The allure of the Emerald Isle: Many locals with no Irish ancestry still feel a connection to that country

Joe Mele was 10 years old before he learned he wasn’t Irish.

Now the Rev. Joseph M. Mele and rector of Pittsburgh’s St. Paul’s Seminary, he grew in a Swissvale neighborhood where pretty much everyone he knew had roots in the soil of the Emerald Isle.

“Irish wit, stories and music all spoke to my soul,” Father Mele said of his boyhood experiences among the region’s many Irish-Americans. Even after he learned that his ethnic background was Italian, he retained strong affection and respect for Irish culture, he said.

Father Mele is among the many people in southwestern Pennsylvania who have no Irish blood but who have immersed themselves in that nation’s history, traditions and politics. Their celebration and appreciation of all things Irish is not just limited to St. Patrick’s Day but often represents a year-round commitment.

Wedded to Ireland 

Some are linked by family ties. George Bado of Heidelberg was sporting a green shirt and sipping a Guinness one recent evening as he talked about his more than half century of involvement in Irish-American activities. That connection began when he married his wife Kathleen 53 years ago.

“In 2003, they made me an honorary Hibernian,” Mr. Bado said. “It was a real treat and it came out of nowhere.” His own ethnic background is 100 percent Hungarian.

“Hibernia” is the Latin name for Ireland. The word may be best known as part of the name for an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, known by its AOH initials. Allegheny County has eight divisions, or chapters, of the international association.

Like Mr. Bado, Carmen DiGiacomo of Mt. Lebanon became involved in Irish-American activities after he married his wife, the former Dorothy McBride. They made their first trip to Ireland in 1996, when Mrs. McBride was researching her family history in County Tipperary. Mr. DiGiacomo, whose family background is Greek and Italian, has since traveled there 14 times. “I fell in love with the country and with the people,” he said. “We have lots of friends there.”

He and his wife made some of those friends through the Irish Institute of Pittsburgh. That organization, headed by James Lamb, has helped to bring more than 1,400 young people — both Protestant and Catholic, from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — to Pittsburgh for summer internships. While in the United States, the young people often spend weekends with local host families such as the DiGiacomos.

Mr. DiGiacomo also has studied and involved himself in the centuries-old dispute between Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant populations. In July 2000, he served as an international observer on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, County Armagh, during what is called “marching season.”

“Marching season” refers to the annual Protestant parades organized by members of Orange Order lodges and held throughout Northern Ireland from April to August. They commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. That fight ended in victory for the Protestant William III over the Catholic King James in their rivalry for the British throne.

The Orangemen who participate in the parades say they are honoring history and their ancestors, while many Catholics complain that the events too often provoke neighborhood violence and are attempts to intimidate local residents and maintain Protestant control of the region.

Mr. DiGiacomo said he and his fellow international observers did not take sides. “We were a team of four people with phones and notebooks,” he said of his assignment. “We weren’t there to interfere but to watch and report on what was going on.”

Shirley Murphy of Scott comes from German and Slovak stock but has been involved with Irish-American causes for more than 30 years. That service has included holding offices in the AOH-affiliated women’s organization, the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, on the local, county and state levels.

Her interests in Irish affairs has involved her in Northern Ireland’s politics and has included multiple trips to Ireland for commemorations and anniversary marches. Her activities have included meetings in Belfast with mayors from Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican political party. In 2011, she took part in the official march marking the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Derry. Bloody Sunday is the name given to a 1972 incident in which 26 protesters and bystanders were shot by British soldiers. A total of 14 people were killed or died afterward from their wounds.

Mrs. Murphy became involved in the Irish activities through her husband William, who took part in local demonstrations against British policy in Northern Ireland starting in the early 1980s. “I always had a soft spot for the Irish, so when I met my husband, the decision to marry him was a no-brainer,” she said.

After his death in 2001, she lost her direct ethnic connection to Ireland and she worried that she then might be viewed as an outsider. “Not so,” she said. “I have great friends in these organizations and they have continued to support me and encouraged me to be active and run for offices.”

