Family has been in parade since its start
By Scott Bellile
A longtime “New Dublin” leprechaun will serve as New London’s Irish Man this coming St. Patrick’s week.
For over 25 years, Jerome O’Neil has assisted a team of leprechauns in changing the “Welcome to New London” signs to “New Dublin” on Monday each St. Patrick’s week.
Perhaps more importantly, the leprechauns spread cheer at New London schools, daycares and nursing homes. They pop in to say hello, tell stories and sing songs.
Shamrock Club member Judy McDaniel said O’Neil’s willingness to dress up and brighten the days of the children and elderly is what made him worthy of the 2017 Irish Man title.
“People don’t realize what those leprechauns do,” McDaniel said. “A lot of people think it’s just a big party thing. They don’t do that all day long. … It’s really nice. Everybody [they visit] really seems to enjoy it, and especially the older people that are sick, too. That really means a lot to have them come.”
The leprechauns often keep their wardrobe on all Monday as they volunteer during the day and partake in the New Dublin nightlife after dark. It can mean drawing attention to themselves. O’Neil recalled one year: “Moochie [Barrington] and Pup [Michael Loughrin] and me were at Wal-Mart, and Moochie locked his keys in his truck. And we called the police and they said, ‘How are we going to find you?’ And we said, ‘Look for three leprechauns.’”
O’Neil is part of the fifth generation of the O’Neil family that emigrated from County Cork in Ireland. They go back to Martin O’Neil and Ellen O’Keefe, who arrived to the United States around 1847 during the Irish potato famine. Of their 10 children, their fourth oldest, John O’Neil, was Jerome O’Neil’s great-grandfather. Jerome’s grandfather was Matthew O’Neil; his father was Lester O’Neil.
Lester O’Neil married Dorothy Hetzer (Knapstein) and had six children: Tom, Patricia (“Peggy”), Mike, Kathy, Jim and Jerome. Lester ran O’Neil Supply Company, a local business that sold school and janitorial supplies including typewriters. Lester was active in the community and the 1988 Irish Man.
The O’Neil family has its traditions. One is participating in the Grand Parade and putting their heads together to adhere to the parade’s annual theme, which this year is “Shamrocks and Shenanigans.” The O’Neils have walked in all but the 2009 parade, when Patricia died one day before the celebration. McDaniel said the O’Neils honored her the next year with memorial shirts.
“They’re just a good New London Irish family,” McDaniel said.
Another tradition is the O’Neils award cash to the Irish Lad and Lassie, the boy and girl who win the annual poetry contest. The gesture is a way to honor the family’s late parents and sister Peggy.
And, of course, the O’Neils hit the town on the Friday night before the parade.
“This year St. Patrick’s Day’s right on Friday, so that will be interesting Saturday morning,” O’Neil said. “But I’ll behave this year because I’ll be proud to be the Irish Man of the Year.”
O’Neil said he is honored to be a second-generation Irish royalty, even if he’ll be perched atop a convertible this year rather than marching down the street in a green bathrobe with his family.
“It’ll be different riding in the parade instead of walking,” O’Neil said. “My wife said I can’t wear the bathrobe this year, not in the car I guess.”
As far as riding atop the convertible, O’Neil said he is “just looking forward to it. I hope everybody shows up and doesn’t throw anything at me.”
Articles on Irish Rose Jill Hart and Parade Grand Marshals Wally and Mickey Schmidt will appear in next week’s Press Star.