• Interviews of Priscilla James and Ed Mead (Scroll Down)

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  • Interview of Priscilla James

    Priscilla James, Irish Heritage Society’s first secretary and Charter Member of IHSM.

    Tuesday, April 18, 2017

    Main interviewer: Nancy Smith. Others present are Steve Kraftmiller, chairman of the Milford Irish History Project, Maureen Richetelli, Bernard Keilty, and Sheila Johnson.

    Interviewer: So, Priscilla, how did you become involved in the IHSM?

    Priscilla James: I retired in 2006 and my husband and I had gone down to Florida. When we came back there were a bunch of papers that had collected, and as I started going through them I saw — and I don’t remember now if it was still the Milford citizen that was in existence, but it was in one of those little papers — and there was a little notice that says they were trying to start or get information and see how many people would respond to having an Irish Club here in Milford. I thought it was a fantastic idea. I said to Lyle, “Well this is something I really want to do.” So whenever the meeting was and this was in March, so I’m thinking the meeting was probably by the end of March. It was at the West River Convalescent Home and I went over there and the place surprised me. I expected to see a few people and there were 75 or 80! I’m never sure of the number anymore, but it was fantastic to see that. Chris McEnerney and Marty Hardiman got up and started talking, and other people said how they would be interested in doing this, too. That’s pretty much how I decided I wanted to do this. I had wanted to be part of the Fairfield Gaelic Club years ago, but every time I wanted to join, it was closed. This was much more convenient.

    Interviewer: So, Priscilla, how did you get involved in being an officer on the board and then as secretary?

    Priscilla James: Well, before I was the secretary, that first night, they said one of the first things we would need would be bylaws, so they asked, “Who wanted to be on the Bylaws Committee?” And I thought that was the place to start. So, I raised my hand and it was Marty Hardiman, and Chris McEnerney, Danelle Sullivan, and a gentleman named Seth Cohen. So, from there a meeting was scheduled probably for the following week. I went to that meeting where Danelle and I were talking about what we had done, and what other organizations we had been involved in, and I said how I had been the secretary at my union for a number of years. So, when we started the meeting someone said, “Someone needs to take notes,” and Danelle immediately taps me, and says, “Priscilla’s done that before.” That’s how I became the secretary of the club. I started taking the notes at the Bylaws Committee, and when they asked me in May if I wanted to continue as secretary, I was hesitant because I knew it involved a lot of meetings. I had just retired, and Lyle had been retired for a while, so I didn’t know how that was going to interfere, but my husband thought it was a wonderful idea that I should do that.

    Interviewer: What was the biggest challenge getting the club started?

    Priscilla James: Looking back on it, I’m not sure what the biggest challenge was. Well one of the biggest challenges was where were we going to have the meetings, because we were in a convalescent home and we were not going to be able to use that all the time. So, then it was a matter of finding a place. They decided on a bar so everyone could have a drink, so we met at a number of different places: the Stonebridge, Remy’s, Orange Ale House, and then Costa Azzurras. There may have been another one in there. So that was a big challenge to begin with. From then, it was getting people to want to become involved. We had a core number of people. In the first year, we did really well I think, because it was new and people wanted to be a part of it and there were only 80 or so members. So, everyone was pretty much involved, and as we’ve grown, the hard part seems to be getting the new people involved.

    Interviewer: This is the tenth anniversary or actually the eleventh year the club has been in existence. Talk about our growth in those first ten years as you see it.

    Priscilla James: We started out rather slow and since I’m the membership chairperson now, I can look back and see that we grew gradually over the years. You know eighty-one hundred something maybe we were up to maybe three or four hundred, and then we kind of went down a little, and then we were probably steady for a long time in the low hundreds, I think. In the beginning, most of our growth came by word of mouth over the years. There were things put in the paper which would bring some people in. Any time there was an event they tried to get the place publicized which added to things. One of the things that helped us grow was all of the events we had where we’ve included the children. So that helped. Some of the gentlemen started the softball or baseball team, so that we would try to introduce it to children who could introduce it to their parents. Meeting in the different bars helped us to grow. And then when we started looking for a permanent place, that’s when things really started to grow. We were first looking at Saint Ann’s and renting from the Church there because their school had closed down and that got a lot more people interested in it, and then we finally bought this property. I think we closed on it in 2013. And from there, we’ve grown a great deal, but, in the beginning, it was a little more difficult, because we didn’t have a place to have our events. We were having them in many, many different places.

