With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, Irish eyes will be smiling throughout the region. But when the party’s over, a more reverent bunch keeps the homeland torch burning.
By J.F. Pirro
Cultural Crash Course
Villanova’s Irish Studies Program celebrates the indelible nuances and larger-than-life personalities of the Emerald Isle.
By J.F. Pirro
Follow the Leader
That is, Havertown’s Michael J. Bradley Jr., who’s director of the Philadelphia
St. Patrick’s Day Parade. By J.F. Pirro
All Things Green
Where to get Irish stuff.
By Shannon Hallamyer
At the annual dinner for the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Center City on March 13, Edward P. Last will cap off his two-year term as president by relinquishing his gold medallion. St. Patrick is on one side; an American Indian, Lady Liberty and Ireland’s Lady Hibernia share space with the word “Unite” on the other. And though it’s not the original medallion, it does hang from a 19th-century chain.
Last is one in a long line of officers and members in a society founded on March 17, 1771, before America was even a nation. Only one other such organization in the U.S. is older—the Charitable Irish Society, formed in Boston in 1737.
As part of the ceremony, Last—a Catholic who lives in Havertown—must pass his wooden shillelagh (club) on to Todd R. Peterman, the new Protestant president. The society’s top seat alternates between the two religious denominations. “Once in a while, when it would get noisy [at quarterly meetings], I’d rap it on the table to get their attention,” says Last, whose middle name honors the patron saint. “With all these knobs, it would make a good weapon—though it’s not a weapon.”
No, the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland—its name by charter—is a friendly group. In its first century, the organization served immigrants off ships, giving them New World contacts, helping with housing or employment, and protecting them from shysters. These days, its energies are directed at promoting Irish charities and scholarships. Culture, education and benevolent aid are focal points. Membership is about 1,200.
From the society’s initial meeting in Miller’s Tavern at what’s now Walnut Street and Delaware Avenue, and throughout its first 100 years, members were inspired to aid victims of starvation, eviction and exile. The situation was especially dire in the 1840s, when Ireland suffered the calamity of the Great Famine, brought on by the failure of the potato crop and the evils of an oppressive government. Toward the end of the 19th century, the society extended aid to victims of floods and natural disasters elsewhere—the Russian Jewish Relief Fund and victims of the Johnstown Flood, the earthquake in San Francisco and the Spanish-American War.
As conditions under a free and independent Irish government improved after 1920, emigration slowed, and the society encouraged greater friendship between America and Ireland. In 1954, a biennial scholarship exchange program was begun to encourage undergraduate and graduate studies in both countries. The scholarship program—which benefits students at Villanova and Saint Joseph’s universities and others in the Delaware Valley—rates high on the society’s goodwill list.
The Friendly Sons’ headquarters are in Dublin, Bucks County. It’s a quirky coincidence, says Last. Past president and current board member John F. Donovan makes his home there, and it remains the location for the society’s records—those that aren’t with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Still, the history of the Friendly Sons is ingrained on the Main Line. Even Paoli draws its name from the society’s annals. The town grew around a 1769 inn kept by Joshua Evans, who named his business in honor of Corsican Gen. Pasquale Paoli after the night’s final toast at a Friendly Sons dinner.
“It was just another reason to have a drink,” suspects Last. “But the name stuck.”
Stephen Moylan, the Friendly Sons’ first president and a bodyguard for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, kept his estate in Exton near the present site of the Ship Inn on Route 30. Though Washington wasn’t Irish, he was an honorary member of the Friendly Sons. Overall, there’s a strong Irish presence in the western suburbs—particularly in Upper Darby, Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, Villanova and Havertown.
“A lot say Havertown is the 33rd county of Ireland,” says Last.
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Other Irish organizations flourish here—like the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Upper Darby’s Irish Immigration Pastoral Center. The Philadelphia Donegal Association is led by Mary Crossan, herself an expatriate from County Donegal. She and her husband live in Bryn Mawr.
“We all support each other,” says Crossan. “We’re very loyal to each other, and there’s a warm relationship between the groups. The younger Irish-Americans are open, and not so guarded or private as it was years ago.”
