Anyone who knows anything about the Irish diaspora in Cleveland knows Mr. John O’Brien who, since 1996, has served as president of the West Side Irish American Club in Olmsted Township and not only founded our annual Irish Cultural Festival in 1982 but coordinated it every year since that time. We were thus very glad when John consented to grant us an interview at his home in Fairview Park where we were invited to sit with him on his sofa and listen to his story.
Subsequently, we learned that he had been born close to Athlone, a town in Central Ireland. Unfortunately, John lost his father when he was a year old but his mother did a splendid job raising John and his four siblings on their family farm that produced crops and livestock. In 1956, when John was a young man, he decided to follow the example of quite a few of his countrypersons and journey to the North American continent via ship. He was quick to tell us though that he made this decision by choice; conditions in Ireland were not particularly great at the time but they were not too bad either.
Nevertheless, John didn’t travel directly to the United States; he lived in Montreal for several years where he worked on the local railroads as a brakeman. He also met and married his wife, Eileen. Finally, in 1963, John and Eileen and their two daughters, Noreen and Cathy, all immigrated to the United States where they settled in Cleveland. Soon afterward, the family was blessed with two additions who were Patricia born in 1964 and John, Jr. born in 1965.
Upon arriving here, John went to work in the offices of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, located in the Standard Building, that later merged with three other unions to become the United Transportation Union. Eventually John acquired the skills to be promoted to the job title of “auditor’ and remained with the union until he retired in 1996.
Like other Irish immigrants living in the Cleveland area, John and his family also became involved with the West Side Irish American Club (i.e. WSIA) then located on Madison Avenue and in 1979 he was honored to become a WSIA trustee. As membership in the WSIA expanded, a larger home was needed so John and other members went to work acquiring property in Olmsted Township and physically building new structures. At last, in July of 1990, the WSIA as we know it officially opened its doors and just a few years later John became the club president, a position that he has held for some twenty-four years. Simultaneously, however, John was busy making sure that the Irish Cultural Festival operated properly. To be sure, one of the main purposes of both the Irish Cultural Festival as well as the WSIA is to bring people together and “keep alive the rich culture of a great country.”
When we asked John about his specific motivations for coming to the United States, he told us that from 1947 to 1963 many people immigrated to the United States from Ireland so he “just joined the throng” and he is glad that he did. Along these lines, he told us that one of the things that he really likes about his adopted country is that, unlike other countries and/or locales, there are no class distinctions in the United States.
Of course, he is quite proud of his children and their accomplishments and thus shared with us that Patricia is a probation officer working in Cleveland; Cathy lives in Cincinnati where she is a history teacher; Noreen works for the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana; and John, Jr. has distinguished himself as the publisher/editor of the “Ohio Irish American News.” All told, John and Eileen have seventeen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren at this time.
As we were interviewing John, one of his ever-apparent attributes was the humility that he displayed. In fact, when we asked him about his contributions to the WSIA as its president, he firmly replied that “we all work as a team” and that the role that volunteers play in the success of the WSIA cannot be overstated; in fact, he considers the volunteers to be the “rock” of the organization.
Later, before we left, Eileen chimed in and told us that “he’s always like that” in terms of downplaying his own accomplishments, but, no doubt about it, “John does a lot!”
This point-of-view is also held by John’s son, Mr. John O. Brien, Jr. who told us, “I was born into a house immersed into the Irish culture, volunteerism and the belief that each day, we are trading one day of our life for something, let that something be worthwhile, and make a difference. That philosophy came from my father, both in word and deed. He lives that in all that he says and does.”