    Another thing that helped us to grow was that very first year we held our first Irish Festival. We started the club in March, and by the end of April, we were planning an Irish Festival! Ignorance is bliss, they say, because nobody knew that this could be difficult. We just went in it without any idea of what was going to be involved. It was a much smaller festival than it is now. It was pretty much just under the pavilion in a little bit of the grassy area. We didn’t have the basketball courts, so that was the year when we got a bigger membership, and every year as the festival grew, we also got more members from the festival group. So throughout that little area to a bigger area to now we have the basketball court. And we get about three thousand people, and that has been a great big help to getting members. Then, as I said, the biggest thing was opening up the clubhouse.

    Interviewer: So, what would you say are some of your favorite early memories of the club?

    Priscilla James: Just seeing people that were interested in their Irish culture. One of the first things I remember that we planned on was a breakfast before the Fairfield Gaelic American Festival in June. We all got together down at the V F W and Danelle and Dan had arranged for us to cook a breakfast. We had tee shirts that had our club’s name on the back and a bunch of us went down to the Gaelic Festival. I’m not sure where it was in Bridgeport or Fairfield, but that was one of my favorite things.

    The other thing I remember was that before the festival in order to raise money for the Milford Festival — because we didn’t have any money — we helped at to the Oyster Festival. And that was a great thing. I really enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun. We sold beer there. Dan Sullivan was in charge of the soup. We sold corn beef sandwiches and chowder, and everybody had a great time. One of the things that people have reminded me about is that Howard Fanning also known as Murph always says he joined the club because of my husband. We were serving green beer that day, and Lyle had a green mustache and was wandering around like a happy Irishman and that encouraged Murphy to join the club.

    One of the other things that was really great was we started to have other activities. Within the first year, we started the monthly lunches and a book club. The children’s activities were rather slow, but there were kids’ things even at that first festival. There were so many great things that went on. We marched in all the parades. We got the flags to represent all the counties. You know, just to be able to march in the parade with all of those flags was exciting. There were really so many great things along with meeting such great people. I had retired, and, unfortunately, my husband passed away six months after I retired, so this was a saving place for me. It gave me something to do, and it got me out of the house. And I met a lot of great people. They were such a comfort to me. It was an opportunity to learn about my Irish heritage, too. There are just so many great things I’m thinking of!

    Interviewer: Thank you so much, Priscilla, for sharing your memories of the founding of the Irish Heritage Society of Milford!

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  • Interview of Ed Mead

    Ed Mead, Past President, Vice President, Sargeant at Arms, and Charter Member of IHSM
    Tuesday, September 20, 2017

    Main Interviewer: Sheila Danehy. Others present: Bernard Keilty, Nancy Smith, Maureen Richetelli, Sheila Johnson, and Amy Lacey

    Interviewer: How and why did you first join the Irish Heritage Society?

    Ed Mead: I didn’t hear about the first meeting, but when the Irish Heritage Society got involved with the Oyster Festival, my father-in-law had joined, and some other people I knew like Marty from the parade, so I joined at the Oyster Festival, and I was interested to see how the club would evolve, and to find out if you could research heritage and then carry on music and the cultural parts of the club.

    Interviewer: What are some of your early memories of the club experience?

    Ed Mead: We marched in a lot of parades in the beginning: Milford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Mystic. We went to Yonkers, where Maureen Richetelli was from. Her grandfather was the mayor there, and there’s a park in their name called Coyne Park. I remember that was a very nice bus trip. Some of the early things were a little rough.

    Interviewer: What was your personal, first leadership role in the club?

