Way back with 'Shirts' O'Hara

Wednesday July 4, 2012


At 14, the summer is vivid, glorious, and it shapes your life forever. It was during that summer when I first met my great friend, Kevin O’Hara. We caddied at the Pittsfield Country Club. He was an elite officer of the Mau Mau caddy shack, code-named, "Shirts," his brother Dermot counter-named, "Socks," and his older brother Jimmy was, "Pants."

I was a rookie rube who got all of the shankers, hackers, and cheap tippers. Kevin helped me out. He told me everything about everything, so before long, I could carry two bags for good golfers and make some money and we all had a really wonderful time.

Sometime later, in the haze of adolescence and other summers, my friend Kev was off to Vietnam, a place and subject I only knew from what I saw on TV, where it was broadcast live, and somehow allowed to color our lives with anxiety and pain.

When Kevin came back from Vietnam he wasn’t all the way back until his native Ireland provided an ancient pathway to peace by way of the tinker’s donkey cart, all the way around the Emerald Isle and back to Rattigan’s Pub in Roscommon, the little town where his family began, deep in the mists of time. Kevin wrote a celebrated book about the journey, "Last of the Donkey Pilgrims." It is a book of redemption and great humor, and of an Ireland many thousands have cherished.

He has since written, "A Lucky Irish Lad," of a time before in the 1950s and ‘60s, and both books are praised by New York Times best-selling authors. The Christian Science Monitor ranks "Donkey" as one of the "Top Ten Books" about Ireland of all time, on the same page with Joyce, Uris, Binchy, Toibin, and Kinsella.

His third book, "Memoirs of a Bearded Nurse," will be about the next time I met up with him as counselor and psychiatric nurse at Berkshire Medical Center in the ‘80s, when once again, this wise and wonderful friend picked up the thread of our friendship as if it had never broken over the many years and miles and taught me the ways and wherefores that transformed my deep experience in this hospital setting so that I too could really help other people. His new book will be profound, very full of humor, and certainly grounded in humanity. I was there when it all happened. But the book will bring it all home for the world.


Kevin’s greatness, as an Irish person and an American, has recently been celebrated by The St. Patrick’s Committee of Holyoke who selected Kevin O’Hara as the recipient of this year’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy Award as a stellar Irish-American who has distinguished himself in his profession. Past recipients include Senator Tip O’Neill, Cardinal Richard Cushing, actor Robert Stack, and author David McCullough.

I met him on the parade route in Holyoke that St. Pat’s Day, but I would have really loved to have been at the banquet held in his honor that night. Kevin is a fabulous speaker as anyone who has attended his packed events will agree. At the Holyoke event, Sister Mary Caritas, who has attended all 60 dinners, said that Kevin’s speech was at the top. His wife Belita said when he was speaking, "Nobody touched their desserts." Kevin has that power to hold you spellbound in his words. He received a standing ovation, of course. He always does.

Jim Shulman and his wife Jackie are planning to honor Kevin by including his donkey -- Missie McDermot -- as one of the "ponies" on the planned Berkshire Carousel. The carousel is one of the most ambitious art installations ever created by volunteers in the Berkshires and will be operational in 2013. Kevin is, of course, very excited about honoring his long-ago road companion who never let him down on Irish roadways. Missie kept him company, bore the ups and downs of rough travel, and was the centerpiece of his own inspiration and recovery as a symbol of the lonesome but stubborn journey many of us must take to find our way back around to our true selves.

Kevin is a great wit, plain funny as you can get, and he imparts wisdom in ways only the likes of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, or Josh Billings would have done long ago. We need real live speakers in the tradition of pre-You Tube obsession to connect us with humanity.

Kevin will be the keynote speaker at this year’s William Cullen Bryant Day at the William Cullen Bryant Home stead (413-634-2244) in Cum ming ton, just off Route 9, on July 21 from 10 to 4. Kevin will be reading from his new book and signing his other books at 1:30 p.m.. For more information contact the Trustees of Reservations-www. thetrustees.org.

Colin Harrington is an educator and writer living in Windsor. He is an occasional Berkshire Eagle contributor.


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