Diocesan News

Life of Father Varela, and a ‘United Ireland,’ Highlighted at Great Irish Fair

Bishop Robert Brennan and Mass attendees stand on the Holy Name Church rectory steps with some honorees and organizers during the Great Irish Fair in Park Slope. (Photo: Ed Wilkinson)

PARK SLOPE — It wasn’t all corned beef, step dancing, and music at the 42nd Great Irish Fair held Sept. 16th on the campus of Holy Name Parish in Park Slope.

Organizers of the fair boast that it’s about keeping alive Irish culture and tradition. So, this year, they added two educational events, lest they forget.

After its usual opening Mass, awards celebration, and music had begun, two seminars were held in Shepherd Hall to recall the work of a Cuban immigrant with Irish immigrants and commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that is helping put an end to internal strife in Ireland.

Father Christopher Heanue, director of the diocesan outreach to the Irish, presented a video and talk about the life of Father Felix Varela, an exiled Cuban scholar, among Irish immigrants in New York City in the mid-19th century.

Father Heanue explained that Father Varela’s life was one that identified with the alienated and downtrodden. “He lived an exemplary life and fought for the rights of those who had no one else to speak for them,” he said.

While he served as vicar general for New York, he also lived and ministered among people fleeing oppression in Ireland who settled in Brooklyn. He was stationed at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Williamsburg. A friend at the time wrote in a letter: “Father Varela belongs more with the Irish than with us. Even though he has much deference for me, my complaints crash against the Irish omnipotence.”

The cause of sainthood for Father Varela, who died in 1853, is currently before the Vatican. Vice postulator for the effort is retired Brooklyn Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, whose titular see just happens to be in the County Galway, Ireland.

A second lecture followed by former chief brehon of the fair, Brian McCabe, a former NYC detective. McCabe recalled his working on peace efforts in Ireland that resulted in a ceasefire in Northern Ireland among supporters of a united Ireland and others who support continued English rule in the North.

“It’s important to remember our past,” said McCabe, who reminded everyone that the Good Friday Agreement was part of an ongoing process.

“It’s still going on but there’s no going back,” he said. “Young people in Ireland see their future in a united Ireland.

“It’s not done yet. But we’re closer than we’ve ever been to a united Ireland.”

He said that nothing would be achieved without the contributions of Irish Americans and praised the assistance of the American government in achieving the peace.

Bishop Robert Brennan, who celebrated the opening Mass, said that the fair “celebrates the heritage of faith that has been passed on to us.” Following the liturgy, the bishop participated in the presentation of awards and spent time greeting fairgoers.

Sean Downes, a resident of Bayside, was proclaimed chief brehon of the fair. Kayla McGirl, 17, was crowned colleen queen. She is the granddaughter of the late Al O’Hagan, who organized the Great Irish Fair for 25 years. 

Martin Cottingham, director of the Irish American Building Society that currently operates the fair, said that all proceeds would benefit Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens. Last year, $50,000 was distributed to local schools.