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Sure an' It's a Great Day for the Irish--and Practically Everybody Else

One in an occasional series about immigrants in San Diego.

March 17, 1986|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — May the road rise to meet you . . .

On St. Patrick's Day, the Irish, the wee-bit-Irish, and the wishing-they-were-Irish in San Diego will all rise like mist from the sod on a soft morning. They are everywhere today, every body today, wearing green, grinning, maybe going to a St. Patrick's party, an Irish bar, or to D.G. Wills' Books in La Jolla to read or hear Irish poetry, a story, or a song.

For such a small country, one might wonder how there could be so many Irish on this day.

Some people are, indeed, only Irish for a day, but others are Irish every day--and their roots are transplanted from Dublin, from County Cavan, from Kerry . . .

Brian Connelly-McDonnell sat in the restaurant above National University's Aerospace Department at Montgomery Field. Slight, dark-bearded and quick, his eyes dance when he talks, and he has a lot of tales to tell--opinions and feelings about St. Patrick's and about being Irish.

Connelly-McDonnell came to San Diego (from Dublin, by way of Canada) in 1978. "I came for two reasons," he said. "One was opportunity. I wanted to break out of the class distinctions in Ireland. The other reason was economic. The country wasn't going anywhere. After high school I worked for an insurance company in Dublin. We went on a 16-week strike and the result was a $1 increase per week. It seemed to me your life is planned over there. If you're going to do anything to break the mold, you have to leave. You can do anything you want to do here, as long as you have the ability and intelligence."

When he first got to North America, Connelly-McDonnell worked in various office jobs, in theater and radio and developed his skill as a musician. A singer who plays the flute and guitar, he has performed regularly since his arrival in San Diego. But also, for the last 1 1/2 years he has been assistant chief flight instructor at National University.

When he arrived, said Connelly-McDonnell, there was a poorly-defined Irish community but it wasn't organized. Now several of these groups--the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick's, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish Congress, among others--have become better organized. There is a family feeling among the Irish, he said, but "the Irish have always assimilated because there is no language barrier."

Most first-generation Irish in San Diego, he said, drifted here from New York, Boston or Toronto.

Still Returns to the Old Sod

He still goes back to Ireland every few years. "St. Patrick's in Ireland is celebrated with pride and awareness of being Irish. It's that way here too, but in Ireland it's a quieter celebration."

"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I like to have a good time too, but it's more than that. Balance is important.

"With St. Patrick's Day I have a fear of stereotyping. I have trouble with the smiling Irishman concept. People think you have to be loud and raucous. St. Patrick's Day is a celebration of his (St. Patrick's) birth, and the fact that he brought Christianity to a pagan community. A lot of Irish people still take introspective pride in being Irish.

"The problem with stereotyping is that while there is always some truth in it, it doesn't tell the whole story; for example, the fact is that Ireland is in the top 10 in drinking problems--but also it has the highest percentage of non-drinkers per capita. So, it all evens out."

Connelly-McDonnell, whose background is in theater (he has written two plays and is working on a third) feels pride in the heritage of Irish writers.

"The basic stereotype of Irish people really came from New York in the early part of the century," he said. "Some Irish would get their paycheck, get a little tipsy and sing 'Mother McCree.' But it was also the time of George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey.

"The heritage of great writers is something everyone is brought up with in Ireland. There is a snobbery connected with the theater here in the U.S., but that's not found in Ireland. In Dublin, a city of 650,000, there are 12 theaters--and the audience is full of ordinary people--shop girls, bus drivers, carpenters, among others."

Feelings of the transplanted Irish regarding Northern Ireland vary, according to McDonnell. "Some people are still caught up in the trouble, as if they are still there. Others care as human beings for other human beings. Still others want to pretend it doesn't exist.

"Overall, I have a feeling of sadness and frustration. In some ways, people can't see how simple the solution is--and yet it is a very complex situation.

"I want to say, 'Let's stop killing each other and live.' That is what the future of the human race has to be."

Connelly-McDonnell loves his recent flight career, which grew from a hobby. "It all began at a Dublin horse show. Suddenly a plane landed on the field and out came a man with a top coat and hat and an elegantly dressed woman with a large hat and veil. It was a duke and duchess.

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