The Donegal Association is 200 members strong. Like the Friendly Sons, it supports needy causes. Crossan remembers what it was like in 1961, when her uncle, a Philadelphia policeman, sponsored her immigration, as the law then required.
“I had to renew my green card every year,” she says.
A first-generation Irish-American, Last’s mother, Margaret McElhare, was born in Donegal before sailing for these shores in 1914 with her twin sister. He attended the 121st Donegal Society Ball last November in her honor. His father, Edward, was born in Tyrone. He headed for America on the Caledonia on New Year’s Eve 1928. His parents met here.
Last was born in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia. His mother worked in Main Line estates, while his dad dug graves at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. Even as a boy, Last was interested in Irish culture—particularly the music. He still remembers the Donegal Society presence at the wake for an uncle who passed away. “I never saw anything like that,” he says. “They came in as a group led by the officers, then afterwards went to the kitchen for cigarettes and drinks. It’s one of the things that got me interested.”
His first run-in with the Friendly Sons came as a 22-year-old musician, when he was invited to play at the annual dinner as part of what’s now the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band. Back then, the Friendly Sons were an elite group. “The movers and shakers, the cream of the crop, the industrialists and the politicians,” says Last.
It’s not that way anymore. “We’re not even drawing the heads of corporations,” he says.
Once a men-only membership, the society has been coed since 1984. “We had to—for numbers,” Last says.
The Friendly Sons once had 300 men in its ranks. When it opened its doors to women, the organization hoped to draw 600 to the annual dinner, but total attendance is now 150-200. “I guess a lot figure we’re just old men, and that we’re too old for them to get involved,” Last says. “All the groups are having trouble recruiting. Not everyone wants to leave their families for a Sunday meeting. People are busy.”
In the past, membership suffered due to politics, when new members—prominent men—rose to the top too quickly. Today, there’s competition with similar organizations, with every parish, social hall and even the Irish American Business Chamber & Network.
“On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone and everything turns green,” Last says. “The rest of the year, it dies down. Today, the history doesn’t seem to be as important. Ireland is prosperous, so folks there don’t need our help.”
So how does that bode for the Friendly Sons?
“There will always be a society,” says Last.
Normally, Jim Murphy’s Irish Studies Program gets the entire upstairs at Flip and Bailey’s restaurant in Garrett Hill for its annual James Joyce birthday celebration. On this night, though, the Villanova University English professor was trumped by Wildcats basketball coach Jay Wright and his weekly radio show. But at least it was an all-Villanova night—and in Flip and Bailey’s front dining room, it was also an all-Irish night.
“No one told me it was Jay’s night,” says Murphy. “But that’s how it goes.”
The Irish are accustomed to celebrations and crowds, and they have both on one night every February: An eclectic mix of college students and others make Joyce’s birthday party a standing-room-only affair. Though the annual bash is now 17 years old, it’s rarely held on Joyce’s actual birthday. This time, it was.
“J.J. was a groundhog—who would’ve thought?” quips Gerald Dawe, a visiting professor of Irish studies at Villanova a year ago.
Under Murphy’s guidance, the Irish Studies Program hosts a handful of events like this each semester, plus coursework. Murphy will retire this May after 47 years at the university. Each year, he’s attracted 60 students in the fall, spring and summer (when he leads study-abroad trips to Galway, where he and wife Cathy have a second home).
Brooklyn-born, Murphy was in the seminary by age 13. His intense Catholic upbringing is what drew him to Joyce. He remained a layperson and began teaching at Villanova in 1963, starting the Irish Studies Program 15 years later. When he retires, he and Cathy will split time between here—where the grandchildren are the draw—and Ireland.
The program sponsors those like Dawe, a poet who teaches at Trinity College in Dublin, where he’s director of the Oscar Wilde Centre. “Jim has created such a wonderful sense of community,” says Dawe. “He’s attracted young scholars like Megan Quigley (now in her second year teaching courses in modernism at Villanova), and that’s the litmus test. They see his energy. He’s as well known in Ireland, too.”
