Irish Groups Transplant a Bit o' the Olde Sod

Times Staff Writer

There was a man from Roscommon who used to get lonely for his brothers in America around St. Patrick's Day, so he'd go to the pub each year and have three drinks--one for him and one for each of his brothers. Well, one year he came in and ordered just two drinks. The bartender, puzzled, asked him: "John, why are you having only two drinks? Did one of your brothers die?" John replied, "Oh, no. I gave it up for Lent."

--Old Irish joke, as told by County Roscommon native Andy Finnerty

Andy Finnerty loves a joke and a Guinness ale as much as the next Irishman, but he bristles at the stereotype of Irish people as good-natured drunks.

Finnerty, a Cypress resident, would much prefer that the Irish be noted for their music, dance and other elements of their culture that have been gaining popularity in Orange County since the late 1960s, he said.

Orange County is home to an annual feis (pronounced fesh), or traditional dance competition, one of Southern California's first official Irish football teams and several social and cultural groups, including the United Irish Societies and the newly formed Irish Fine Arts Society of Orange County.

Nevertheless, Finnerty said, the Irish community is far more spread out in Orange County and Southern California than in several Eastern and Midwestern cities that boast large Irish neighborhoods.

Since the tightening of immigration laws in the early 1960s, the United States is no longer experiencing the flood of Irish citizens that once entered the country. Because of this, Finnerty explained, Americans of Irish descent--rather than those born in the "old country"--are carrying on the celebration of Irish culture.

This trend of Irish-American involvement is evident in nearly all the local Irish social, sports, music and dance organizations. "The Americans are the strongest element in the Hibernians by sheer number," said Hugh Davis, a County Cork native and president of the Orange County chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish men's club.

Finnerty, who helped start the county chapters of the Hibernians and United Irish Societies, agreed that Irish-American participation is becoming ever more vital to the continuation of Irish culture locally. "There's more Irish activity now than there ever used to be" because of increased Irish-American involvement, he said.

The new Irish Fine Arts Society also is trying for a large Irish-American membership, according to its chairwoman, Monica Keough of Huntington Beach. The club's purpose is to promote the spread of Irish poetry, plays and other literature.

Keough, who was raised in Ireland, said she saw a great need when she moved here from Palo Alto four years ago for promoting Irish culture, especially plays and literature. She hopes a fund-raising St. Patrick's Day Ball held Saturday will enable the society to present plays locally and eventually offer students scholarships to study in Ireland.

While Orange County does not have an official Irish cultural center, the unofficial gathering place for the Irish since the late 1960s has been the Brothers of St. Patrick property in Midway City, just south of Westminster. Here, Irish natives and Irish-Americans meet on Memorial Day weekend for dance competitions, on Easter for a commemoration of the 1916 Irish uprising, in midsummer for the Tailteann (pronounced Talltan) games and weekly for Irish football practice or Irish dancing lessons.

The Catholic brothers, mostly a native Irish order, have lived on the sprawling, Spanish-ranch-style property since 1956 and teach primarily at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

The brothers' chapel offers Masses at least twice yearly in Gaelic, the Irish language. Rev. Gregory O'Leary, pastor of St. Pius V Church in Buena Park and a member of the all-Irish Augustinian order, speaks fluent Gaelic and will say the Mass on March 30 to commemorate the 1916 Easter uprising against the British.

O'Leary said he loves the Irish language and as a boy growing up in County Cork had to learn all his school subjects in Gaelic, although English was spoken at home. "It has a very prolific vocabulary, and the words reflect the deep religious beliefs and philosophy of the Irish," he said.

The brothers' biggest yearly event since the late 1960s has been the Memorial Day weekend celebration, which includes a traditional dance competition and small carnival.

"Dancers come from as far away as Denver and San Francisco" to participate, said Brother Levinus of the order, which also hosts classes taught by the Myra Brennan School of Irish Dancing.

'Learn About the Culture'

"Just by coming to dance class and not even trying, you learn about the culture," said Candy Callaway-Vineyard, an Irish-American who has been a student in Brennan's school for more than four years.

Brennan, the only Irish dance instructor teaching in Orange County, gives classes every other week at the Brothers of St. Patrick facility. She had a majority of teen-age or younger students when she began teaching in the county in 1973 but said she now has more adults. Almost all her students are female and American.

"The dancing is much harder than it looks," Callaway-Vineyard said. At a recent reception hosted by the Irish Fine Arts Society, she explained that dancers use two types of shoes. One is similar to a ballet shoe and is used for lighter, more lively dances, and the other is a forerunner of the American tap shoe and looks like a black oxford with penny nails hammered into platforms on the heel and toe.

Regular Events

Irish football and hurling also are regular events at the Brothers of St. Patrick. Jerry Mackey, manager of Orange County's Wild Geese Irish football team, explained that the game is similar to soccer and played with a round ball, but players are allowed to throw, punch and kick the ball.

Most of his players are Americans in their 20s, and some don't even have Irish ancestors. "Some just hear about it from their friends and start coming because they love the game," Mackey said.

Hurling is an Irish game played with sticks that are used to move the ball up and down the football field. The Wild Geese and the Lame Ducks, another team that practices at the Brothers of St. Patrick, demonstrate both hurling and Irish football at the midsummer Tailteann Games.

While the Wild Geese don't have an Irish pub to go to after a grueling practice, they do have the next best thing--Silky Sullivan's bar and restaurant in Fountain Valley. Silky's caters to the Irish by serving pints of Guinness stout--just like the pubs back home--and offering live Irish entertainment by such bands as the Mulligans and Reel to Reel.

Irish-American Bill Madden opened Silky Sullivan's--named after a famous race horse--nearly two years ago. "This is a friendly place where they can sing and get together just like at home," he said. "Here, you would think of someone who goes to the pub all the time as an alcoholic, whereas in Ireland, everyone goes. It's their meeting place."

He said he has quite a few Irish regulars who might come to eat five nights a week. Saturdays and Sundays are especially busy because of the live Irish entertainment, he said.

Reel to Reel, which will entertain at tonight's St. Patrick's Day party, specializes in traditional Irish dance music, but its members are all American.

Tim Reilly of Anaheim, the only Orange County member of the band, said he has witnessed a Celtic revival in Southern California in the past few years. Celtic culture includes that of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and England.

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