s Irish campus, and recalled his grandmother’s words “Don’t give up until it’s over…and the weight on your shoulders will make you strong.”
Joe Hassett (whose book on Yeats is reviewed in this issue) talked about the good people of Buffalo who banded together to send him to Ireland on a work study program, and the richness of exploring his heritage through literature. Archbishop Donoghue, who opened five schools in the Atlanta area when Catholic schools across the nation were closing, talked about being Irish and American and the customs and songs and the stubbornness and know-how of Irish Catholics.
Patrick Berrigan brought greetings from the New Orleans A.O.H., the second-oldest chapter in America, and talked about how Irish New Orleans was – right up to 1980 when they ruled city politics. “We are an Irish town – look at our history,” he said. He told how the cotton ships, rather than return empty from Britain, returned with Irish – cheap labor to build the canals. Berrigan talked too about what it meant to hand down the [Catholic] faith. His family has its very own saint, Luke Berrigan who was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1655 because he was a Catholic priest. He talked with amusement about his mother’s relationship with Our Lady, which included bribery. “She said three Hail Mary’s every night but just the first part, saying, ‘If I’m still alive in the morning, Mary, I’ll finish.’”
Pat McGahan talked about his ancestors on both sides who had come over in the 1800s, including his great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side, Abby Shea, who immigrated in 1848 and was a nurse in the Civil War.
The night was rounded out with uilleann pipe player John Maschinot. who grew up in a small Kentucky town on the Ohio River and whose mother’s ancestors came from Galway. He said his discovery of the pipes rescued him as a troubled teenager. One of the tunes he played was “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a haunting old American tune that stirred up the blood, and in John’s own words, made you realize “you had a soul.”