At the open mic for Joyce’s annual Main Line tribute, Dawe and Quigley took center stage. He read “In Memory of James Joyce,” from his 1999 collection The Morning Train. She delivered part of a radio address Dawe once wrote about the day Joyce met his eventual wife. “Megan is very brave,” Dawe told the crowd. “She only saw it 20 minutes ago.”
Soon thereafter, the center of the room became a makeshift dance floor for Villanova’s upstart Irish step-dancing team. Later, Brian Crowe, a 2001 Irish studies graduate, recited from memory Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” dedicating it to his late mother. Now working on his doctorate in English at Lehigh University while teaching at Delaware County Community College, Crowe has been an assistant coordinator on three trips to Ireland with Murphy, who is bringing Heaney to Villanova April 20.
“There’s a sparkle in that eye that everyone finds attractive, mystical and mysterious,” Crowe says of Murphy. “When he speaks about Ireland, he speaks the truth.”
For Murphy, the Irish Studies Program is a shining example of the decades of work he’s done to forward the history and culture of the country he loves. “It’s a gesture backward to my parents, really,” he says. “They would’ve never imagined the adulation. My parents weren’t
academics—they were immigrants. They never read Joyce. This has been a gift to them, but also to the future. And, yes, it has been a little bit like spreading the gospel.”
The Dad Vail Regatta pulled out of Philadelphia. The Italians canceled the 2009 Columbus Day Parade. The Philadelphia International Cycling Championships may be next. As director of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Havertown’s Michael J. Bradley Jr. will do whatever it takes to preserve its more-than-300-year tradition in the city.
Bradley, who owns a flooring company and a commercial real estate development firm, took over as director in 2004. He’s one of just four since the parade organized and incorporated as the St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association in 1952. This year’s event begins at 11 a.m. on March 14; CBS 3 will televise live from noon to 3:30 p.m.
Despite a childhood goal to do so, Bradley, 53, has never walked the entire parade route—let alone marched it. Hence our first question.
MLT: You’ve never marched?
MB: Well, twice when I was president—for about 50 feet—for a TV spot.
MLT: What does it take to be the director of a major city parade?
MB: I have no background. There is no “Parades 101” course at Penn State (where he’s on the school’s advisory board). Sometimes, I’ll have ladies who are interested in helping, but they say they don’t know what to do. I say, “It’s a parade. Follow the guy in front of you.” I’m an organizer by nature. We have a board of 27, and then committees. I’ve learned from the old members. But some of our young ones are now in their 70s.
MLT: What do you remember about the parade as a kid?
MB: I was the oldest of eight, and I could never get any of my friends to tag along, so I’d drag along my three younger sisters and provide free babysitting.
MLT: Has the current funding crunch caused any changes to the actual parade?
MB: There was a new route last year. We used to go down Broad Street to Washington Avenue for about 3 miles, then around City Hall to the Ben Franklin Parkway and down to Logan Circle. Now, we’re on JFK Boulevard, then take a left on 16th Street to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This year, we’ve added an extension and will end at Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. More confined space means less policemen (and less expense).
MLT: It costs between $70,000 and $80,000 to put the parade on the street. How do you approach negotiations with the city?
MB: We got the [other five] ethnic parades together, figuring we have more collective bargaining power. Ours is the biggest and the longest running, but we wanted to help the others. We’re all in this together. We figured we all needed $250,000, and asked for a split between the city and the state, at $125,000 each—not counting the Mummers Parade, which until this year had all its expenses paid by the city.
MLT: How have recent negotiations gone?
MB: We’re used to helping fund our parade, and it’s unrealistic for us to expect the city to pay our whole way. But it’s also unrealistic for the city to say we’re getting nothing. Yet, these are the same guys who say they can host the Olympics.
MLT: How will it all get settled?
MB: They’re at zero, and I’m at 100 percent. Realistically, we’re going to have to split somewhere down the middle. I will bend, but they need to bend. The city found $1 million for the 2009 Phillies’ Parade. I’m a season ticket holder. I took my kids out of school, and we attended. I’m not going to begrudge the others, but you can’t find money for some people and find none for others.
