From today’s campaign, a look at Irish contests past

WILLIAMSBURG – Not a day goes by when I’m not quizzed about my surname.

It appears on hundreds of lawn signs up and down the Pioneer Valley. An equal number of red, white and blue signs promote my nephew Mike Cahillane’s opponent for Northwestern District Attorney, Hampshire County’s Register of Probate, Dave Sullivan.

To save suspense, I predict that the financial winner of this Democratic primary election will be … the guy who painted all those signs!

For the past 10 years my 40-year-old nephew has been a prosecutor and assistant district attorney. Sullivan and Cahillane are vying in the first contest for district attorney here in three decades. No Republican has announced, so Tuesday’s Democratic primary will pick the winner. Independents or the un-enrolled, as they’re now known, can vote and switch back to their original designation at the polling place.

Because my parents had 24 grandchildren, Michael and I are not close. Nor, truth be told, am I well acquainted with Mr. Sullivan. Now retired to Williamsburg, I’ve found that aging fosters separations.

My political education started in 1953 when I made my first trip to Ireland. I was on leave from the U.S. Air Force in England. Traveling by train and ferry I found my way to my Aunt Siobhan’s. I was 20 and green as can be; I’d failed to consider the impact of a Dublin postcard I sent to a Northampton girlfriend. The card pictured a hobo asleep on a park bench.

In a clumsy attempt at humor I mentioned that he looked like one of her relatives. The girl’s father was a prominent Irish cop with a large family. My father gave me a blast claiming that my joke had undercut his new campaign for mayor.

The Irish can be sensitive when it comes to politics. More proof took place 40 years ago one of my Irish uncles took umbrage at a Democratic event. The scuffle was more like a bench-clearing baseball fight than a real fight. I’m still glad that I was across the V.F.W. hall when that big Irish farmer decided to take a swing at a guy who was supporting the wrong candidate.

Mine, as it turned out.

At 77 I’m the eldest son of a former mayor of Northampton, one of only two Irish-born mayors in the whole U.S. during the 1950s. Dad emigrated in 1930. Within five years he became a citizen and an FDR supporter. Despite those hard times, Dad’s gas station was a success thanks to his ready smile and larger than life personality.

It was a combination that served him well in politics. Dad ran for mayor with the support of many working class Irishmen and women. His announcement headline read, “Cahillane # Champions Workers.” We had no lawyers in our family in 1953. Dad stood alone. His primary fight pitted him against three other Irishmen, including two of the city’s top lawyers. Dad’s win in a recount was a miracle that propelled him to a friendship with JFK, and a seat at the 1956 Democratic convention.

Rightfully, both the Sullivan and Cahillane campaigns have striven for a sense of dignity commensurate with the power and importance of the district attorney’s office.

My dad’s experience was different as he ran to unseat incumbent Republican mayor, Pierre Drewsen. Their scorched-earth campaign screeds included the mayor calling dad “a howling cow that gives no milk.” Dad’s retort was to call the mayor a “would-be dictator.”

A subtext of that campaign was the previous one in which Pierre Drewsen had beaten City Councilor Francis “Tunker” Hogan, whose motto was “Hogan’s the Slogan.” Immediately following Hogan’s losing campaign a local wag rhymed this ditty: “Hogan’s the slogan, but Pierre’s the mayor.”

Will Rogers used to say, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” Local Irish politics is always a few-rules game of musical chairs to the sound of a squeezebox, a tin whistle, and the beat of a bodhran. I favor Ireland’s identity as the birthplace of saints and scholars, with a nod toward political acumen.

The race between David Sullivan and Michael Cahillane carries the history of every contest before it. Earlier this year, my McColgan campaign buddy Bill O’Riordan visited me at Linda Manor when I was in post-hospital rehab. Bill began by noting that though he was supporting Sullivan, he had no animosity and hoped that there would be unity when the campaign ended. I agreed. I’ve long appreciated O’Riordan’s intensity, remembering when, to emphasize his Irish roots; he added the “O” to Riordan.

Which inspired in me a bit of verse:

Somehow, I don’t think that O’Cahillane sounds as right.
As John L. Sullivan’s “cousin” Dave’s glittering-prize fight
Between himself, without a second, against any brash foe,
Like upstart Michael a brainy young battler having a go.

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