As Irish as she can be

In the most Irish town in Nebraska, an Irish-American named Patricia will celebrate her 100th birthday with a very Irish party that will include stories, poems and a toast or two. Patricia Sullivan Donohoe was born in O'Neill in 1916, taught in one-room school houses and continues to thrive at home on land her Irish immigrant forbears homesteaded.

By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist / Photos by Sarah Hoffman / World-Herald staff writer

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


O’NEILL, Neb. — Today, on this most Irish day of the year, in this Irish capital of Nebraska, a most Irish woman will celebrate a big milestone — turning 100.
The feast day of Saint Patrick also is the birthday of one Patricia Marie Sullivan Donohoe. And you better believe this granddaughter of Irish immigrants has plans for a very Irish celebration that begins today and wraps up on Sunday. Plans for the birthday party are so big that her oldest daughter lost count after the guest list topped 250. There will be music, dancing, poetry, politics, prayer and toasts to Patricia and her namesake, the patron saint of Ireland.
The setting will be this Nebraska ranch country town founded by Irish immigrants. Other Nebraska communities — including Greeley, Wisner and the Morton Meadows neighborhood in midtown Omaha — have large Irish populations.
But O’Neill holds the official state designation as the Irish capital, and town leaders say it has the World’s Largest Shamrock. It might also have the world’s most shamrocks because everywhere you turn in this town of 3,700, you see the three-leafed symbol of Ireland.
Shamrocks abound in store windows and brass address plates affixed to downtown buildings. Shamrocks are painted on the police station and stamped onto city Dumpsters. That alleged largest shamrock is etched into the concrete of the town’s major four-way intersection. Every year, it is painted green. Even Patricia’s house is green. A banner that reads “Irish Power” hangs above her bed.

Of course,

these are all the outward symbols of Irishness.
But if you want to know what it means to be Irish, put down the green beer. Squeeze in around Patricia’s lace-covered dining room table. And listen to the stories of a grand century lived with faith, hospitality and humor, a quintessentially Irish way of blunting life’s sorrows by finding the comic in the tragic.
“We sang ‘The Wake of Kildare’ at Mom’s 90th birthday,” explained Marilyn Hinkle, the oldest of Patricia’s five children. “My husband, who is Polish and German, raised his eyebrows.”
Patricia was born in 1916 on a farm 7½ miles northeast of O’Neill.
But her story begins before that, when her Irish grandparents left their native County Cork. Like so many of their countrymen, they fled famine and the punishing British occupation.
They came to America and worked in the copper mines of upper Michigan and Pennsylvania. When a former Civil War general, John O’Neill, proposed creating an Irish colony on the prairie, waves of these immigrants — including Patricia’s paternal grandparents and great-grandmother — followed him to north-central Nebraska.
The Homestead Act, which promised land to those willing to work it, paved the way for more people, including Patricia’s paternal great-grandmother, who got two homestead plots at age 88.
Patricia’s maternal grandparents arrived in O’Neill by way of Missouri. The story is they were chased out by the Ku Klux Klan, which did not like Catholics.
The stories of hardship and luck, of the old country and new one, passed down the line. When Patricia was born, a second-generation American, those Irish stories were imprinted in her DNA.
Patricia was the third-born of four girls, and she laughed about how her father wanted a Patrick but got her instead. Naturally, she was named for you-know-who. Naturally, she was baptized at you-know-where. The single Catholic church in O’Neill is, of course, named for Saint Patrick.

Patricia and Walter Donohoe, shown in the 1940s, were married for 56 years before his death in 2000.

