By Antonina Zielinska
Lifelong Greenpoint resident and St. Anthony of Pauda parishioner Virginia “Gina” Sheehan is this year’s Kings County Aide to the Grand Marshal at the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“It’s just the biggest honor I ever received in my life,” said the 86-year-old, whose parish is now merged with St. Alphonsus.
Sheehan attended St. Anthony of Padua School and St. Joseph H.S., Downtown Brooklyn. She worked at Western Electric as an accountant and 33 years later retired from Lucent Technologies.
Throughout her life, she has done extensive charity work, which included the advancement of Irish culture, service to immigrants and care for the economically disadvantaged. She was one of the original volunteers at the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, which, among an array of other services, provides counseling for people suffering from depression and other psychological ills.
In 1976, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and joined the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, for which she served in several offices including Catholic Action; Missions and Charities; Historian; and Sentinel. In 2001, the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians New York State Board acknowledged her for her extensive charity work.
Sheehan said her love for her religion, Irish heritage and family was instilled in her from a young age.
“Family is everything to me – family, friends, faith and our God,” she said, adding quickly: “God should be first, but He knows He is first.”
Sheehan’s parents emigrated from County Cork and later got married in New York. Her father died when she was only 5 years old, leaving behind his wife with five children. The eldest two sons, 16 and 18 at the time, had to sacrifice school and go to work in order to help support the family.
Their mother took jobs where she could find them. She cleaned offices and worked as the childcare provider at the St. John’s Guild Floating Hospital Boat. Sheehan would go with her mother whenever the boat came to Queens.
Through it all, Sheehan remembers her mother’s dedication to God and prayer.
“That’s how she got through life,” the youngest daughter now recalled. “My mother went to church and so we all went to church. We knelt and said our prayers.” The family also said the rosary together and kept many statues of saints around their home.
This formation stayed with Sheehan throughout her life as she stayed active in the church joining the Rosary Society and various other groups. As part of her charitable endeavors, she has worked to promote Irish culture through exhibits and as a volunteer for the Great Irish Fair in Brooklyn.
Though they have been in the U.S. for nearly a century, Sheehan said the whole family stays true to its roots by visiting Ireland and keeping the Irish tradition alive in the U.S. Sheehan’s family now includes 11 nieces and nephews, 22 grandnieces and nephews and three great grandnieces and nephews.
St. Patrick’s Day is a huge deal for the Sheehans. It’s a family holy day celebrated together over traditional food and, of course, Irish songs.
The holy day is not limited to a single day. Sheehan said, growing up the family would march in every St. Patrick’s Day Parade, except on Sunday, which was dedicated to God. Along with most of her family, she continues to march. She has missed Manhattan’s parade up Fifth Ave. only twice, once because she had a broken shoulder and last year when she was not feeling well.
Usually the Sheehans can be found all over the parade route representing various groups, schools and organizations. This year, the family will rally around their Aunt Gina, with the exception of the youngest grandnephew who was chosen to carry the banner for Xavier H.S., where he is a freshman. Sheehan will be able to invite five people to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The rest of her family and friends will walk behind her in the parade.
Being an honoree at the New York City Parade is a tremendous honor for Sheehan. She noted the importance of the parade that originated with homesick Irish ex-patriots and military men in 1762 – 14 years before the U.S. declared independence. At that time wearing green was a sign of Irish pride, but was banned in Ireland.
She also said she is honored and humbled to be serving as an aide to George Mitchell, this year’s grand marshal. The former U.S. senator was appointed by President Bill Clinton to help broker a peace pact in Northern Ireland. He became the architect of the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, which ended decades of violent civil war between Catholics and Protestants.
Easter Rising, 100 Years Ago, Helped Shape Irish Republic
by Susan Gately
DUBLIN (CNS) – Easter Monday 1916 was a sunny day. Patrick Pearse, a young poet and teacher, stood in front of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin and, to the astonishment of passers-by, began to read: “Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”
Around the city, copies of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic were posted on buildings, declaring Ireland a sovereign state, guaranteeing fundamental rights and declaring a provisional government, pending elections by all the people, men and women.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, as it was known. The six-day insurrection by Irish rebels against British rule has divided Ireland for a century; some see the rebels as martyrs, others as leaders of a treacherous revolt.
“What happened developed out of a huge ferment that included the Gaelic language revival, the explosion of what’s sometimes called Anglo-Irish literature, along with both a strong nationalist party under (John) Redmond and, of course, a secret wing, the Irish Republican Brotherhood that wanted independence by violence,” said Irish Father Brendan Purcell, of the University of Notre Dame Australia.
“Many of the 1916 leaders were personally devout Catholics – maybe (nationalist leader) Joseph Plunkett was a mystic too, so they linked their insurrection to Easter as if it were a religious event, too.”
“Unfortunately, the independence that resulted didn’t really include a religious development in itself,” said Father Purcell, although he noted Irish Catholicism was strong at the time.
The Rising began April 24, 1916, when diverse republican groups, acting together, seized a number of prominent buildings in Dublin, raised the green, white and orange flag over the post office and holed up. For six days 1,600 rebels fought off a 20,000-strong British army. On April 29, Pearse called a surrender “to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens.”
The insurrection left around 500 dead, mostly civilians, and thousands injured. Approximately 1,500 Irish men were interned in Wales, while the 16 rebel leaders were imprisoned and executed. Dublin’s city center lay in ruins.
“People will say hard things of us now, but later on they will praise us,” Pearse wrote on his execution day. His words proved prophetic. The executions galvanized public opinion. In the 1918 British Parliament elections, nationalists won 70 percent of the Irish seats. After those elections came a wider armed campaign against British rule, the War of Independence, which ended with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The Treaty split the nationalist movement and led to a civil war and the partition of Ireland.
Former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said the Rising was not a “just war” because, in time, Britain would have delivered home rule for 26 counties and many lives would have been saved. “Living for Ireland is better than dying for Ireland,” he said in his 2015 book, “Faith in Politics.”
However, the rebel leaders and others were convinced they did right. It was “a sacrifice which God asked of me,” wrote Pearse.
The primate of all Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, has urged people to redouble “efforts to find safe spaces where we can hear one another’s stories and pain, and bolster friendship, justice and peace.”
During the Rising, the Capuchins turned their Father Matthew Hall into a shelter for children and allowed the women volunteers to minister to fighters. The Capuchins also went out into the streets to minister to the wounded.
“Catholics should care about the Rising,” said Capuchin Father Bryan Shortall. “I learned about this at the fireside with my siblings. We need to pay tribute to this history.”