Mercer County has been home to Irish-Americans for generations, a heritage that they again will celebrate this month.
Members of the Irish Community of Greater Mercer County will lead into St. Patrick’s Day by having a Catholic Mass on March 2 starting at 10 a.m. at St. Anthony Church on Olden Avenue in Hamilton followed by raising the Irish flag outside the congregation. It will be the first in a series of events that will include St. Patrick’s Day parades in Hamilton and in Robbinsville on successive Saturdays, March 9 and 16.
Mercer County is home to 10 Irish-American organizations. While there has been friction at times in the past, all of the groups will come together as they have for the past two years to celebrate their shared heritage and Catholic faith.
“So we thought it would be a good idea to invite everybody to participate in an annual Mass and a flag raising early in March just to kind of kick off the Saint Patrick’s Day season,” said Kevin Meara, an organizer of the event. “We wanted to keep that Catholic Mass in with the celebrations that go on for probably two to three weeks depending on the year.”
“We hope we get a good crowd,” said former Trenton Fire Chief Dennis Keenan, who still lives in the city.
“Every year, I think we get better when it comes to our union and friendship and Christian charity,” said Bob Cottrell, president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 10, in Mercer County. “It becomes better every year.”
After the ceremony at the church, they will gather at Tir Na Nog, the Irish pub on Hamilton Avenue at the border of Hamilton and Trenton.
Trenton once was home to a large Irish community.
More than 100 years ago, many Irish immigrants left their homeland to settle in the Wilbur section of the city, said Meara, who lived in Trenton until he was 10. Streets like Olden and North Clinton avenues helped form the geographic boundaries of the community, while St. Joe’s Church served as its spiritual center.
“A lot of the Irish settled up there, although they were dispersed all throughout Trenton,” Meara said. “But that was a big area of the Irish.”
As they assimilated into their new country, many in the Irish community “wanted to leave their Irish roots behind and be American,” Meara said. It was not until 1986 that Trenton again would play host to a St. Patrick’s Day parade, the first since the 1890s.
Keenan said he marched in the parade back in March 1986. The weather was “decent,” he said, as he recalled being struck by how large the crowd was that day.
Meara shared a photo of the front page of the March 16, 1986 edition of The Trentonian proclaiming how an estimated 45,000 people attended the parade—the first of many to follow.
“And that was a catalyst to get interest back in the Irish-American community,” Meara said. “So from the mid-(19)80s, for a good decade, you had this resurgence of the Irish-American community.”
Keenan recalled the Irish-American community in Trenton had a renaissance starting in the 1980s, thanks to an influx of immigrants from Ireland. He said that lasted into the 1990s, but then it tailed off once the 21st century began.
“So there was a big Irish community in the 80s and 90s,” Keenan said. “And then it sort of started to move out.”
Over the years, politicians made their way to Mercer County to meet with the Irish-American community, said Meara, a former councilman in Hamilton. The likes of former Gov. Jim McGreevey and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams visited the region, among others.
Meara recalled how, when McGreevey became governor in 2002, he and others were there to watch an Irish flag be raised over Drumthwacket, the governor’s official residence located on Stockton Street in Princeton.
Today, Mercer County is led by county Executive Brian Hughes, who is of Irish stock.
As the years went by, the Irish community left Trenton and attendance at the Trenton parade dwindled. Some within the parade committee pushed to move the parade to Hamilton to increase attendance and get more sponsors.
For a time, there were dueling parades, in Hamilton and Trenton, and then a third parade in Robbinsville. The dispute over whether to have a parade in Trenton and Hamilton made for headlines, but Meara said he thought “there was more made of it than there really was.”
“Obviously, there was some feelings when part of the (parade) committee went off and talked to Hamilton Township to have the parade,” he said. “You had people who felt that…the city of Trenton was so good to us, we shouldn’t walk away from the city of Trenton. But then, mitigating factors are what they are. There’s not as many businesses along Hamilton Avenue that used to support the parade. There was not as many people coming out.”
Eventually, the Trenton parade discontinued around three years ago, leaving Hamilton and Robbinsville the remaining parades.
But the Trenton parade isn’t lost to history, and the choice of having the Mass at St. Anthony’s Church is not by accident. That’s where the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1986 stepped off from, and the starting point of the Trenton parade for a generation.
In reflecting on those days, Meara said he can remember, as a young man, seeing all the older men with gray hair, standing outside to watch the parade. Now 60, he’s the one with gray hair. Some of the people who helped pull that parade together, people like “Irish” Billy Briggs, have passed on.
For the future, Meara said there is a push to get younger members of the Irish-American community involved in the March 2 event, to lay a foundation for them to eventually take over running it.
“So it’s important that we continue to celebrate our heritage,” Meara said. “We’re all Americans. But it’s a melting pot. And now to be able to hand this to our kids is even more important.”