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RADIO : Voicing a Love for the Irish : Tom McConville's show taps into the heart of a community of Emerald Isle natives.

June 16, 1995|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a grand party for a grand man.

Three hundred people turned out on a recent Sunday to honor North Hollywood's Tom McConville, 64. For 25 years McConville has been host of "The Irish Hour" (KIEV 870-AM), the longest-running radio program serving Southern California's community of more than 13,000 native-born Irish.

Every Sunday afternoon, from 3:05 to 4 p.m., former residents of counties Roscommon and Kilkenny, Mayo and Tyrone, legal and illegal, tune in to find out what is happening far away at home and what Irish-themed events are coming up in greater Los Angeles. "You tune in to Tom and you get the births and the marriages and the deaths and the sports, of course," explains Mary Flynn of La Canada. "He's the missing link with home. We're so spread out here, and he's the glue that keeps us together."

Born in the Northern county of Armagh, McConville is a fine-looking man with a voice actor Patrick Stewart might envy. As soon as McConville signs off at the Glendale radio station, he joins the party at the home of Mary and Matt Flynn. As he begins shaking hands, he greets each of the 300 guests by name, with nary a glance at their name tags. McConville's memory is a wonder, people will tell you. He only has to meet you once, twice at most, to recall your name and your spouse's and each of the children's.

Because this is a mostly Irish party, held outside on a sunny afternoon, the sunscreen flows like wine. Pale, ginger-haired people flee the sunshine as if it were hydrochloric acid. The swiftest claim any bit of shade and stay there. Among those seeking cover is Declan Kelly, consul general of Ireland for the western United States, who has come down from San Francisco to honor McConville. Kelly has an Irishman's respect for his nation's gray weather. "It's protection from UV rays provided by St. Patrick."

Mary Robinson, president of the Republic of Ireland, could not attend but has sent a letter of appreciation instead. "In such a vast city as Los Angeles," Robinson wrote, "where the Irish population is of necessity so scattered, your show has provided a vital link for the community for the past 25 years." (This is the same Mary Robinson who leaves a light burning in the Irish "White House" for McConville and all the other Irish in Diaspora.)

While the guests mingle among the Flynns' roses, they talk about McConville's dedication to the community, which has led to such honors as his being named 1982 "Irishman of the Year" by the Los Angeles City Council. McConville has never received a dime for his 25 years on "The Irish Hour." He also maintains an Irish Information Line at (818) 764-7742 that he updates every week. In addition, he appears to have attended every Irish dance, fund-raiser and other major event since he and wife Joan moved to this country in 1958. "Tom misses no Irish function, even if he just sticks his nose in the door," says Jo Reutebuch, now of Whittier, formerly of Dublin.

Four years ago, McConville organized an Irish Relief Fund to help natives of Ireland and others in need (it recently sent $500 to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing). He is also among the leaders of a local group trying hard to create an Irish center for Los Angeles. "Every other major city has one," he points out. McConville envisions a place where the Celtic arts would flourish, the local Irish could gather and Irish singles could meet one another without going to a bar. And if there were grounds for Gaelic football, hurling and other favorite sports, well, says McConville, "that would be Utopia."

Irish football was McConville's passion when he was growing up in Portadown, a village 20 miles south of Belfast. He played defense on the young Armagh team that won the all-Ireland championship for 1949-50. McConville's family was Catholic, as was his sweetheart Joan's, in a region where religious and political tension frequently erupted in violence. His older brother, Rory, was the first to come to America, after he fell in love with and married a Protestant girl. McConville and his growing family followed, after a brief stay in what is now Zimbabwe.

McConville says he likes to think he is a unifying force in a community that is as capable of factionalism as any other. Like many in the Irish-born community, he has dual Irish and U.S. citizenship. He is against terrorism by either Irish Republicans or Loyalists, he says. But the people such as McConville who are against violence aren't necessarily neutral. One guest at the party expresses the hope that all Ireland's counties, including the six now under British rule, will eventually be united with a vanity license plate that reads: 26 + 6 = 1.

McConville's dedication to his fellow Irish reflects the distinctively democratic notion that you don't have to be a peer of the realm to serve your community. "I'm just a working-class guy," he says.

Shortly after he arrived here, McConville found work stocking shoes at Sears in North Hollywood. By the time he took early retirement in 1985, he was manager of electronics and several other departments. He and Joan, married 40 years, still live in the house where they raised their six children.

While there is beer and wine at the party, and punch spiked with a cautious hand, there is no Irish whiskey. And that's fine with the guest of honor. "I never drank a drop in my life," says McConville, who pledged to abstain at his confirmation and has kept his solemn promise ever since. When he goes to Ireland's 32 in Van Nuys or one of the other local pubs, he has the usual--a cup of tea.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "The Irish Hour" on KIEV-870 AM.

Hours: 3:05 to 4 p.m. every Sunday.

Call: (818) 244-8483.

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