MLT: Where will all the money you raise come from?
MB: I have no problem asking sponsors for $10,000. I’ve had practice on the Penn State Board and with raising funds for Cardinal O’Hara High School’s new football stadium. Delaware County is extremely good at raising money. Last year, with three weeks notice and 25,000 names on my e-mail list, an event at Springfield County Club drew 700 people and raised $20,000. This year, we’ll have a February event in Northeast Philly and another “Save the Parade” theme on March 7, back at Springfield Country Club.
MLT: So late?
MB: One thing the city has been good with is accommodating us in letting us pay our bills late. But why not? No one else pays their bills on time. We basically only have four weeks—between mid-February and mid-March—to raise money. After the Super Bowl, we start working really hard.
MLT: How do you define the Irish spirit on the Main Line?
MB: We have the same backgrounds and stories, and find camaraderie in that. It’s stronger here because there are more Irish here than anywhere [else in Pennsylvania]—and more so than any of the other ethnic groups. The proliferation of pubs helps, and the Irish music. I run the Irish Festival at Penn’s Landing (June 6), and an Irish Night for the Phillies, too. The interest in step dancing has taken off ever since Riverdance. If you’re Irish, there’s something every weekend.
To learn more about the parade, visit philadelphiastpatsparade.com.
The 31-year-old Abbey Green Irish Village Shop prides itself on “everything Irish”—and the proof is in the black and white puddings imported from the Emerald Isle. Abbey Green features 10 rooms in two buildings stocked with Galway crystal, Belleek china, wool knit clothing, Claddagh rings, wedding bands and more—all right off the boat. It features an entire Guinness room (sorry, no suds), and a selection of shamrock’ed Phillies and Eagles gear. Taste free samples of gourmet foods, breakfast items and Irish coffee March 13-17. 1036 Wilmington Pike, West Chester, (610) 692-3310.
Across the Pond Heraldry is the ultimate source for original family coats of arms. Its computerized database comprises countless surnames. “I’ve never run into a problem with any [Irish] name anybody’s every given me,” says Scottish-born owner Bobbie Dallas. ATPH prints full surname histories on acid-free parchment scrolls, complete with full-color blazoning and 1,800-plus words on ancient origins, spelling variations and more, along with a gold seal of authenticity. This British Isles shop also flogs Celtic CDs, men’s caps, women’s clothing (from wool wraps to hostess and mini kilts), imported teas, marmalades and cookies. 114 S. Jackson St., Media; (610) 565-4274, acrossthepondheraldry.com.
McKenna’s Irish Shops has been weaving tales and hand-knit wool products for 20 years. The shop is fully stocked with grand items, from dance pumps, Irish-county baseball caps and other duds to kids’ jewelry and Irish flags. And if the weather’s nice, McKenna’s takes to the parking lot with outdoor music and sale specials on St. Patty’s Day, March 17. 1901 Darby Road, Havertown; (610) 853-2202, irish-shop-gifts.com.
Pipers Way features kilts for all ages for rent or purchase, with five exclusive tartan designs for wedding parties. The store also offers a tartan search by county online, revealing the traditional patterns of Ireland. And if perusing the Irish dolls, musical instruments, brightly styled rugs, swords and Mullingar pewter makes you long for the homeland, ask about the cozy Murrin’s Way Cottage on Achill Island, where you can book a stay for up to eight people. 109 N. Church St., West Chester; (610) 431-9772, pipersway.com.
USA Kilts is a one-stop shop for the kilt-wearing woman and man. Beautiful Celtic accessories include cuff links, buckles, pins, brooches, sporrans, ghillie brogues (footwear) and more. All custom-made, the collection features casual, semiformal and formal Irish fashions, plus a few kids’ kilts. The store also offers pewter ware, CDs, jewelry, handbags and gift items. 249 Bridge St., Phoenixville; (610) 935-3444, usakilts.com.