Some years ago when I lived in the American Midwest, I launched an Irish newspaper aptly called ‘The Shamrock’ and an Irish-American Cultural Centre in Kansas City, Missouri.
It was then I realised how Americans with Irish background are often more Irish than the Irish themselves, extremely proud of their heritage and working hard in a wide range of ways to support this age-old trans-Atlantic connection. I will never forget people like the wonderful Phil and Kathy Chaney, Bill Quinn and his brothers, and many more who made me so welcome as a young emigrant in a foreign land in the 1980s.
Recently, after renewing a friendship with a Belfast school friend from 50 years ago, Bruno McBride, I’ve come to learn about another such person, a man born and reared in Philadelphia who has built sports and cultural bridges across the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle.
That’s Dan Harrell, 79, known as ‘Donegal Danny,’ son of a Donegal mother, Agnes Bridget McDaid, who emigrated at the tender age of 15.
For his efforts on behalf of the Irish over the decades, including long-term membership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and his successes in linking Ireland and the United States, Dan has received a reward that means the word to him. Dan has just been named Grand Marshall of Philadelphia’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, an Irish community tradition there since 1771, five years before the Declaration of Independence was even signed.
And as Dan marches proudly ahead of a lively procession of more than 200 groups including marching bands, dance and youth groups and Irish Associations in several weeks time, he’ll be watched by tens of thousand of people from all over Pennsylvania, and far beyond the state and country borders. The Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Parade is the second oldest in the country, topped only by New York City.
Dan will be helping uphold a strong Irish tradition in Philadelphia, a city as big as Dublin, where even George Washington was a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and actively encouraged Irish-American patriots to join his colonial army. Irishmen suffered with Washington at Valley Forge, fought with him at the Battle of Germantown and fought again in 1812 and in the civil War to preserve the nation. In the hard work to build Philadelphia’s industries, the Irish bore a heavy burden of labor. They have lived in the city’s neighborhoods along with people of other backgrounds since the city’s beginning, and they have helped build its schools, libraries and fine institutions, the city’s cultural treasures.
The Irish population in Philadelphia increased swiftly in the 1840s as victims of the 1845-46 Great Famine sought refuge in America. In Philadelphia, there were 70,000 Irish-born people by 1850. This Irish community, beset by poverty, discrimination and troubled exile from their homeland, sought to build a new life for itself, a life that included fun and recreation, as well as the hard work the times required of them.
“It’s humbling to be named Grand Marshall, a great honour, and believe me, I’ll be cherishing my mother’s memory and the great county of Donegal as I walk down the centre of Philadelphia,” said friendly Dan. “I’ll even have my mother’s Irish passport in my pocket, close to my heart.”
Dan is one of seven children – four brothers and two sisters – born to Agnes who grew up in Drimarone, close to Donegal town, before emigrating to America in 1928 when she was a teenager, where she worked in various jobs including a department store and a college.
“I go back to Donegal as often as I can,” said Dan, who is father of six girls, Leonora, Colleen, Deborah, Melissa Jacquelyn and Erin. “I love the people, the way of life there, the landscape around the Blue Stack Mountains and elsewhere in the county. It’s a warm, welcoming place. But sometimes I feel sad, thinking about how difficult it must have been for people like my mother back then to have to leave such a beautiful homeland at such a young age to start a new life as an emigrant in another country.”
Dan, who is grandfather to seventeen grandchildren and has a great-granddaughter, still has relatives in the county, specially Jim and Bernadette Quinn who own a crane business in Donegal town, whom he sees on his trips across the Atlantic, his next visit being in early April.
Dan, whose wife, Regina, sadly passed away, enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve for six years. During his time in the military, he worked for General Electric, then at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He has been named Ancient Order of Hibernians Man of the Year. He also coaches football and is heavily involved in the Society of Saint Anthony DiPadova and the Southwest Football Coaches Association and has awards in his honour at the University of Pennsylvania and Saint Malachy’s College Belfast. He also launched an exchange program which brings students from Ireland to the US every year.
“There’s no better person to lead the Philadelphia Saint Patrick’s Day parade than Dan,” said Bruno. “He has worked so hard for so many years in the Irish-American community and helped bring such wonderful memories to so many people with his basketball project. I’m proud to be participating in the parade, helping Dan celebrate his wonderful achievement.”