O'Malley recalls St. Patrick Day the old Irish way

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

When Martin O'Malley was growing up in Ireland in the 1930s and '40s, St. Patrick's Day was a church-going holiday.

``St. Patrick's Day was a dry day. There were no pubs open,'' said O'Malley in the heavy accent of a born Irishman.

The pubs were officially closed, with the blinds shut tight. But if you knew the secret knock for the back door - tap three times on the glass with a penny, for instance - it was a different story.

``They'd have house dances. They'd have a few barrels of Guiness and whiskey, and dancing,'' said O'Malley, a retired construction worker who has lived in Juneau off and on since 1983.

O'Malley, 68, said St. Patrick's Day has changed in Ireland since he was a boy. It's still a national holiday, with banks and offices closed, but pubs are no longer required to shut down.

``It was on account of the clergy,'' O'Malley said. ``They had a lot to say in Ireland in them times. It was a holy day - which it still is. But even the non-Catholics in Ireland observed it. Not in the north, maybe, but where I'm from.''

O'Malley grew up on a farm at Burrishoole, New Port, County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland. At high tide, the water in Clew Bay came right up to the farm.

Burrishoole was the home of Granuaile, the Gaelic name of Grace O'Malley, the Irish pirate queen who ruled the region and fought the British in the 16th century. She's a great-grandmother many generations back to Juneau's O'Malley, and he's proud of his feminist warrior ancestor. His family's heritage in County Mayo goes back far further than Granuaile, he said.

``We can follow them back into the single digits,'' he said.

O'Malley and his three brothers helped their father raise horses, sheep and cattle on the farm.

``I grew up riding horses,'' O'Malley said. ``My dad sent two race horses to Chicago in the 1930s.''

Every spring, the O'Malleys would herd their cattle down to the beach. There are 365 islands in Clew Bay, and the family had rights to pasture their stock on two. Springs provided fresh water.

``Myself and a brother, we'd drive them into the water,'' O'Malley said. ``Once they got swimming they did OK.''

Horses and cattle summered on one island, sheep on another. Horses will kill sheep, O'Malley said. The sheep got to ride in the boat.

``Sheep are not good swimmers. The wool drowns them,'' he said.

The boys all spoke Gaelic. One of his brothers still runs the family farm. The other two became stonemasons, and one has risen through the ranks of civil service in Ireland to a position overseeing the country's national monuments.

In addition to farming, the family netted herring in the bay and salted them to preserve them.

``We killed salmon as well - we weren't supposed to. The British controlled all the fisheries. Not any more,'' O'Malley said.

O'Malley has returned to Ireland many times since he left at the age of 22 in 1955. During his first decades in America, he was a high-rise construction worker in New York City and Chicago, and worked on the World Trade Center and O'Hare International Airport.

He married a farm girl named Mary from upstate New York and they had two boys, Morny and George. They lived in Ireland for a while, but Mary's family asked them to come back and run their dairy farm.

``Now that was work. We milked cows by hand seven days a week,'' he said.

One night in Seattle in 1983 they ran into an Irishman named Pat Barrett. Barrett and his wife owned the Bergmann Hotel in Juneau and they were looking for someone to run it. By then end of the evening, Mary had the job.

The family came to Juneau. Mary ran the Bergmann, and Martin worked in construction.

Sadly, St. Patrick's Day has another meaning for O'Malley.

``I lost my son on St. Patrick's Day when he was 20 years old,'' he said. ``In 1987. It was the worst day of my life.''

Morny O'Malley was killed in an accident on the way to a parade when the family was in San Carlos, Calif. Mary died in 1990, and it was another rough time for O'Malley. He and his son George went back to Ireland for a couple years, but returned to Juneau in 1992.

They're both still here. He said ``Big George'' works for a cab company. Although Martin is retired, he still helps out his friend Pat Barrett at the Bergmann from time to time.

Last Saturday, O'Malley saw two of his childhood friends on television, marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade, which is held before the holiday.

``I'd say 50 percent of my school buddies are in Chicago,'' he said. ``I carried the banner down State Street myself in 1958.''

He said he was thinking about starting an Irish Parade for St. Patrick's Day in Juneau a few years ago, but decided it would be pretty small. He plans to have corn beef and cabbage at the Lucky Lady this afternoon, and this time he won't need a secret knock to get in.

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