    Ed Mead: After I joined, I was already on the Milford Zoning Board of Appeals, and so I had a good idea of what was going on in the city in different buildings, so we started a building committee back then, trying to look for a place, for a clubhouse, and we scoured all over Milford for years and years and years trying to find a place to rent, to buy, to build, to renovate. And there was just nothing out there that we could really afford, that would fit our needs at that time, so that was my first involvement.

    Interviewer: The first Milford Irish festival was held nearly five months after the club was founded. What are your recollections of this event.

    Ed Mead: After I joined at the Oyster Festival, I talked to Marty Hardiman and I got on a committee. I was on the beer committee, and I worked that day for the first time. Then planning the first Festival from August to September. It went very well, and we were well received in the city, and then we just grew from there every year.

    Interviewer: The club continued to grow, obviously we’ve grown exponentially. What are your feelings about that and about our future?

    Ed Mead: I know that the membership has grown to now up to twelve hundred people but the amount of people that do the work and volunteer and help run the club and everything is only a minimal model of what the whole membership is…like ten percent, if that, or maybe fifteen percent, and that’s just disheartening. You know, some people just come here for the bar and not for the cultural aspects and not to help out and, you know, after doing all the work that I’ve done in the past, it just seems that more people should be stepping up to help in the club and make it grow from there and have different people doing it; more leadership roles to take over other jobs.

    Interviewer: It seems you were tremendously involved with choosing this location for our clubhouse at 131 Bridgeport Avenue, Milford, Connecticut, and you were instrumental in getting the remodeling done. Can you tell us about that?

    Ed Mead: Yes. We had been looking for a clubhouse. We were going to rent the little yacht club’s clubhouse down here by the Devon Bridge, and we had talked and we were going to rent it, but in the meantime, this building that we’re in now had been on the market before, and the owner was trying to sell it on his own. We had looked at it or somebody had looked at it like a year or two before we ended up purchasing it, but the price was too high, and we didn’t have a lot of money, or enough money in the bank account then. But then the same Sunday we looked at the Yacht Club building, we came here afterwards. I wasn’t there for the first meeting, but we met with the owner, and we ended up paying a price that was really, we thought, low, so most of us wanted to jump on it, because it was the building and the house behind it. We bought it for like four hundred fifty thousand dollars and he originally wanted like five hundred fifty thousand, I think. And we were going to pay three thousand dollars a month rent at the other place, and this is ownership that we’d have; we’re building equity, becoming more sound in the community and helping revitalize Devon. We cleaned up this whole building and got a lot of riff raff out of the area which the police department is happy about and we have a good rental income, and fixed our house up nice, and it fits in well with the neighborhood now. And we’re moving forward with other projects after that.

    Interviewer: Who are some of the people that were helpful during that construction phase of things?

    Ed Mead: Well after we bought the building and we started looking further, it was in worse shape than we thought, so we took out the whole bar area, the whole big heating system, and we tore off floors and we moved walls. We put new walls up. We put in the bathrooms and raised the ceiling. Now there’s three ladies’ restrooms where before there was only one that even I wouldn’t have gone in. The men’s room was terrible, and we now have a way to get down into the basement with a safer set of stairs before there were just little holes in the floor with a little hatchway. So, we have a new heating and air conditioning system; we have new lighting; we have a lot of new electrical. Brian Murphy was one of the big helpers on that. He put down a lot of the hardwood flooring and did a lot of the tiling. Declan Conway built the bar area from scratch. Kevin Fox and Bill Park were our electricians, and John Torgersen was instrumental in helping out. Peter Purcell did painting and Tony Yarowitz did a lot of painting. I mean, those were the main core people who did a lot of the grunt work, the heavy lifting, and who were instrumental to get things up and going.

    Interviewer: And about how long did this project take you after purchasing the property to when you were sort of “ready to roll?” I understand it was very tight getting that C.O. in time for an event after like fifteen minutes?

