Growing Up Irish in Hamp

In 1930, my 20-year-old father, James, emigrated to Northampton from County Kerry. His aunt was married to Dan Moriarty, a successful Irishman. The studious Moriarty children became teachers and doctors.

Dad did odd jobs before renting a gas station in 1934. Jim married Imogene Smith. They met at the Northampton State Hospital. “Jean” was a secretary, Jim a lowly attendant. Jim’s immigrant friends supported his gas station and, in 1953, voted for him when he ran for office. Elected to be the city’s Tercentennial mayor, he was one of only two Irish-born mayors in the United States. Internationally famous, “Big Jim” never forgot his roots.

O the days of the Kerry dancing
O the ring of the piper's tune!
O for one of those hours of gladness
Gone, Alas! Like our youth, too soon

Fighting under the name, “Jim Callahan,.” he won the Western Mass. heavyweight title in 1932 and 1933. Thus, Jim Callahan’s Service Station. His ready smile won friends who became customers. A seven-day work week was normal. A smiling Jim found nickels behind children’s ears. The late Lil Hillenbrand of Williamsburg went to school next door. Lillian recalled shouting to Mr. Callahan at work to get a wave back. 

In 1939, our new house included a tiny gas station next door. After WWII, dad expanded to sell and service automobiles. His five boys became free help. To dad, school was close to an excuse not to work. Our Yankee mom did the books and preached the opposite, making sure we did both. 

Dad’s Irish upbringing was never far away. He related St. Patrick’s use of a three-leaf shamrock to explain The Holy Trinity. On every March 17th, we’d be taking our life in our hands if we dressed for school without a green tie or sweater. We honored St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, never Paddy.

Dad’s jibe when we wanted stuff was, “Never go short in a land of plenty.” Thanks to him, we never did.

In 1947, dad’s widowed father came to live with us. Gramps played a hand organ, singing folk songs like, “Sitting on the bridge below the town”

We'd go there every evening and till bedtime there we'd stop
Discussing all the news that's going round;
Talking politics and horses and the weather and the crops 
Sittin' on the bridge below the town.

Everyone joined in, singing the last line of all 20 verses.

Our home life featured parties in the kitchen. One resourceful mom cooked for six kids and last minute guests dad invited. A business telephone rang at home on nights and weekends. It was mad.

My mother, Imogene Smith, was recruited from her life on a Vermont farm to Northampton Commercial College. A bright “Jean” took the rather rare opportunity of going to college. She paid tuition as a live-in babysitter for the Pickett family, owners of her new school.

Mayor Jim became a popular speaker. His closing lines spoke to his life and strong faith:

May you live as long as you want
May you never want as long as you live
And, may your sould be in heaven
24-hours before the devil knows you're dead

Every year he donned a grey top hat to march in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade, savoring shouts of “Hi, Mayor Jim,” long after he left office.

“Mom! Where’s my green sweater?”

1 Comment

  1. Matt the #4 son says:

    A story of family history and Irish pride. Great job, Dad!


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s