Jim Green describes the time around St. Patrick's Day as the "high holy days" for the Pittsburgh region's Irish-Americans.
Mr. Green is Allegheny County president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. "Hibernia" is the Latin name for Ireland. Known by its initials, the county AOH has about 1,000 members in seven local divisions. A sister organization for women, the Ladies AOH, has about 500 members across the county.
The St. Patrick's Day Parade in Downtown Pittsburgh, which is ranked among the nation's largest, steps off at 10 a.m. Saturday. While the annual march is the best-known event to mark the feast day of Ireland's patron saint, the holiday will be commemorated with a variety of other activities. Many of those events offer the side benefit of helping to attract and maintain the interest of young people in ethnic activities.
"As our leadership turns gray, we have to make an effort to recruit," Mr. Green said. A lot of that recruitment is inter-generational, with children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of members being invited to take part in activities by their older relatives, he said. The Hibernians are the nation's largest Catholic fraternal organization with about 80,000 members in chapters across the country.
While many similar ethnic organizations have been shrinking or going out of business, AOH membership in Allegheny County has remained stable. Recruitment, however, is a continuing challenge. "We lose a lot of members to death," Mr. Green said.
Irish dancing may be one of the best recruitment tools. "There is nothing nicer than seeing children -- some as young as 3 or 4 -- dancing in unison," he said. "That is a skill that is being passed from one generation to the next."
Julia Bell, director of the Bell School of Irish Dance in Ross, is the great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants.
Growing up in Carnegie, she began taking lessons in traditional step dancing at age 5 at the Irish Centre of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. She began teaching in 1999 and opened her Ross studio in 2000. Her students include her 7-year-old son, Patrick Lopresti. "He's half Irish and half Italian," Ms. Bell said.
Most students are of school age, but she does have some adult learners as well. They will be among the pupils from many of the region's schools of Irish dance taking part in the St. Patrick's Day parade.
"We also get calls to perform at private parties and from activities directors at nursing homes," she said.
Teaching Irish dance combines two of her passions. "I love working with children and helping to keep our ethnic heritage alive," she said.
Local performances also prepare students for multiple competitions during the year. Six students from the Bell school will go to the World Irish Dancing Championships later this month in Boston.
Just as the young people are busy year-round with dance activities, AOH members are not just active at St. Patrick's Day.
The AOH's "Sean MacBride" Division 32, for example, hosts weekly fundraising fish frys during Lent. The dinners are held at the Ukrainian Club in Carnegie. On one recent Friday evening, volunteer cooks and servers, many wearing emerald green 2013 St. Patrick's Day parade T-shirts, had trouble keeping up with the demand for fish sandwiches and seafood soup.
Bob Kelly, of Ingram, the Division 32 vice president, estimated about two dozen club members put in a total of 200 hours to get ready for each fish fry.
Funds raised by the Carnegie club and other AOH divisions support charitable and nonprofit organizations, including Ronald McDonald House, the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The AOH also offers scholarships, aid to veterans and support for both Irish and Irish-American organizations. The Conway Mill Trust, which supports economic, social and cultural redevelopment programs in Northern Ireland, is on that list.
"I like being part of the charity work," Mr. Kelly said. "It shows that we are not just a bunch of drunks."
How did an Irish-American organization end up meeting and holding its events at an Eastern European ethnic club? "A lot of our members already were social members at the Ukrainian Club," Division 32 president Dennis Maher said.
Blending of cultures also may explain why the side dishes for the fish fry include not just baked potatoes and french fries but haluski, a mixture of cabbage, noodles and onions that has Polish and Slovak origins.
Why has Mr. Maher, who lives in Thornburg, stayed active in the organization for more than 20 years? "I've met a lot of good people who are involved in community affairs and charitable works," he said.
Gerry Abbott, of Scott, agreed. "I like the camaraderie and the work for charitable groups," she said. Mrs. Abbott was wearing a green sweatshirt decorated with the logo of the "Maud Gonne" chapter of the Ladies AOH. Her ethnic background is not Irish, but she became involved through her husband, Mickey.
Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary, was the mother of Sean MacBride, an IRA leader turned Irish politician.
"It's a lot of work and no pay, but there is something about the parade that keeps volunteers coming back year after year," said Patrick O'Brien of West View, chairman of the 50-member parade committee.
Events like the parade and year-round charitable work help to counteract some of the bad press involving the Irish, Patti Flaus said. Ms. Flaus, who lives in Pittsburgh's Westwood neighborhood, is president of Division 32's Ladies AOH. Charities the women's group supports include the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden and an annual "Adopt-a-Family" program.
Mr. Green, the county AOH president, said efforts to keep alive Irish culture also were helped by the popularity of Celtic-themed pubs in the region.
"When a place like [Mullaney's] Harp & Fiddle has Irish music and dancing on a Tuesday, the kids pack the place," he said. Those weekly dance sessions, which include instruction, are sponsored by The Pittsburgh Ceili Club.
Also helping to keep ethnic feeling alive is a long-running weekly radio show, "Echoes of Erin," hosted by Diane Byrnes. Airing 12:30 to 2 p.m. Sundays on WEDO, 810 AM, the program provides music, news from Ireland and information about local activities.
A search for roots
While St. Patrick's Day has developed a reputation in some quarters as a secular holiday involving overimbibing, that is not the way Mr. Green and many other Irish-American families mark the occasion.
His will start his day on Saturday by attending a Mass at Old St. Patrick Church in Pittsburgh's Strip District, then march in Pittsburgh's parade and end with a party at home in Brentwood.
"When I grew up on Mount Washington, I was not very aware of either my Irish or my German roots," he said. Shortly after the death of his maternal grandfather, Thomas J. O'Toole, he started hosting an annual family celebration to mark St. Patrick's Day.
An interest in family genealogy and the encouragement of a golfing buddy drew him to membership in the Hibernians more than 20 years ago.
As part of the search into his Irish roots, he located the burial site of his immigrant great-grandparents, John William and Margaret O'Toole. After he identified their graves in Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh's Greenfield neighborhood, Mr. Green and other family members contributed money for a marker.
Why has he stayed with the AOH organization for two decades? "I like that it is family oriented and faith based," he said. "These are the people I am closest to, next to my family," he said of the members.
He said he hopes that his children and grandchildren will carry on the tradition. Grandson Timmy Misencik, 5, is a parade veteran who has marched with him for the past two years. "He already has his own sash and shillelagh," the appropriately named Mr. Green said.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184. First Published March 14, 2013 4:00 AM