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Irish pride

Tyrone officials look to the town’s past for the key to its future

March 17, 2008
By Ashley Gurbal,
Irish settlers originally put Tyrone on the map, and Mayor Jim Kilmartin is hoping that heritage can do it again.

For the second year in a row, the town hosted an Irish Heritage Festival last week, complete with a parade and Irish-themed activities. The events honor Tyrone’s 1850 roots, when immigrants fleeing the 1846-47 potato blight arrived in the area, according to articles written by the late Suzanne Sickler Ohl, a former board member of the Tyrone Area Historical Society.

The immigrants named their new land Tyrone, after their county in Ireland of the same name, Ohl wrote.

“One thing that brought the Irish here was the Pennsylvania Railroad going through,” said Nancy A. Smith, historical society president. “They came here because of the famine; the jobs happened to be here.”

“We have this Irish heritage, and St. Patrick’s Day is absolutely a great time to embrace that,” Kilmartin said. “We want to make Tyrone a focal point, draw people here. ... I want this to make (the festival) a real key thing for Central Pennsylvania.”

A parade was held March 11, and 1,000 green and orange balloons were released in downtown Tyrone. Irish dancers and bagpipe players took to the streets last year, and both celebrations featured Irish food and bands.

Although the town now has a designated week for to celebrate its heritage, for some citizens, it’s a year-round affair. Michael McNelis Sr., 60, of Tyrone said his grandparents often told him the story of Tyrone’s — and his — heritage. McNelis is a descendent of Patrick McNelis, one of the first citizens of Tyrone.

“They were extremely proud of being Irish,” McNelis said of his ancestors. “I remember being preached to about that.”

Plans are already under way for the 2009 festival, and the Tyrone Area Chamber of Commerce is seeking individuals, organizations and businesses interested in participating.

“We’re looking for any input,” said Rose Black, chamber director. “It could be anybody who has any extra time or energy. We’re looking for ideas. ... we want this to grow and expand every year.”

Black said anyone interested in contributing may call the chamber at 684-0736.

Irish Heritage Committee President Alice Mulhollan said she also wants to expand the festival to include all heritages, not just Irish.

“I want to make this an individual celebration of heritage as well,” Mulhollan said. “We want to include Italian, German, Scottish, Slovaks ... so we can celebrate our heritage as well as the town’s. Immigration is such a timely issue, and everything we see in the news is negative. I don’t think we realize what our forefathers went through.”

Kilmartin said it’s too soon to tell if the event will be a boon to the local economy, but that’s his goal. Last year, he said, merchants saw “a little pickup” in business. Eventually, he said, he’d like to see the town become a “tremendous part of Central Pennsylvania” through the festival.

“I love Tyrone. I’m passionate about Tyrone,” he said. “I want to see this place become all it can be. There’s tremendous potential here.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ashley Gurbal is at 946-7435.

Article Photos

Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Tyrone mayor Jim Kilmartin sticks his head through a wooden cutout of a leprechaun to have his photo taken during last week’s Irish Heritage Festival.

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