Irish giving spirit lives on in Western Mass, and around the world

A record crowd of nearly 125 people turned out to the ICC’s Oct. 13 annual brunch at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, giving a standing ovation to keynote speaker Sister Mary Johnson of the Sisters of Notre Dame.

The ICC hosts a brunch each year at the Holyoke landmark restaurant, inviting prestigious guests to offer their thoughts on Irish history, culture, politics and other topics of interest.

Sr. Mary JohnsonSister Johnson spoke of her own Irish roots in Counties Mayo and Kerry, of the small towns where her parents were born and later left for economic opportunity in the United States.

A native of Springfield, Sister Johnson broadened the discussion to her thoughts on how and why Irish immigrants held on to their culture and values, at the same time moving to or visiting locales as far-flung as Africa, Australia, South America and North America.

“What is it about this small island of people to have had such a great impact around the world,” she said. “You can visit struggling countries around the world and find people from Ireland who go to help. They’re the first ones to come and the last to leave.”

Even the millions who left Ireland permanently made their mark, she said.

Ireland’s population peaked at more than 8 million in the 1840s, before the Great Hunger that killed more than 1 million and drove so many more away. Today there are 6.3 million Irish citizens, and another estimated 70 million with Irish roots who found other homes over the past 160 years.

Sister Johnson grew up in the Sacred Heart parish in Springfield. Her father James grew up in Ballydavid, Co. Kerry, fishing off the coast of Smerwick Harbor and moving to Springfield as a young man. Her mother grew up on the northeastern Belmullet Peninsula in Co. Mayo, moving to Holyoke as a young woman.

Her parents met at the old Tara Hall, married and settled in Springfield, raising herself and a sister, Margaret.

Sister Johnson is an accomplished author and scholar, with a PhD from Emmanuel College. She is a professor of sociology and religious studies at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. She researches issues around Catholicism, particularly focusing on young adults and religious life. She has co-authored two books, ‘Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice,’ and ‘New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity,’ due out next year.

She told those gathered for the ICC brunch that in her years researching people in general, and young Catholics more specifically, she has long been struck by the spirit and determination of the Irish, wherever they have landed.

“The Irish kept their culture and values alive, by not letting them get swept away by the currents of the cultures where they went,” she said. “They nurtured the Irish language, music, dance, poetry, food and sport. It’s all about the bonds of family and friendship, bonds that are essential to the life of a community.”

The breakfast featured an opening prayer by Fulbright Scholar Síobhra Aiken, and a welcome from ICC Board of Director Sean Cahillane.

– Mary Ellen Lowney

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"It’s great to be a part of this initiative to promote Irish studies. You should keep up the good work because there are so many lessons to be learned from Irish history, and Irish culture is beloved to so many people."
– Dr. Christine Kinealy
Professor of History and Irish Studies at Quinnipiac University