It was 61 years ago that a small band of Irishmen gathered to discuss the possibilities. They weren't mapping strategy for a revolution, at least not an armed battle. But, the fruits of their discussions would lead to another type of revolution -- one which, to this very day, brings cultural, economic, and social enrichment to hundreds of thousands of persons.
"IT" is the Holyoke St. Patrick's Parade!
Among Irish events commemorating Saint Patrick, the Holyoke parade's status varies between #1and #2 world-wide, depending on who is doing the ranking. Easily, it is #1 when it comes to quality and organization.
In January 1951, some of Holyoke's local Irishmen were socializing at a pub on High Street. The center of discussion was an event which, for years, had existed only in the dreams of Francis "Red" Walsh. Oh, it had been talked about before, but never in so spirited a manner.
Some of these planners thought: "If we can unite the Irish behind this one event, it could lead to unity in other ventures." With this thought dancing in some of their minds, that band of Irish revolutionaries left the pub that night determined to turn visions of Holyoke's first St. Patrick's Parade into reality. Within a week, the Brian Boru Club arranged an exploratory meeting with members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Holyoke Police Department, Holyoke Fire Department, and other interested individuals.
Eager to show impartiality in the endeavor, Brian Boru President Thomas Mulvihill and Francis P. O'Connell Jr. relinquished their coordinator positions in favor of the first elected officers of the Holyoke St. Patrick's Parade Committee: President William Lunney, Vice President William P. Sullivan, Secretary Thomas Mulvihill and Treasurer Emmett J. Cauley.
After a hectic start and with the cooperation of the city's other nationalities, the first "parade to honor St. Patrick in the City of Holyoke" stepped off on schedule on Sunday, March 16, 1952.
This year’s parade and related festivities were organized under the dedicated leadership of Parade President Russell J. McNiff, Jr. A long-time member of the parade committee, McNiff has served on virtually every sub-committee and following in the footsteps of his father, Russell J. McNiff, Sr., who was parade president in 1973 and 1992.
This year’s Grand Colleen is Brianna M. Fitz. Brianna, a graduate of Holyoke Catholic High School, is a student at Boston College majoring in psychology with a sociology minor and works as an Intern in the National Preparedness Decision of FEMA. She is also a research assistant at Children’s Hospital in Boston and an Emergency Medical Technician, teaching CPR, sexual assault prevention classes, and has taught an introduction to sociology class, nutrition, and physical-activity health classes. After graduation, she plans to attend medical school and after her residency, go abroad as a member of Doctors without Borders. Brianna, the daughter of Michael and Kathleen Fitz, has a brother, Conor, and a sister, Maureen.
Joining Brianna on the Colleen float will be the members of her court: Allison B. Lapointe, Kelly W. Donahoe, Juliette Chenier and Kelli A. Laramee as well as Maggie E. Kuntz, the 2012 Bonnie Baker Miss Congeniality Award recipient.
Besides the Grand Colleen, other distinctions added to the parade activities are: the Grand Marshal, the Citizenship Award, the John F. Kennedy National Award, the Thomas F. Rohan Award, the George E. O'Connell Award, the Daniel J. Gallivan Award and the Ambassador’s Medal.
Barry J. Farrell, of Holyoke, is this year’s Grand Marshal. The son of the late James Barry and Eileen (Daly) Farrell, RN, Farrell is happy to say he was born and raised in the Highlands section of Holyoke. A graduate of Holyoke Catholic High School, Farrell attended Holyoke Community College and graduated from New England Institute of Mortuary Science in Boston. Starting at the age of 15, Barry worked as an apprentice alongside his father at the former Messier-Farrell Funeral Home until receiving his funeral director’s license in 1982. In 1984, Farrell, along with his Dad co-founded the Barry J. Farrell Funeral Home on Northampton Street. A member of the Saint Patrick’s Parade Committee since 1985, Farrell was the committee’s president in 2000 and its Thomas J. Rohan Award winner in 2008. Barry and his wife, the former Donna Shirly Tucker, have four children, James Barry, 26; Margaret Eileen, 25; Ashley Ruth Tucker, 23, who was the 2009 Grand Colleen of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade, and Donald W. Tucker, Jr., 20.
Massachusetts State Police Troop B is the 2012 Citizenship Award recipient. Established in 1921, the Troop has a wide range of personnel who deploy on a regular basis in the City of Holyoke and throughout Western Massachusetts to partner with local law enforcement agencies. There is a State Police unit in the Troop ready to respond to virtually any incident or crime, from tactical units such as the Airwing, Special Tactical Operations Team, K-9s, Underwater Recovery and Crisis Negotiators to traffic units such as the Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Team and Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section to investigators who comprise the Homicide, Narcotics, Gang, Fugitive, Auto Theft, Organized Crime, Crime Scene, Ballistics and Fire Marshals Units. In addition, the Troop has a number of civilian support staff dedicated to operations behind the scenes. They include administrative assistants, dispatchers, laborers, fleet mechanics, and radio technicians.
