Pittsburgh Irish: Making Connections


Pittsburgh Irish: Making Connections
By Elizabeth Myers

From its people to its placenames, the Greater Pittsburgh area maintains many connections to the island that is Ireland. Our hometown pride for our homeland of Ireland reaches the realm of United States Ambassador to Ireland, a post once held by the esteemed Mr. Dan M. Rooney, former owner and chairman and son of the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Organization.

That pride reaches right down to the pavement here, with street names like Colerain Street in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Carrick. I personally live in the South Hills region, in the small borough of Castle Shannon, a former Irish settlement once dominated by a coal mine.

In fact, our local bar on the main throughfare of the town is called The Coal Mine. It is situated just a block from Killarney Station, the public transit line that connects the suburbs to the city proper. Immediately surrounding Killarney Station and in the hollow of the former mine, you will street signs like Kerry Hill, Kerry Way, Killarney, Londonderry Drive, Newport, Pearse, and Waterford – all indications that the Irish immigrants who settled this area maintained a strong connection to the homeland.

As a Pittsburgher with Irish family roots, I wanted to make my own connections to Ireland. I sifted through family photos, memorabilia and opened an old family Bible. With the help of genealogists from the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society and a research librarian at Carnegie Library in Oakland, I pieced together more of the family story that my grandmother Nina and my mother Kathleen had started. 

As I studied maps and chatted with friends and neighbors who were born in Ireland or have visited often, I realized the places I wanted to visit were scattered all over the four provinces of Ireland.

No one corner of Ireland holds all the magic and wonder that the travel programs boast about. I wanted to visit the places that our local streets are named for, that places that are the stars of the books we read, the movies we watch, and the songs the Irish have sung about for centuries.

In March 2019, I packed up those maps, hopped on a plane to Dublin, hired a car, and drove myself along the entire coast of the whole island over the course of fifteen days. I planned that trip with a bit of an American “Get ‘Er Done” mindset and a bucket list mentality. I drove from Dublin down to Cork, over to Dingle and up to Donegal, then over and into Belfast, and then back to Dublin, an Bhaile Atha Cliath, the BAC.

It was the first time I ever went on a holiday solo without family or friends traveling along. And it was a grand. 

Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day
I thought visiting Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day and Irish Mother’s Day would be a lovely homage to my grandmother and mother, neither of whom had ever had the opportunity to visit Ireland. And I assumed this would be a “One and Done” type of trip and I could tick Ireland off my list. Done and dusted, as we say.

But the more time I spent in Ireland and talked with local people there about the places they connect to most, the more I wanted to see and the longer my list got. And, do be forewarned, those postcards of Ireland are beautiful but deceptive!

Getting your own feet to that very edge of the big green quilt, beside sandy beaches by the sea or reaching the summit of that gorgeous mountain peak can take you the better part of a whole day. And whilst you are getting yourself there, get your mind ready to enjoy the location, rain or shine. It’s best to prepare for rain and do not fret if it is overcast. If the weather does not pass after a brief walk and a cup of tea in a nearby shop, there is always a local artist nearby who captured the site in fairer weather or An Post Post Office Shop selling those beautifully deceptive postcards.

I enjoyed myself so much that during my flight back to Pittsburgh, I made arrangements to return for Christmas. This time I would focus on one area and just take my time to get to know people.

My son Sean and I celebrated the Christmas holiday break in Killarney, County Kerry. I was having fun learning the Irish language and liked the idea of pursuing advanced coursework in Irish Studies in Ireland. We explored the Gaeltacht area of Ballyferriter, checked out local National Schools and summer programs.

Christmas in Killarney

Sean and I enjoyed all of the holiday lights and sights that a “Christmas in Killarney” has to offer, as well as New Year’s Eve in Dingle Town. While we were there, four university hospitals in the Republic were reporting an unusual spike in a flu cases. By the time we departed for Pittsburgh in mid-January, the Irish media reported nearly 700 patients were still waiting to be admitted.

Ireland in the Pandemic
We did not know it until mid-March, but what we observed was the emergence of a global pandemic. Maybe it was divine intervention or just some good ole Irish luck, but my son and I managed to return to Pittsburgh without symptoms or complications.

In another full measure of grace and serendipity, I was accepted into a two-year Irish Studies program at the National University of Ireland in Galway. And I learned it would remain online and unhindered by the complications of COVID-19 and worldwide lockdown.

But by March of 2022, Ireland opened her arms to the world’s travelers again. I was fortunate to be able to return in April and completed NUI Galway’s program in person, in Ireland. I spent a few weeks there completing independent research on Irish artforms and identity; and was able to return for seven weeks over the summer to dig in a little deeper and study cultural tourism and the Irish language. 

During my studies and my involvement with supporting a scholarship fund, The University of Pittsburgh, that supports study abroad opportunities in Ireland, I met an author and historian from County Mayo with an extraordinary connection to Pittsburgh. Michael Larkin of Ballyhean, County Mayo, is the nephew of Thomas Larkin, an Irishman who emigrated to Pittsburgh to work for Bell Telephone and helped to establish the transatlantic telephone line.

Michael Larkin of Ballyhean, County Mayo with Elizabeth

Michael’s book about his uncle’s journey to America is well-documented in “Making the Right Connections” and is an extraordinary story that features many connections to the City of Pittsburgh. It is dedicated to the many Irish emigrants to departed and also to those who lost their vital connection to their families, friends and homeland, and it was a blessing to spend time in County Mayo visiting Larkin Farm and learning more about the structure of local schools and libraries.

Elizabeth Myers and Michael Larkin take a seat with The Pennsylvania Cup

*Elizabeth Myers is a freelance writer and a native of the Allegheny Valley region of Pittsburgh. She currently lives in Castle Shannon, a former Irish settlement in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at [email protected].

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