As his Polish family name suggests, Bob Kaniecki of Ross does not have any ancestors who came from Ireland. Mr. Kaniecki, a retired steel company executive, has, nevertheless, involved himself in both Irish-oriented political and cultural activities.

His political activities have included visits with Irish men and women jailed in Long Kesh and Armagh prisons for their roles in what is called “The Troubles,” which began in the late 1960s and worsened after Bloody Sunday. At the heart of the dispute between Unionists and Republicans was the issue of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or be joined to the neighboring Republic of Ireland.

Children of some of those prisoners visited the United States and stayed with Mr. Kaniecki and his wife Jean. “Those visits helped us gain an understanding of the people in Northern Ireland and the problems they faced,” he said during an interview at Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, a Irish pub in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, where he and his wife had come for a weekly evening of Celtic dancing.

He serves as treasurer of the Pittsburgh Ceili Club and the Irish American Unity Council and is president of the Conway Mill Trust, a nonprofit organization in Northern Ireland that seeks to encourage peaceful coexistence between Protestants and Catholics.

“Ceili,” roughly pronounced KAY-lee, is an Irish word referring to a party where there is folk music and dancing. On Saturday, Mr. Kaniecki will be dancing with other members of the Pittsburgh Ceili Club as they take part in Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Red-haired Karen Kennedy of Crafton looks like she might be Irish, but it is her husband Tom who has Celtic roots. Her ethnic background is 100 percent German.

She is a teacher at Bishop Canevin High School, where her husband advises a junior chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Both of their children are active in Irish organizations. Her interests are mostly cultural. “Ireland has such a rich history and has made so many contributions to art, music, religion and politics,” she said.

Mrs. Kennedy said her family’s devotion to things Irish doesn’t mean that the German side of their children’s heritage will be lost. “In the future, I hope to make the German side a little bigger part of their lives,” she said.

Bob Banerjee, an information technology executive from Upper St. Clair, has had a 19-year love affair with Irish music.

Mr. Banerjee, who was born in Calcutta, India, is part of a trio called Corned Beef and Curry that performs both traditional and contemporary Irish music.

Mr. Banerjee plays fiddle, mandolin and guitar and he sings. The other members of Corned Beef and Curry are guitarist John McCann and drummer Brad “Hamish” Dindak.

“Around 1995, I started working with Anne Feeney on her CD ‘Grafton Street,’ ” Mr. Banerjee said. “That was my first exposure to Irish music, and I fell in love with how energetic and people-oriented it was.”

The music that Corned Beef and Curry plays encourages “hand clapping, foot stamping and beer drinking,” he said. “We want our audiences to get as much fun out of it as they can.”

“The Irish community has been very good to us as a band,” he said. “Music is a great equalizer. I’ve had people from [Pittsburgh’s] Indian community come out to hear me play with the band.”

Ireland's charm

What is the appeal of Irish culture and of the St. Patrick’s holiday? Father Mele sees multiple threads in the tapestry.

“St. Patrick’s Day comes at a time of year when the days are still dark, and the holiday is so filled with joy,” he said.

As a Catholic priest, he likes the fact that St. Patrick was an evangelist who sought to spread his Christian faith.

“His process for conversion was loving the people before he spread the teachings,” he said. “I think it was that love that opened the hearts of Irish pagans. And that is a message repeated by Pope Francis: Love the people first and then talk to them about what we believe is true.”

For many years, Father Mele hosted St. Patrick’s Day parties at his parishes in Kennedy and Ambridge that drew as many as 400 people. More recently, he has been holding “half-way to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations” each September instead.

“I am very proud of my own Italian heritage, but I have a lifelong love for anything Irish -- including poetry and music,” Father Mele said.

His first trip to Ireland was a short one. It was a fueling stop at Shannon Airport while he was on his way to Rome.

“As we came down through the clouds, Ireland looked just the way people had described it to me,” he recalled. “I think I had a tear in my eye.”

He said an elderly woman in the seat next to him noticed that he was choking up.

“She put her hand on mine and said, 'I can tell that you are an Irish priest.’ It was really touching.”

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

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