From old country to North Country

American version of St. Patrick’s Day retains focus on families

John Muldowney and his family march in the 2017 Saranac Lake St. Patrick’s Day parade. Muldowney will fill the role of grand marshal for the 2019 parade. (Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)

I grew up in Pearl River, a suburb outside of New York City where the population is mainly of Irish heritage or off the boat. It’s the type of town where all the little girls know how to step dance and everybody’s grandmother is tied for best soda bread around (still doesn’t top my dad’s, though.)

I haven’t lived there consistently for the past couple of years, but I always make a point to get back home for St. Patrick’s Day because for one day of the year the majority of people can let go of their stresses, connect with friends and family, and listen to sick bagpipe music.

However, you don’t have to be in New York City or Boston or Pittsburgh to experience Irish culture. The North Country has rich Celtic roots, too.


Students from St. Bernard’s School march in the 2016 Saranac Lake St. Patrick’s Day parade. (Enterprise file photo — Peter Crowley)

Community members recently formed the Saranac Lake Irish Gaelic Organization, or SLIGO for short, no Irish blood or Catholicism required. The group is now in charge of organizing the village’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, which has grown since its inception in 2016. In that first year, the parade route started at the intersection of Main Street and Route 86 and finished at the Berkeley Green, about one-tenth of a mile.

This year’s parade will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. and finish in front of Harrietstown Town Hall.

Aside from the parade, SLIGO is focused on promoting Irish and Irish-American culture and history and providing community service in the Saranac Lake region.

“The idea was to develop a club that focuses on year-round activities and local history, not just St. Patrick’s Day,” said John Muldowney, SLIGO member and this year’s parade grand marshal.

Muldowney’s grandfather was born to Irish immigrants in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, an area inhabited by predominantly Irish and German immigrants around the turn of the 20th century. His father later moved the family up north after purchasing a bar. Even though the family has expanded from that one 25-block neighborhood on the East River to all over New York and beyond, Muldowney said they make a big effort to stay connected.

Cameron Anderson plays bagpipes outside the Harrietstown Town Hall during the 2016 Saranac Lake St. Patrick’s Day parade. (Enterprise file photo — Justin A. Levine)

He considers family his most important Irish tradition.

“We have regular reunions and usually get somewhere between 75 and 100 Muldowneys together,” he said. “We have our own Facebook page, so we can keep in touch with extended family. With technology and social media, it’s easy to keep in touch, but you still need that physical contact and being in the same room as someone.”

Irish in North Country

When you think of Irish-Americans, you figure most spread throughout the country after having settled in places like the Bronx, Woodlawn, Belle Harbor and Breezy Point, but the majority of Irish families in the North Country came down from Canada. Clans such as the Laws, the Ryans and Keegans set up communities in places such as Alder Brook, Sugarbush and Loon Lake.

Mike Ryan fills the role of grand marshal for the 2016 Saranac Lake St. Patrick’s Day parade. (Enterprise file photo — Justin A. Levine)

Plenty of the residents back then attended church at the St. Rose of Lima Parish in Alder Brook with Father Richard O’Donnell as the pastor.

Now-deceased local Joe Hafford once wrote of O’Donnell, “He not only attended faithfully to the spiritual needs of the parishioners but also to their physical needs as well, when anyone was sick they sent for Father O’Donnell. Many people who learned that Father had helped ailing persons came long distances, some even drove with horse and wagon from as far as Canada, and many received help.”

A big Irish community also settled in Minerva. That’s why the school colors are emerald green and white, and the mascot used to be the Fighting Irish until it was changed to the Mountaineers.

Chris Jacob is a SLIGO member and County Mayo native who moved to the U.S. when he was 9 and now lives in Lake Placid. His father, a master steelworker, left home six months before the rest of the family, searching for the American Dream, seeking out jobs and sleeping on his sister’s couch in Brooklyn. After a couple of months and a week-long transatlantic boat ride, Jacob and the rest of his family arrived and settled in New Jersey.

“It was weird leaving my country,” he said. “I remember driving by some sites on the way to the boat and thinking, ‘I guess I’ll never see that again.'”

When they arrived in the U.S., Jacob said it was very lonely at first and they didn’t know many people. He couldn’t just meet up with his friends for a game of soccer like he used to. However, Jacob and his family eventually were accepted into their new home, and he now considers himself American. After he got married and started his own family in New Jersey, Jacob would visit the Tri-Lakes with the Union County Rugby team for the Can-Am Rugby tournament.

“We had a house up here, so we would open it up every summer to about 20 other people,” he said. “Our kids loved those weekends and being up in the Adirondacks so much. My daughter eventually got married up here.”

Even though he hasn’t lived in Ireland full-time since he was a young boy, Jacob said he still stays in contact with a few schoolyard friends.

The celebration

How did we get the holiday in the first place?

St. Patrick’s Day started in the early 17th century to commemorate Maewyn Succat (that’s Patrick), the bishop who brought Christianity to Ireland. Did you know he was actually British? And those snakes he drove out of the Emerald Isle are said to be a metaphor for pagan beliefs. Over the past couple hundred years or so, the holiday lost most of its religious connotations and turned into more of a celebration of Irish culture.

Although the holiday started in Ireland, the pomp is more of an American thing. Even before the American Revolution, Irish soldiers serving in the British army held a celebration in New York City. Only by the start of the 20th century did Ireland start holding parades for the holiday. The first state-sponsored celebration wasn’t until 1931 in Dublin.

Jacob said St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a rather modest holy day when he was a child.

“You’d get the day off from school, dress up and go to Mass,” he said. “And you always wore some green.”

Nowadays, kids will temporarily spray-paint their hair green on St. Patrick’s Day, but back then, Jacob said a shamrock on your lapel was sufficient. It’s believed St. Patrick used the three-leaf shamrock to describe the Holy Trinity to Celtic pagans.

Jacob remembers witnessing his first American St. Patrick’s Day. It was less than ideal.

“It was kind of weird, and I almost felt a little embarrassed,” he said. “I’m a young kid, and I see all these high school students vomiting in the street.”

This may sound a little shocking, but the pubs used to close in Ireland for the holiday.

Drinking has become ingrained in the holiday, but Jacob and Muldowney agree it shouldn’t be seen as the only part of St. Patrick’s Day. It’s like chocolates on Valentine’s Day or eggnog on Christmas — classic, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to invest all their time into sugar and chicken alcohol. Otherwise you’ll end up like those high school kids from Jacob’s story.

Muldowney and Jacob have visited Ireland multiple times each. On the surface, it’s hard to compare the Adirondacks to Ireland. Snow is rare there and there are not many mountains or forests. Jacob said Ireland almost looks cartoon-ish from an aerial view, in the way all the green farms fit together like a quilt. But what is familiar are the people.

“The communities are bound together,” Muldowney said. “When you go over there, don’t pack your agenda with a lot of touristy things where you have to jump from place to place quickly. Go to a small town, and settle in for a couple of days, and meet the people because that’s the real charm.”

“If you’re not from the country but you’ve got family from Ireland when you get there, the people will say, ‘Welcome home,'” Jacob said.

Muldowney described himself as a softy for history, especially personal history.

“It’s important to look back and see where we came from,” he said. “I’ve got a real curiosity for the things that led to not just where I am, but who I am.”


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