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An Irish Celebration of Despair, Remembrance, Hope

" ... while St. Patrick's Day was once a celebration of politics more than culture, it now can be fully about the celebration of a wonderful culture that strives for peace, prosperity and humanity."

As a young child growing up in the Riverdale/Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, I learned from my family and friends everything about a little island in the North Atlantic Ocean, the country of Ireland. At such a young age never having seen the land for myself, I had to rely on stories and black and white photos to try and imagine what it was like to live in a rocky, green climate that always seemed so dismal and so far away.

My aunt Ann Coggins was the one member of the family who kept up the Irish heritage and made sure that all the American Irish, those of us that were born in the states, were well educated on where we came from.

Every Sunday she would come up from midtown Manhattan and spend time with us. It was typical that WFUV, Fordham University’s Irish channel, would be playing in the background. The radio would play forever, it seemed, telling us all about Irish language, dancing and “The Troubles” back home. Every March 17 was like Christmas. The house was filled with family and friends as the most celebrated holiday in Irish American history. St. Patrick’s Day was here.

On my mother’s side, my grandmother Mary Coggins O’Reilly came from a town called Roscommon and my grandfather James O’Reilly came from a Town called Cavan. They both immigrated to the United States in 1922 and met in New York City and had four children. They have all since past.

On my father’s side, my grandmother Helen Galvin also came from Roscommon and my grandfather, who was Protestant, came from County Armagh. They both immigrated in 1921 to the United States and met in New York City and had two children George (my dad) and John. They too have all since past.

During my early childhood in the 1980s, Ireland was in terrible shape, both north and south. War raged in the north as the Irish Catholics IRA were battling the Irish Protestants as the IRA was attempting to cast out the British government from 700 years of domination. The British government at times used very handed tactics to crush the Irish Catholic rebellion and it was very personal for all of us. The Irish economy in the south (Republic) was in shambles. High unemployment and no hope for a better life plagued the Irish for centuries. These were the main reasons my family immigrated to the United States.

My Aunt Ann Coggins, an IRA supporter, would tell us stories of how British soldiers came to Roscommon and rounded up the men and shook them down to find weapons and supporters of the local IRA.

As she told the stories you could see the horror she experienced and the reasons for the deep hatred of the British government. As an American of Irish descent, it was like I was being torn apart. My country is a staunch ally of Britain and to remain quiet and neutral was the best course of action so I wouldn’t upset my aunt. I figured I’d draw my own conclusions on Irish politics.

Well, trying to understand Irish politics is sometimes like trying to figure out how the Earth came to be. You get the surface but all the underlying stuff is very complicated. One thing was for certain, through the 1980s Ireland was going to be tough to solve. As for my Irish friends,  many of them supported the IRA and the cause. My interest in this complicated and confusing part of Irish history caused me to walk away and disengage and St. Patrick’s Day to me became a reminder of it all.

As the violence in Northern Ireland became more widely known in the 1990s, it took the courage of an American president, Bill Clinton, to say after 700 years enough was enough. He pushed to find peace in Northern Ireland and bring the island nation stability so it could experience what many Irish Americans experience in the United States: peace and prosperity.

In my eyes, the distant war that I had known my whole life was coming to a close and my ancestors and family could finally be at peace. I began to find more interest in my Irish heritage again and actually went to the country in 1994 for the first time and I fell in love.

I went in search for the family farm in Corrigan Row, Roscommon, where just the foundation was left on the home of Aunt Ann and grandma. It was an emotional experience, something I’ll never forget. While I was there I did see the Irish prospective of what they called “The Troubles.” A bomb had exploded in Enniskillen killing a woman and her children. They were murdered innocently as the IRA and the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters), “The Protestants,” were battling in the final days of the war. That was the day I finally realized that both sides were nothing but terrorists and that I finally knew where I stood on Irish politics.

What nailed the coffin were the events on 9/11. I realized that day that men and women who take it upon themselves to host and participate in wild acts of terrorism are not who I wanted to be associated with. What would Aunt Ann think if she were alive today?

So now it’s up to the second generation and the generations that will follow to carry the torch of those that came before us who endured the struggles and to finally heal the wounds of hate and religious intolerance.

As I get older, I realize that life is about just trying to find humanity in us all, and while St. Patrick's Day was once a celebration of politics more than culture, it now can be fully about the celebration of a wonderful culture that strives for peace, prosperity and humanity.

I encourage everyone who has never been to the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade to attend this year on Sunday, March 13. You will be quite impressed and will learn a small bit about Irish culture.

Max Synder March 18, 2011 at 01:20 PM
WOOF. No actually it was the boy who always cried wolf. The enemy is there, no over there, it is the liberal, the Marxists, the Socialists, the press, the politician who works for consensus, the immigrant, the poor, those intellectuals, or simply put, anyone who does look and think like "me". The fear mongering and pitting one group of people against another are the seeds of fascism. You and yours like to cry "wolf" but the enemy is really with in you. Fear is the root of our worse behaviors and has lead to some of most destructive moments of human history.
ASmith March 18, 2011 at 01:38 PM
I think the real problem in our world can be read in the Register today. The woman in West Haven who was an immigrant who was murdered because nobody really paid attention to her calls for help. Our country is becoming an angry cold place. So many now have such a dislike for the immigrant population that they are ignoring their obligations to humanity to do the right thing. Hate eats away at your soul. When you face your maker on judgment day, all your words and actions will be taken into account. What would Jesus do? My pastor tells us that when we have a conversation or take an action, imagine we are doing it with or to Jesus. If we couldn't do it to him, or say it to him, then we should not do it or say it to anyone. That poor woman. Those orphan children. It should not happen. Could it happen here in East Haven too? That's all I ask. Stop the hate and find a peaceful solution. I'm gettin old and not sure I will live to see it. I don't want to live to see my country torn apart by hate. We find these truths to be self evident, all men/women are created equal, we all have a right to life and liberty. Liberty we lucked out cause all those people in 1776 fought for it. My people trace back to the mayflower. They died so Dan and Max could be born here. You guys, your people came here as immigrants. I dont begrudge you cause my people made the sacrifice to make this country free so your people could come here. And I don't begrudge others either.
Max Synder March 18, 2011 at 02:22 PM
DITTO. Well said.
Dan McCann March 18, 2011 at 02:42 PM
Marxy Punk..... Have a cowardly day...
Max Synder March 18, 2011 at 02:57 PM
TRUE COLORS. :)

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