    Ed Mead: Yes. That’s true. How long did the whole process take? When we bought it, we closed on July 31st, 2014 and we opened the bar for them (The Milford Chamber of Commerce meeting) I think mid-2015. Yes, you’re right. We did the house first. The reason we did the house first was because there was so much work to do in here, so we started to concentrate on the house by the first of September to get it up and rented by the first of January. We’ve had that rented ever since the first year and one of the original renters is still there.

    And then we had trouble but different issues with the fire department because the downstairs ceiling height is not the right height. So, we had to set up special doors. We found stuff on Craigslist, and we made our own, and then the fire department came back and re-inspected two or three times. There was an old alarm system in the building that we had to get disconnected and get re-inspected that Tuesday, and we had a Chamber of Commerce event Wednesday at five o’clock, and then got the C.O. at like two o’clock in the afternoon that day.

    Interviewer: Nick of time! Has being a member enhanced your interest in Irish culture, Irish history, and your own heritage?

    Ed Mead: Yes, You see, I was the only one really on my side of the family that did any type of research even before I joined the club, but after they started the genealogy group here, I came a few Saturdays, and I talked to Sheila Johnson and Kathy Kraftmiller and I got to a point where I couldn’t go any further. I knew my relatives were from upper New York State, so Kathy did some research for me and found out what church my grandparents attended and what cemetery they had been buried in. Last year, I went up there and found their graves and tombstones and thanks to Kathy the exact dates that I had written down were the exact dates there, so I found more people there. Some more of their children were there, too. It was good, and so I still have to do more work, but I’ll have to go back to Ireland, because I still haven’t found their home. I got Cork on the death certificate, but I want to know exactly where they were from.

    Interviewer: Why do you think the Irish heritage culture needs to be preserved here and out in the community?

    Ed Mead: Our culture should be preserved. What we’re doing here and in the community needs to be preserved, because we have to prove to people that we are more than just marching in a parade and having a bar. The festival shows that, but still there’s some areas that we can really expand on like the culture area could be better and having guest speakers here helps it to grow, more than just say, you know, the bands coming in here, and trivia night, and I know that brings the members in, but I remember one of the things that Maureen Moore put on when I was President. We had a lady doing a poetry reading at Lauralton Hall. Well, I wasn’t really into poetry, but you know I was present then. I helped set up the speakers and everything, and it was good, and I mean the setting was at the school and everything was really made interesting and that helps out a lot. Some have gone to the Irish Tenements in New York City and The Irish Hunger Museum in Hamden. I’ve been down in New York City a few times to the Irish Consulate Office. They had gotten statues from Quinnipiac’s Irish Hunger Museum, too, which used to be part of the college before they built a building. So the statures were on display down there, so we used to go down there once a year, to the Irish Consulate Office in New York City.

    Interviewer: You just mentioned having been President. Can you just give us a rundown of your positions here?

    Ed Mead: Yes, after the first set of officers started the club, then they had a general election. I ran for Vice President, Chris McEnerney ran again for President, and he won. I won the Vice Presidency, so we stayed on for two years for that, and then after that I ran for President. I was there for two years, then past President for two years, then I ran and won Sergeant at Arms. I was that for two years, then back to President for two more years, then past President for two years, and now I’m retired from all that.

    Interviewer: But you’re not going anywhere! Finally, if you had to pick one thing that makes you glad you joined the club, what would that be?

    Ed Mead: I think, for me, it’s about the 1200 new members we have or in the new friendships of people that I never knew before in the city, and from people that are from twenty years old to eighty-eight years old. I mean, it’s good to know people in the club and listen to their stories and become good friends with them and everything. Some of the people I’ve known from other parts of Milford are in politics and you get closer to them. One of them I will always remember is Maureen Richetelli and her husband. Her husband has passed now, but he was my driving instructor at Milford Driving School when I was sixteen years old. So, some of these connections go way back like I knew Maureen’s son Jimmy Richetelli when he was mayor, because I’ve been involved in politics so long. I think everything comes around and you get to have new friendships and meet new people.

    Interviewer: Thanks very much, Ed!