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March 19, 2015

Mary Pat Kelly on St. Patrick’s Day and What Being Irish Means to Her

Posted by emily

Mary Pat Kelly knows a thing or two about being Irish American. She wrote GALWAY BAY about her great-great grandmother, who fled Ireland in the 1840s to avoid starvation. Its sequel, OF IRISH BLOOD --- just published in February --- picks up in the 20th century and examines the next generation living in America. Her enthusiasm extends beyond her work; she participated in not one but three St. Patrick’s Day celebrations this year --- in Chicago, Boston and New York City. Talk about the luck of the Irish! Here, Mary Pat shares with us a bit about those experiences and what being Irish in America means to her.

This year, I hit the trifecta --- celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Chicago, Boston and New York.

Chicago is my home ground. I was born and raised there, and my writing is steeped in the history of my Chicago Irish family. GALWAY BAY is centered on the life of my great-great grandmother, Honora Keeley Kelly, who escaped with her children from the Great Starvation of 1840s Ireland. The sequel, titled OF IRISH BLOOD, looks at the next generation of Irish who were born in this country in the early 20th century.

I thought of my ancestors as I marched in Chicago’s two parades --- one downtown along Lake Michigan and the other on the city’s South Side. In both, I marched with members of the electricians’ union. As we passed the crowds, we heard yells of, “Hey Sparkies, we’re with you!” The unions played a central role in the Irish rise from abject poverty to prosperity. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who's facing a runoff in his reelection attempt, joined us at the Union Hall after the parade. “My son's middle name is Ireland,” he told us, “which is my mother-in-law’s maiden name. I didn't realize it would come in so handy." There was a full complement of politicians at both marches. “Why not,” I heard a man say. “It's 70 degrees and they're all running for office.”

In Boston, I celebrated in Dedham, where we sang Irish songs at a wonderful bookstore called The Blue Bunny. The New York Parade seemed more formal, especially this year. Cardinal Timothy Dolan led the way, pairing his red hat of office with a shillelagh. I finished the night with the Kelly Gang, a group of Kellys in media, at our annual charity function. This year, we were raising money for the Alzheimer’s Association. My St. Patrick's Day combined all the elements of what it means to be Irish --- celebration, advocacy and charity.

Erin Go Bragh, Ireland forever, to the Irish and those who decided to be Irish on this day.