Patricia grew up

in a home that had no running water or electricity at first. No daily mail either.
“My poor mother!” she says, recalling how household chores required the extra step of going outside, pumping water, bringing it in and heating it on the wood-burning stove.
She attended country school and then went to town for Catholic high school. She graduated at age 16 and was back in the country school teaching in the years following the Great Depression. She married a fellow O’Neillian — Walter Donohoe — and noted that in those days, it was strongly suggested that you stick to an Irish mate. Aside from a few years they spent in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was stationed during part of World War II, Patricia and Walter spent their lives in their native O’Neill.
They moved into a house in town. They raised five children. They worked hard. Walter was a carpenter and Patricia again returned to the classroom, teaching in various schools around O’Neill until her retirement in 1979. She worked for the O’Neill Public Library until 1986 and then volunteered with Meals on Wheels and Avera St. Anthony Hospital in O’Neill.
And throughout their 56-year marriage, she and Walter laughed a lot. Walter, who died in 2000, was quick with a one-liner, and she needed the humor to get her through the hard times. Like when her sister died of cancer at the all-too-young age of 44. Or when their son Don was born, and the Omaha doctors in 1957 advised Patricia not to bond with him. His cerebral palsy would mean a lifetime of institutionalization, they said.
“I said, ‘Oh no,’?” Patricia recalled. “That is NOT what we’re able to do.’”
Marilyn was 12 at the time. She said she remembered how the family drove to Omaha for that verdict and how her mother gripped the chair and then stood her ground.
The Donohoes brought Baby Don back to O’Neill. Walter made his son a special wooden stander to help his weak legs. And the older kids were all tasked with giving Don things to do to keep him active. Now 59, Don walks or runs up to 5 miles a day. He sings in the choir at St. Patrick’s. He lives with his mother, and he drives her around. She makes him breakfast and cooks the occasional roast.

Patricia’s daughter Marilyn Hinkle pours her a cup of Irish tea at the home that Patricia shares with her son, Don, right.

Cooking? At her age?

“You can sit down too soon,” the almost-centurian said last week. “As long as you keep going, you’re better off.”
At 100, Patricia has few health complaints. She wears glasses and a hearing aid in each ear. But she gets around well.
When Patricia was born, Woodrow Wilson was president and U.S. women couldn’t vote — something impossible for even Patricia, a staunch Democrat and lifelong voter, to imagine. When she was born, World War I raged. And in Ireland, a group of armed revolutionaries staged an insurrection in Ireland in hopes of creating an independent republic.
“I’m very proud of the Irish people and the way they stood up for their country,” she said. “It’s born and bred into me. I heard a lot about that when I was small.”
Reaching the age of 100 prompts the clichéd question: How?


“It’s not how old you are. It’s how you are, old.”


Is the secret to a long life in the tea? The daily rosaries? The music, like her favorite, “Fields of Anthenry”? Is it in a loving family — the 11 great-grandchildren, the eight grands, the five kids, notably Don, whose presence is a daily comfort? Is it life in a small town where everything and everyone is so familiar?
Patricia survived a deadly form of ovarian cancer, diagnosed when she was 80. For a while, she was driving herself to radiation appointments in Norfolk, 75 miles away. She survived the heartache of a century’s worth of loss — the deaths of her parents, all three sisters and even a son. She buried that son, Bob, nicknamed “Feather,” last year after he died of pancreatic cancer at age 66.
Patricia shrugs. Some of the secret to longevity is luck. Maybe luck of the Irish.
“It’s not how old you are,” she said, noting she heard that on TV. “It’s how you are, old.”

Irish traditions are seen throughout O'Neill, which takes its status as the Irish capital of Nebraska pretty seriously.

Patricia Marie Sullivan Donohoe at her green house in O’Neill, Nebraska. Patricia was named for the patron saint of Ireland, is a descendant of Irish immigrants and has lived most of her 100 years in O’Neill, the Irish capital of Nebraska.

Turning 100 affords certain honors,

like getting chosen to be grand marshal for O’Neill’s Grande Parade on Saturday.
The Irish Capital of Nebraska doesn’t limit its Irish celebration to one mere day. Citizens were honored Wednesday as part of a new tradition called Walk of Fame. Today, the people of O’Neill can search downtown for hidden shamrock ducks. Friday’s lineup includes a fish fry and dyeing a local horse green. Saturday’s Irish festival begins with a fun run in the morning and ends when the bars close.
For the Irish birthday girl, the party continues Sunday with Mass and her own bash. Don and his sisters will sing. Patricia will sing. Relatives will pass around black-and-white photos from Patricia’s past. And in that Irish of Irish traditions, there will be verse — including a poem Patricia wrote called “Prairie Winds.”
“And so with life, how little change/As countless time goes on and on,” the poem says. “Just like the everlasting wind/We mirror what has been and gone.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, it is said that everyone is Irish.
But perhaps on this day no one is quite as Irish as Patricia Marie Sullivan Donohoe.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, erin.grace@owh.com, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

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