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Irish American Month Big Hit In Hawaii

Irish Bagpipe Players - image courtesy of A.Anderssen

Irish-American Heritage Month is observed in the United States by proclamation of the President and Congress to recognize the achievements and contributions of Irish immigrants and their descendants who have settled in the United States over the course of several generations. The first commemoration took place in 1991. The month of March is designated as Heritage Month to coincide with Saint Patrick’s Day, the Irish national holiday celebrated on March 17. Heritage Months are frequently declared by governments to commemorate hundreds of years of contributions made by a particular group to a country.

Ireland is an island, not a country nor a kingdom. The island has always had a constellation of rulers; there has never been a single real king who ruled the entire island as an independent Irish nation. There have been up to 30 individual kings on the island of Ireland, but traditionally it was divided into five powerful kingdoms.

The last time Ireland was anywhere close to being called an independent nation, save from when it was ruled by the British, was over a millennium ago, under Brian Boru and the titular “High Kings of Tara.” It was a federal monarchy with five regional monarchs (in actuality, princes) who nominally acknowledged one supreme ruler. Those High Kings of Tara were “High” in the sense that they were the most powerful amongst a large number of Kings. Brian Boru was crowned Imperator Scottorum or “Emperor of the Scots” (i.e., the Irish) at Armagh in 1005. The island was still divided, ruled by numerous clans. A clan (or fine in Irish) included the chief and his agnatic relatives; however Irish clans also included unrelated clients of the chief. The Kings of Tara enjoyed a prestigious title – but this conferred minimal authority upon them beyond their own realm, with scant tribute or obedience from the other clan chiefs.

The nascent federal structure of kingdoms would likely in isolation have evolved through conquest, negotiation and intermarriage into a unified United Kingdom of Ireland, but it never happened.  Large, well-defined modern nation states are a very recent development in geopolitical history.

The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, began in 1845 and resulted in the emigration of an immense proportion of the population. The United States was the primary recipient of Irish refugees.  The Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, founded in 1771 in Philadelphia, came to their rescue.  Throughout the Society’s first century, its members were inspired to aid victims of starvation, eviction, and exile from Ireland. This was especially true in the 1840’s, when the Irish people were afflicted by the Great Hunger, starvation due to crop failure, and the evils of an oppressive government. During this period, when Ireland’s population was reduced by five million, members of the Society collaborated with members of the Society of Friends and a variety of other organizations to alleviate the suffering caused by starvation.  It was no longer relevant whence the Irish ancestors sprang.  Every Irish person, regardless of clan, received assistance.

The Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick changed what it meant to be Irish. 

“Irish” was now every person on the island; it was inclusive not only of the dynasties of Munster, Leinster, Connacht,  Bréifne, Ulaid, Airgíalla, Northern and Southern Uí Néill, but also the descendants of the Kingdom of   Dál Riata where an Irish tribe known as the Scotti settled both on the island of Ireland and on the western coast of Caledonia (the area now generally referred to as Scotland).

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Ireland but in America. Records indicate on March 17, 1601 at what is now St. Augustine, Florida, a St. Patrick’s Day procession was held. The march, as well as a previous St. Patrick’s Day event, were planned by Ricardo Artur, the Spanish Colony’s Irish vicar. Over a century later, on March 17, 1772, homesick Irish troops serving in the English military marched through New York City in honor of the Irish patron saint. From there, interest in St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York City, Boston, and other early American cities rose exponentially.

Americans popularized the concept of St. Patrick’s Day as we know it today. People in Catholic Ireland attend church and celebrate the day as a religious holiday. Although March 17 falls inside Lent, a papal dispensation allows Catholic Ireland to be exempted from the specific Canon law to abstain from meat on that day.

St. Patrick’s Day is a full-on bacchanal in America. Christmas used to be the day of drunken revelry until the uptight English forbade it. Christmas was banned in 1647 in the kingdoms of England (which included Wales at the time), Scotland, and of Ireland. It didn’t return as a festive holiday until the Victorian era. Meanwhile St. Patrick’s Day picked up the slack in America.

The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick are the primary organizers of Irish-American Heritage Month celebrations in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Emerald Ball kicked off the festivities.  Karen Elizabeth-Blackham Goodwin organized the event, which took place at Annie O’Brien’s, an Irish pub in Honolulu. The party was also broadcast live on Zoom, co-anchored by Karen, and Jodi Bearden from Hawaii Island. Karen said, “Bill Comerford, the bar owner is a past President. The current president is Tim Dunne, who was not in attendance because he is currently studying for his masters in Genealogy at the University of Limerick for a year. Matt McConnell is currently leading us as the Vice President in his absence.”

Tim Dunne (President) spoke from Ireland via Zoom, stating “We are here to make new friends and enjoy with each other our Irish heritage.” Dunne continued, “54 years ago our society awarded it first scholarship. We look forward to resuming our regular activities and fundraising events for our scholarships. By walking together, we never walk alone, and we can pursue our honorable charter purposes of being a charitable, benevolent, and cultural society.”

Kevin Kelly received the 2022 Irish Person of the Year award.  Kevin grew up in Texas arriving in Hawaii via San Diego in the fall of 1985. He received his Master’s degree in geological oceanography in 1988 and joined the faculty at the University of Hawaii until his retirement in 2020. He managed the university’s deep deep-diving remotely operated vehicle group for the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory and after receiving his MBA at Portland State University in 1999 was appointed as an advisor to the university’s vice-president for research. Kevin has served on numerous national, statewide and community boards  and is currently the founder and president of the North Shore Economic Vitality Partnership, a regional economic development non-profit focused on building new business opportunities in rural areas of Hawaii, especially in the farming and food sectors. Kevin was the Friends of St Patrick parade chair for 10 years and also has served as treasurer, vice-president and president. He currently holds the title of President Emeritus.

The Emerald Ball was attended remotely and in person by almost 100 people, including past president Bill Comerford, who owns numerous Irish pubs in Honolulu, and Dante Sbarbaro, one of the 2022 scholarship recipients. The exquisitely beautiful Dr. Nancy Smiley and beau Chris Harmes entered and made certain to spread cheer to everyone present at the ball.

The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick also organized the 55th annual Saint Patrick Day Parade running down Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki.  The event featured around 800 participants including community organizations, marching bands, groups from the military, and keiki from schools.  The parade ran 90 minutes, with hundreds of marchers, 40 vehicles and 4 band strolling from Ft. DeRussy Park to Kapiolani Park.

Anyone interested in joining The Society of Friends of St. Patrick can find membership info here.

Follow the author, Dr. Anton Anderssen, on Twitter @Hartforth

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About the author

Dr. Anton Anderssen - special to eTN

I am a legal anthropologist. My doctorate is in law, and my post-doctorate graduate degree is in cultural anthropology.

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