BETHLEHEM — Tim McSweeney, a local man with Irish heritage to spare, will be leading this Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Albany, Saturday, March 12, at 2 p.m.
A Delmar native and Selkirk resident, McSweeney is a lifelong member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), America’s oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal Organization, which leads the parade every year. The organization follows in the traditions of similar cultural groups that have existed in Ireland for over 300 years, and McSweeny was voted as grand marshall by a majority vote among the group’s 500 members at AOH 5, Albany County branch.
“My mother and father were Irish Catholics – proud Irish Catholics – from Brooklyn, and my brothers and sister were all raised in an Irish Catholic household, going to every event at the Hibernian. The Hibernian Hall has been around my my whole life,” said McSweeney.
So, being chosen to be grand marshal was “an absolute humbling honor,” especially as he follows in the footsteps of the many respected AOH grand marshals who came before him. “A few weeks ago I took a picture with Tom Leach, who was a grand marshal in 1972. He has to be in his 90s now and I’ve know him my whole entire life. He’s the oldest living grand marshal,” he said, before laughing at the suggestion that that could be him in another 40 years.
McSweeney, a corrections officer with Albany County and a firefighter with the Selkirk Fire Department, has held many positions within AOH, and his family has been active in the organization for years.
“To me, St. Patrick’s day is not about Irish heritage, but also about Catholic faith. St. Patrick’s Day is a day honoring St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. It’s also about spreading your heritage. I tell everyone I’m of proud Irish heritage and proud of being that,” said McSweeney, a member of St. Thomas Church in Delmar.
And, before he fulfills his duties as parader leader, St. Patrick’s day begins with a trip to church. There too, the parade marshal is given another honor: to read a passage during mass.
“We always start our day with Mass, then we go out to breakfast with family [McSweeney is married to Kala McSweeney and the couple has one daughter], then we march in the parade and come back to the Hibernian for a big party,” he described. “We probably jam about 600 or 700 people into the hall, and the party goes on all day.”
With many St. Patrick’s Days spent this same way, now, McSweeney has his young daughter Bella, to teach the tradition to. At just one year old, Bella already knows a few of the Irish songs and stories her father has taught her, and enjoys listening to Irish music while riding in the car.
“Whether someone is Irish, Polish or Italian, everyone should acknowledge their heritage, because when you learn about your family, you learn about yourself,” he said. “Making people aware of their heritage and of what being a descendant of Ireland is what it [St. Patrick’s Day] is all about.”
McSweeny is co-founder and operations director of the Hibernian’s service organization. So, when natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy hit, McSweeney forms a boots on the ground response. Locally, the members of AOH volunteer as a group with the Northeast Regional Food Bank, giving back as a community.
And, through hosting celebrations of heritage like they do with St. Patrick’s Day, Irish dance competitions and more, the Hibernian Hall keeps their heritage and traditions of Ireland alive.
Such a mission is especially important as the country itself is not fully united. “I am an activist for that cause,” McSweeney said.
As well, this year marks the 100-year anniversary of The Rising. “It’s when the Irish Nationalists proclaimed their independence from England on Easter Monday in 1916. Unfortunately it was quelled in about a week from English government,” but the significance of the event remains.
“Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Freedom on the steps of the general post office in Dublin. What those brave men stood for is what every Irish man and women should stand for: the pursuit of freedom. Ireland is still not free. We have six counties still controlled by England. I hope in my lifetime we’ll see that changed,” said McSweeney.
“Being Irish is something in your soul. Being around other Irish people is like being around like-minded souls. Collectively sharing our heritage with not only ourselves but with others is what I cherish the most because being Irish is fun,” said McSweeney. Plus, “Not too many heritages get a whole day and a parade dedicated to them, ya know?”