Oklahoma’s Irish American Culture

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Kilkennie's in Tulsa.
The cute guy in blue is Dalton Williams
George Kennedy, Mike Loughran, Anne Loughran, Maureen Egan, Anne Hinchey (back Patrick Egan, Tom Hinchey)

Oklahoma’s Irish American Culture

By Mindy Ragan Wood

The Irish are well known for many symbols of their culture. From pubs and green shamrock, to music and River Dance, members of the Irish American Club of Tulsa say there’s much more to their heritage. Ion Oklahoma takes a look beyond the brewery to a proud, deep history that hails from Ireland to the Heartland.

The Irish American Club started with a few Irish Oklahomans singing songs at a restaurant and pub on St. Patrick’s Day. Founder of IACT, Tom Hinchey, remembered, “The only St Patrick Day celebration was in a small pub on 15th Street that was only opened on St. Patrick’s Day. It used to be an alley till they put a roof over the alley and set up a floor for dancing. We said, ‘You know what, we need an Irish club.’ We had our first meeting in October 1977.”

Hinchey soon started Ceilis, which means a gathering of people, at different venues around town. It was a free venue for Irish Oklahomans to enjoy music, dancing, singing and family-friendly fun. The Ceili was a fitting start to the club’s inception as the fabric of the Irish culture is threaded by the connectedness of their people.

Ceilis are common among members and not exclusive, making them less disconnected from their communities. Dalton Williams, an Irish musician and singer, regularly attends a friend’s Ceilis. “He built a stage in his backyard and he calls it the neighborhood Ceili. Anyone who wants to come is welcome.”

It’s an old tradition. Hinchey said he remembered stories from his mother about the Ceilis when she was a child in New York and the Ceilis his Irish born grandparents held in their New York apartment. “They’d push the furniture against the wall. They’d be dancing in the living room and the men would be drinking in the kitchen,” he laughed.

Ceili dancing is similar to square dancing, not to be confused with Irish Step or River Dance, although there is plenty of that too. Irish music tells a story, a poem set to music and often dedicated to a historic event, as are dances. Because so much history is in song, music is part of their oral tradition, preserving a nation’s tragedies and triumphs for generations.

Williams, who performs with several Irish bands, said he and his friends search for the oldest unknown Irish poems and set them to music.

“Without us playing it, it’s dead; it doesn’t exist. We get to feel like we’re playing our own part in history and keeping the music around. I still sing songs I don’t understand until someone stands up and says, ‘I’m going to tell you a fun history lesson about the song’s characters.’”

True to the sense of connectedness in their culture, singing with performers is expected. The Irish are famous for their beer, but perhaps the true love of the pub is the “Irish drinking songs” that unite the room. The swell of laughter and song bring strangers together as though they were friends.

Williams referred to this warm phenomenon. “There’s something about singing a song I’ve sung a hundred times, everyone is singing along and we’re engaged in this event together. It’s so enjoyable.”

As to St. Patrick’s Day, there is a lot of beer and singing in cities across the nation and in Ireland. However, 92-year-old Irish immigrant Maureen Egan remembers the holiday differently back home. “School would be out and the boys would pick bunches of shamrock and sell them a bunch for a penny. There was a parade. We’d go to Mass,” she said. “We lived close to a mountain and I remember we had a picnic by the mountain.”

Celebrating their heritage also means they never forget a history soaked in the blood of their ancestors. The hardships of poverty and persecution are not so far removed by time. Anne Loughran spoke of her father’s struggle to survive in Ireland before immigrating to America where he later thrived as an entrepreneur until the 1929 stock market crash.

Religious persecution of Irish Catholics lingered in English-controlled Ireland in spite of legislative reform intended to stop it. “He would walk miles and miles looking for a job,” said Anne Loughran. “If you mentioned your (Catholic) schooling, you were branded right then. That’s why he came to America.”

The Irish have suffered starvation, slavery, war, and revolution since the Viking and Norman conquests. Maybe that’s why they are so strong. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 34 million Irish Americans. Sixty-nine percent of Irish Americans are homeowners, higher than any other ethnic group; over a third completed higher education and their median income at $59k is higher than the national average at $51k. From 1863-1994 America has bestowed the Medal of Honor to 253 Irish-born men, more than the number of awardees from any other nation.

The IACT will celebrate the past and present with a good time. March 5 is their annual St Patrick Dinner Show, an evening of Irish cuisine, music and dancing. The public is welcome to attend, but space is limited. Anyone interested may contact Tom Hinchey at 918-455-3586 or email irishclubok@msn.com For live bands and events on St. Patrick’s day, March 17, check online calendars for McNellie’s (OKC and Tulsa) and Kilkenny’s.

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