Nelligan named to Top 40 Irish roots lead to blossoming interests

Nelligan named to Top 40
Irish roots lead to blossoming interests

GUILDERLAND — Matthew Nelligan is proud of his Irish heritage and active in promoting it.

At age 35, he has been named one of Irish America’s “Top 40 under 40” by The Irish Echo, the country’s largest circulation Irish-American weekly newspaper.

“Matt’s the type of guy who keeps our paper going; he’s active in the community,” said the Echo’s editor-in-chief, Ray O’Hanlon yesterday.

Nelligan has been active in preserving the history and promoting the culture of Ireland.

A government teacher at Guilderland High School, he led a team soon after he came to the district in 1998 that developed teaching guidelines on the “Great Hunger,” the 19th-Century famine that was commonly called the Potato Famine.

“We want ‘potato’ out of this because it makes people write it off as a natural cause,” said Nelligan. While it’s true the potatoes were diseased, he said, “There was enough food shipped out of Ireland to feed everyone in the country.”

He went on to pose this question: “If a government can save people and doesn’t, isn’t that almost the same as a policy to kill them?”

He also said there were laws, much like Jim Crow laws in America after the Civil War, enacted against the Irish Catholics.

“The famine is at the heart of the animosity between the English and the Irish,” said Nelligan.

Beyond the Holocaust and slavery, Nelligan said, history classes don’t often teach how genocide has affected other ethnic groups.

He said prejudice against the Irish continues today in everything from ads for Lucky Charms “that make fun of Irish people” to the portrayal of them as chimps.

“At the time of the famine, the image of an Irish person as a chimpanzee was used to dehumanize,” he said.

Tiny place, rich history

Nelligan traces his Irish roots through his father’s side of the family. His grandmother, Ann Fox, was born in Ballysidare in County Sligo.

“It’s a tiny, tiny place,” Nelligan said. “My brothers and I brought my father back there...The church was a small hedge church where they said mass just once a week.”

He had to research family records at another church and was impressed with how they were all computerized.

His Irish heritage “played a huge role” in his life, Nelligan said. “My dad was a collector of Irish music and history.” Growing up, he heard Irish songs and read Irish stories.

He joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians at age 19.

“It’s the largest and oldest Irish-Catholic organization in the United States,” he said. “It was founded in 1836 in New York City for the defense of the church against know-nothing immigrant mobs. The Hibernians lobbied for immigrant rights and fair treatment for Irish people in business and labor. Now, they’re heavily involved in lobbying for the Irish peace process and the rights of Catholics in Belfast.”

The Hibernians, he said, were also instrumental in lobbying the state legislature to require  the Great Hunger be taught as the Holocaust is.  “The Hibernians have developed a DVD of lesson plans with video to give to every school district in the state,” he said.

Nelligan is currently serving the first of his two-year term as president of the New York State Ancient Order of Hibernians; he is the youngest person to be elected to the presidency.

Like many fraternal organizations, the Hibernians, in the late 20th Century, saw a decline in the number of young members. “We joke that the Ancient Order of Hibernians meant the members were ancient,” said Nelligan. “After the backslide in the ’80s and ’90s, we developed a statewide recruitment plan,” he said.

“We run the Irish festival at the fairgrounds to highlight our culture and music,” he said. Nelligan is president of the Irish Music and Arts Festival, held at the Altamont fairgrounds. Now in its 12th year, the festival is one of the largest celebrations of Irish culture in the country. The not-for-profit festival has raised more than $350,000 for local Irish charities.

“Through rock and punk music like Flogging Molly, we’ve been able to attract a lot more young people,” said Nelligan.

“We certainly support the faith, too,” he said, citing the Catholic Conference lobbying day and an upcoming April prayer rally at the capitol.

Top 40

O’Hanlon, the Echo’s editor, said this is the second time his newspaper has run the “Top 40 Under 40” program. The first time, a decade ago, he said, “We went for movie stars and prominent people.” He continued, “This year’s selection was quite different. The people were more accessible, more community-based.”

The weekly, which has a circulation of 25,000, its readers spanning the country and abroad, plans to make the event an annual one, said O’Hanlon. The paper, founded in 1928, is based in New York City. The editor joked about how The Irish Echo is known for its classified ads, from as far away as Hong Kong, seeking “nannies and child-minders.”

 “The New York Times refers to us as The Nanny Times,” said O’Hanlon with a bit of a brogue.

He called this year’s “Top 40” program “a big success.”

Each honoree was presented with a Cavan crystal vase at a party at Rosie O’Grady’s in midtown Manhattan, co-hosted by the Consulate General of Ireland.

O’Hanlon said there were over 100 nominations and the winners appeared in a special section of the paper.

A posthumous award was presented to the father of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land elite Special Operations forces) Lieutenant Michael Murphy who was killed in Afghanistan and presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Daniel Murphy, a veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart, accepted the crystal vase for his son. He brought his son’s Medal of Honor with him.

“People were in tears,” said O’Hanlon.

All in all, Nelligan said, he considers it “a huge honor” to be named to the “Top 40 under 40” along with standouts ranging from a well-known boxer to a local news anchor.

“You never really expect recognition,” he said. “It’s just nice when it happens.”

More Guilderland News

  • “A comprehensive plan is more than just a document — it is a process of organizing the future of a community while protecting its meaningful and unique attributes,” wrote Michael D. Panichelli, the president of MJ Engineering and Land Surveying, the company hired to guide Guilderland’s comprehensive planning process.

  • Several school board members said they would like to see the district meet the dietary needs of, for example, Jewish students who keep kosher or Muslim students who follow dietary laws specifying which foods are halal, or lawful, and which are haram, or unlawful.

  •  Bernard Radtke’s court papers argue Thomas Ensslin either knew or “should reasonably have known” that Radtke was the owner of one the area’s largest “commercial hauling, land clearing, and heavy-equipment companies,” and that Radtke had planned to use Ensslin’s property for his business. 

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