May the Irish hills caress you. May her lakes and rivers bless you. May the luck of the Irish enfold you. May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you. – Irish Blessing
Irish heritage will be celebrated this month in Downtown Flint. The Sullivan & Sullivan Ancient Order of Hibernians are busy preparing for the St. Patrick’s Day Festivities. AOH is America’s oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal Organization. Founded in 1836, members of the group are of the Catholic faith and have Irish heritage. My City Magazine met up with some members of the group to talk about their Irish heritage and the upcoming celebration. What we discovered is a fierce pride in their heritage and culture, and a celebration that is all about faith, family and friends.
Matthew Bade is the Grand Marshal of this year’s festivities. In this role, he is in charge of the Pre-St. Patrick’s Day party, which is an annual fundraiser for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities and scholarships for the Miss Hibernia Pageant. More than 250 people attended this year’s pre-party. The Grand Marshal also hosts the Miss Hibernia Pageant and St. Patrick Day’s festivities. Both of Matthew’s parents are of Irish descent – his mother’s side of the family came from Dublin and his father’s from Limerick. “Both sides of my family immigrated to this country in the late 1800s,” he says. “As I have gotten older, my Irish heritage is more important to me.” While growing up, his family lived by the values of faith, family and friends. “My parents taught us the importance of those values and we grew up surrounded by family members and friends who shared the same values,” he says.
Flint’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities begin with a breakfast at Mott Community College and a mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church. The Grand Marshall leads the Irish Family Walk from St. Mike’s to McFarland Park and there is a party afterward. “We celebrate the day,” says Matthew. “It is inspiring to see so many people gathered together who share the core values passed down by the Irish tradition.” Matthew and his wife recently spent ten days in Ireland and he was struck by the warm and friendly nature of the people, which makes him proud of his ancestry. “I grew up with a sense of family over things,” he shares. “I want to pass this on to my own children.”
Cathy Gentry is a member of the Ladies AOH and the administrative assistant to the Grand Marshal. She says the Ancient Order of Hibernians is based on fellowship, unity and Christian charity. It was started to support the Irish way of life and provide support for family members back home. Cathy says the Irish Family Walk on St. Patrick’s Day is in remembrance of their ancestors and the generations of Irish people who came to this country. “The Irish couldn’t always assemble and walk,” she says. “We raise an Irish flag next to the American Flag.” Ms. Hibernia – Erica Kennedy – is crowned during the celebration. You don’t have to be Irish to participate in the festivities. “It’s open to anyone,” Cathy says. “It’s family-friendly and there’s lots of Irish food and libation, with music and dancing.”
Bob Slattery’s Irish ancestry comes from his father’s side. His father’s grandfather came to this country with his four brothers and it has been said that all of the Slatterys in the country are related to one of the five. The Irish were at one point one of most persecuted groups in the country and couldn’t even get jobs. “Now, everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!” Bob exclaims. “The Irish are hard-working, dedicated, have strong family values and are dedicated to their church. I’m proud to be Irish.”
Brendan Byrne, now retired and living in East Tawas, returns to Flint every year for St. Patrick’s Day. He was born and raised in Ireland in the small town of Arklow, where the main industry was commercial fishing. He came to the U.S. in 1965. While visiting a sister in Flint, he got a job with General Motors and Flint became his home. He and his wife, Shelley, raised three sons here.”My Irish heritage is very important to me,” says Brendan. He is proud that the people of Ireland who immigrated to this country made significant contributions – building bridges and tunnels, becoming politicians and joining the military. “Eleven people born in Ireland fought at the Alamo!” he exclaims.
To Brendan, St. Patrick’s Day is the time when Irish people have the opportunity to show their Irish pride. And he never misses celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Flint. He was a previous Grand Marshal himself and he and his wife were the 2015 Mother/Father of the Year. Brendan travels to Ireland at least once a year to visit family and friends. “It is beautiful there,” he says, referencing the Johnny Cash song about Ireland, “40 Shades of Green.” “When they talk about 40 shades of green, they mean that!” he adds.
Another Flint-area resident, Peter Hogan, was born in Ireland – in a little village, Vicarstown in County Laois. He came to the U.S. in 1985. “Unemployment was high in Ireland at the time,” says Peter, “and I wanted to travel a bit.” He got a job at an Irish Pub in Flint, Paddy McGee’s, which has since closed. “I met a lot of Hibernians there at a big St. Patrick’s Day party.”
Peter also enjoys the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. “Mass starts at 12:02 as Irish people are known to be late,” he laughs. In Ireland, it is a religious holiday and people have the day off work. It is celebrated with huge parades and parties. “I’m proud of all my ancestors and the hardships they went through,” Peter says. I’m proud to say I’m 200 percent Irishman.”
Peter returns to Ireland once a year to visit family, friends and neighbors. “Ireland has grown so much over the last 25 years,” he says. “It’s a big country now; towns are now cities. It’s a beautiful country. I miss it every day.”
Genesee County Clerk, John Gleason, has been called “The Big Irishman” his whole life. His grandfather, John Patrick Gleason, came to the U.S. in the 1920s. “He was a bootlegger who brought liquor from Canada!” John exclaims. His grandfather settled in the Detroit area and was one of the leaders of the Sit-down Strike. John is proud of his heritage, and gave his children traditional Irish names — daughter, Clancy Rose, and son, Eamonn, named after the first president of the Ireland Republic. John says there is deep pride in Irish ancestry. “We’re a gregarious bunch,” he says. “The Irish see the humor in life after suffering a tragic history. The Gleasons have enjoyed visiting Ireland. “The Irish know how to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day!” he smiles. “They know how to keep national pride alive.”
Photography by Mike Naddeo