John F. Kennedy, Bishop Jeremiah J. Minnehan, John F. Collins, Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, Robert B. Considine, William D. Gargan, James B. Donovan, James J. Shea Sr., Edward M. Kennedy, Tommy Loughran, Lawrence F. O'Brien, Richard Cardinal Cushing, John N. Dempsey, Pat O'Brien, Major Gen. Timothy J. Dacey Jr., John W. McCormack, Jim Bishop, Thomas P. Salmon, Edward Bennett Williams, Jimmy Breslin, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., Dan Devine, Arthur J. Rooney, Dr. William A. Nolen, Maureen O'Hara, Bishop Joseph F. Maguire, Edward P. Boland, Frank McGuire, William A. O'Neill, Dennis Day, Thomas J. Flatley, Neil Sheehan, Bishop Leo E. O'Neil, Carmel Quinn, Tom Clancy, Sister Mary Rose McGeady, Raymond L. Flynn, Eoin McKiernan, Robert Stack, John J. Sweeney, Gen. Richard I. Neal, Steven McDonald and Patricia Ann Norris-McDonald, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, of Springfield, John V. Shea 3rd, Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, William J. Flynn, Catherine G. “Cady” Coleman, Tom O’Brien, Dan Shaughnessy, Fran Healy, Joseph F. Loughrey, Daniel M. Rooney and David McCullough.
Aside from being listed, at one time or another, in a Who's Who of Irish Americans, what do these people have in common? Each has journeyed to Holyoke to receive the John F. Kennedy National Award. In honor of its first recipient, the award is given to "an American of Irish ancestry who, by his/her life's work and contributions to our country, has become a credit to his/her forefathers and a friend and benefactor to all of mankind."
Kevin O’Hara, author of “Lucky Irish Lad” and “Last of the Donkey Pilgrims,” is the 2012 recipient of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Award. O’Hara is a Vietnam War veteran who served as a crash-rescue firefighter and medic. A psychiatric nurse at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, the acclaimed author has spent considerable time touring around the countryside in Ireland. O’Hara and his wife, Belita, have two sons and live in Pittsfield.
This year’s recipient of the Thomas F. Rohan Award is Mark F. O’Brien, a parade committee member since 1969 who works tirelessly “behind the scenes”. In 1982, Mark received the Daniel J. Gallivan Award and became the committee’s president in 2001. A 1964 graduate of Holyoke Catholic High School, Mark has been married to Jean (MacIver) O’Brien for 40 years. His sister, Anne Marie O’Brien Hegy was the 1971 Grand Colleen. In addition, he has a brother Daniel J. O’Brien of Holyoke and a sister Carol O’Brien Masciadrelli from Feeding Hills.
Kara Shanahan, the 2012 recipient of the George E. O’Connell Award, is the first Grand Colleen (1994) to receive the award. A life-long Holyoker, Kara is the daughter of William and Mary (Scollard) Shanahan. She has two brothers, Owen, who lives in Holyoke, and Andrew, in Wasilla, Alaska. Kara’s roots with the parade run deep. Her grand uncles, William and Cornelius Lunney, were members of the first parade committee, with William serving as parade president in 1952 and 1953. A graduate of Holyoke Catholic High School, where she excelled in soccer, Kara went on to be a four-year letter winner for nationally ranked teams at Springfield College, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English. Upon graduation, she became involved with coaching, taking positions at both Holyoke and Dean Technical high schools. Currently, she is a manager at Holyoke Liquor Mart.
Suzanne (Morin) Poulin, of Chicopee, is this year’s recipient of the Daniel J. Gallivan Award. Sue’s involvement with the parade committee began in 1989. A PeoplesBank employee, “Suzie Leprechaun” came to light for the road race and, at times, the parade. She joined the parade committee in 2002 and has worked on many of its committees. A native of Berlin, New Hampshire, Sue and her husband, Robert, have lived in Chicopee since 1970. They have one daughter, Michelle, a health education teacher in Framingham, and two grandsons, Jack, eight, and Ben, five.
In 1992, Dermot A. Gallagher, Ambassador from the Republic of Ireland, chose the parade committee to present an annual award – the Ambassador’s Medal -- to praise those who have promoted better relations between Ireland and the United States. The 2012 medal goes to the first husband-wife team, Adrian Flanelly and Aine Sheridan.
Flannelly, host of the radio program, “Adrian Flannelly Show,” is a longtime fixture in New York’s Irish-American community. He is a founding board member of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, The Irish Repertory Theatre and Ireland Chamber of Commerce USA, and co-founder of Project Irish Outreach for Catholic Charities.
Sheridan is credited with expanding the radio show by initiating international broadcasting links with stations in the U.S. and Ireland. In addition, she created the website for Irish Radio Network USA, which has become a leading source for Irish-American news and entertainment.
So, what makes Holyoke's St. Patrick's Parade the best? Is it the brightly decorated floats? The sounds of trumpets or snare drums? The Mummers from Philadelphia? Is it the masses of marchers, or the pretty colleens? No, not really. In Holyoke, the formula for 60 years of continued success consists of many intangibles. Mostly, it's the Irish pride, spreading like an epidemic to all nationalities. The end result of this can best be captured in words composed by well-known writer named Jim Bishop, who journeyed to Holyoke in 1974 to accept the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award. He wrote:
"We were aliens. We knew it; strangers in a strange city. A husband and wife who came to take, not to give. The sensation is chilling.....We left (Holyoke) exactly forty-four hours later to go home to Hallandale, Florida.....And yet, in that span, Holyoke achieved a miracle -- it made me love the city and the people.....
"Along the parade route, I can never forget the thousands of marchers, the scores of bands, the high-stepping girls, the multitudes which lined the curbs and waved from upstairs windows. The friendly shouts: 'Hi Jim!' seemed to be coming from an echo chamber. With my wife at my side, we marched, we waved, we beamed and, for an ecstatic moment in time, Holyoke crushed two strangers to its bosom and whispered: 'Welcome home'."
This year's parade, on March 18, will be no different. A quarter of a million spectators will line the streets to take in the annual celebration. Included as observers will be families for which this parade is a tradition. For native Holyokers and visitors, the thrill will be the same. Just listen intently and you will hear this proud old city welcoming you home.
Cead mile failte.