Cleveland Comhra: Lá Fhéile Pádraig le Al O’Leary
by Bob Carney
In the month of March, we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick and all things Irish. There are many fine people and their families here in the Cleveland area that have made that celebration a part of their lives year round and life long. Al O’Leary is one of those people.
Husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, veteran, musician, hurler, a member of the A.O.H. and the United Irish Societies and past Grand Marshall of Cleveland’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, coming up on ninety-three years of age, Al has no intention of slowing down. An accomplished accordion player, he is a regular at the Plank Rd. Tavern’s sessions on Thursday nights in Lakewood and is active in his parish and the organizations he belongs to.
Al O’Leary was born ninety-two years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved shortly after to Conneticut. It was there that his mother heard that a farm was for sale in Ireland near where she was from. It happened that the owner was in White Plains, New York, so the family travelled there and purchased the farm.
Al enjoyed growing up in the northern part of Tipperary, going to school, working on the farm, playing sports and music and studying the Irish language. When I first met Al, I assumed he was a native speaker, but he told me, at that time English was used, and Irish only in the language classes he attended.
In 1944, Al, being a U.S. citizen was required to register for the draft, and in 1945, a letter from the U.S. embassy reached him informing him to report in England to be sworn in. The Govrnment of Japan surrendered in August, the day Al was being sworn in. He figured he’d be heading back to Ireland.
The Army had other plans and shipped him to France for four months of basic training. From there he was sent to Germany, where he witnessed the aftermath of the events that took place at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Dachau was the first camp the Nazi’s opened; it operated for twelve years, and a reported 32,000 people were killed there. Al has a photo album containing black and white photographs he took when stationed there. They give a glimpse into the atrocities that occurred; those memories are very strong within him.
When his time in Germany was up, he was given a choice to go back to Ireland, or to New York. He was too young when he left the states as a child to remember anything of The United States, and decided to come here.
He joined the Army Reserve and would later be called to serve during the Korean War. He landed in New York in 1947. His father was living in Conneticut, so Al went there. His mother came back from Ireland in June that same year, and the family was reunited.
“My father was a drinker, and I told my mother after one of fits, we couldn’t go on this way. I never drank, we came to Cleveland, I got a job and I’ve been here since.” Al retired from the Ford Motor Co. In Brookpark after working there for forty-one years.
Growing up in Tipperary, hurling was a way of life for a young man, Al was no exception and carried his love of the game to Cleveland. “We had a team here in 1949; Chicago had a team and we played back and forth, pretty soon we started getting better!” Al was a founding member of that team, the Cleveland Kickhams Hurling Club.
The spirit of those matches lives on with The Al O’Leary Tournament, hosted by The Akron Celtic Guards Hurling Club every fall. Nick Frank of the “Guards” told me Al shows up every year to lend his support and even got out on the field to play a couple of years ago! When I asked how his wife Mary feels about things like this, he said, “She’s OK with what I do.”
“Me and my mother lived on the Eastside. One Saturday night, I went to the Westside Irish American Club. I played music there. Anyway, a girl I knew was there, and Mary had gone to the dance with her. It was the first time I met my wife. The next day, I called my friend Rosemary and said ‘Rosemary, I met my wife last night.’ I never talked to her, never went on a date with her, but I knew. That’s how it was! How do you figure that?” Al and Mary have been married sixty-four years.
Music is also an important part of Al’s life, he began playing the melodeon at the age of thirteen, eventually moving on to the accordion. He plays every day and trys to make it to most of the sessions at the Plank Rd. Tavern. Maureen Conway Reich, of the Irish folk band Ballinloch, said,” Al is an amazing musician, he seems to know every tune called.”
Al down played the comment when I shared it with him, replying, “I practice every day,” Al supports numerous Irish American events and organizations and always has a kind word for those involved in them. He stopped in at P.J.McIntyre’s one Tuesday evening a couple of years back to let us know he was happy we are learning Irish and keeping the language alive in Cleveland.
“I went to school in Ireland, we spoke English except for our Irish language class. I’ve kept up with the language, I think it’s important. There’s still plenty of opportunity to speak Irish here, my wife speaks Irish as well.”
Supporting the language, music, sports, history and Irish heritage is very important to Al. He can be a bit reserved when speaking about himself, but lights up when the topic changes to the things that are important to him: his family, his faith and his heritage.
Al and Mary love to travel and spend time with their family. An extended family reunion is scheduled later this year in Ireland and they plan on attending.
Mr. O’Leary is one of the kindest, most energetic people I know, I’m proud to call him my friend.
Slán go Fóill!
*Bob Carney is a student of Irish history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday @Pj McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhounds and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary and hounds Cian and Morrighanand terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org