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Irish Groups Transplant a Bit o' the Olde Sod

March 17, 1986|MARIE MONTGOMERY | 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.

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