The Great Irishman, Al O’Hagan, passed into eternal life on Wednesday evening, Oct. 26, at the age of 81. As he entered the Gates of Paradise, I’m sure he was greeted by a reception of joyful Gaels with names like O’Dwyer, Sullivan, Kelly and O’Hara.
His earthly departure was not a shock, although you’re never quite ready to hear about one’s death. He had been sick for several years and had survived several serious hospitalizations.
A son of Brooklyn, Al was best known as the man who directed the Great Irish Fair in Coney “Ireland” for almost 25 years. By so doing, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Brooklyn Catholic Charities. He did it by surrounding himself with a faithful band from the Ancient Order of Hibernians as well as civic officials who were willing to donate their time to a charitable cause.
Al was recognized as such an exceptional Son of Erin that he was chosen to lead the New York St. Patrick’s Parade as its Grand Marshal in 1986 – an honor reserved for only the best.
Born in Gerritsen Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, Al was the quintessential Brooklynite. Some people thought it impossible that he would move to south Jersey a few years ago to be closer to family during his health problems. But he returned year after year for the Great Irish Fair and for the Brooklyn Borough Hall Breakfast on St. Patrick’s Day, an event he initiated. It was only a little more than a month ago that he was in Coney Island’s new Ford Amphitheater for the 35th annual Irish Fair. It was obvious that he wasn’t well but no one was surprised that he was there.
Admirers, like Mary Nolan of the Commodore Barry Society and Irish tenor Andy Cooney, lined up to have their photo taken with Al and to wish him well.
“Al continued to be an integral part of the Great Irish Fair,” said Martin Cottingham, the current director of the Fair. “He was always by our side with the intent for us to keep the tradition of the Great Irish Fair alive. I will forever be indebted to him and his family for his guidance, support and commitment to the work of our community.”
Thomas Flood, director of development at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, called him “a titan of Brooklyn and the Irish – he has entrusted us with a great legacy – let’s grow it in Al’s name!”
Senator Marty Golden stated, “Al O’Hagan was a gentle giant full of faith and charity, and his contributions to Brooklyn and to Irish-Americans will be remembered for a long time. I commend Al on a life well-lived, and extend my deepest condolences to his wife and family. Brooklyn has lost one of the very best.”
In 1976, he helped begin the Brooklyn Irish-American Parade in Park Slope, and later the Bay Ridge St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
He organized the “Hibernian Baile na nGael, Inc.” (Brooklyn’s Home of the Irish), the only Irish cultural center in the City of New York. He dedicated the garden area there to the late Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, who stood by his side through all things Irish.
Dec. 15, 1976 was declared “Bing Crosby Day” as the Irish crooner was awarded “Irishman of the Century.” O’Hagan convinced Crosby to come to City Hall and sing “White Christmas” as the official Christmas tree was lit.
Brooklyn owes a lot to Al O’Hagan, from the rebirth of Coney Island to his work on the Community School Board No. 22. He was cheerful, a faithful Catholic and a generous human being. From parades to festivals, not only Irish eyes were shining when Al O’Hagan was around. For that he will be severely missed.