By Brenda Owen
Depending on your perspective, thoughts of Ireland can conjure up either images of fighting and civil strife or visions of rolling hills, green meadows and rainbows with pots of gold waiting at the end.
For Keith Hanlon of Tupelo, Ireland represents an ancestral home, memories of his grandfather, his family roots and a special dream.
“I’ve never been to Ireland, but I wish I could go before I leave this earth,” said the 60-year-old co-owner of O’Hanlon’s Direct Furniture.
Hanlon chose to put the “O” back in O’Hanlon when naming the business he shares with his daughter as a way of reminding him of his heritage.
“When my great grandfather came over from Ireland in the 1870s, he dropped the “O” from his name,” Hanlon said. “the Irish weren’t very well thought of at that time and I guess he thought that was a way of disguising the origin of the name.”
Hanlon’s grandfather was only eight years old when he made the long journey from County Cork, in southern Ireland to the shores of America.
“My great-grandmother had died and my grandfather was the youngest child of the family,” Hanlon said. “The other children stayed in Ireland.”
The elder O’Hanlon was a seaman by trade and eventually settled in Hannibal, Missouri where he went to work on a Mississippi River boat.
“When my grandfather was about 15 years old, his father passed away so he was left in Hannibal by himself,” Hanlon said.
The youngster worked on the riverboat himself and later married and had a family. Following his wife’s death years later, he left his two grown sons and moved to Michigan where he married Hanlon’s grandmother.
“I’ve never known my father’s older half-brothers,” Hanlon said.
But Hanlon, who moved to Tupelo in 1988, remembers his grandfather well.
“He was so young when he left Ireland, but there was no doubt that he was Irish through and through,” Hanlon said with a laugh. “He was short, wiry and tough. He had a sense of humor that was unbelievable. He loved life and was full of it. He loved to sing, and he and his cronies would get on the porch in the evenings and sing together.”
When Hanlon wants to conjure up those memories of his grandfather’s homeland, he has a surefire way of doing it. He dons his green suspenders, a bright green derby hat and picks up his shillelagh, a small walking stick his grandmother brought back from Ireland.
“Now, all I need is a pot of gold,” he quips with a grin.
From Ireland, with love
Tonia Nicholson of Tupelo may be living in America, and she may have been born in Germany but she’s Irish in her soul.
Nicholson’s parents were natives of Northern Ireland and her father was stationed in Germany with the British Army at the time she and her twin sister, Joan, were born. The family still lives in Northern Ireland, but Nicholson came to the United States 14 years ago when her husband accepted a position with a clothing manufacturing company in Georgia. The Nicholsons have lived in Tupelo for about four years.
Her parents recently paid a visit to Tupelo, leaving Nicholson with renewed memories of her homeland.
“It’s called the Emerald Isle because of its beautiful colors of green, ” she said in describing Ireland. “These are certainly more than 40 shades.”
Throughout her home, Nicholson displays reminders of her heritage travel guides, books, banners, figurines and, her personal favorite, exquisite pieces of Waterford crystal.
“Waterford crystal was founded by the Penrose family in Ireland in 1783,” she said. “The crystal made was notable for its purity of color which was unmatched by any glass house in the world at the time.”
Nicholson is proud of the fact that many early American pioneers were of Irish descent.
“Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were from Ireland,” she said.
A small mat in her den depicts United States presidents who came from Ireland originally: Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, U. S. Grant, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Woodrow Wilson.
Nicholson said she often meets friends with the traditional Irish greeting, “Top of the morning to you.”
Her favorite Irish expression, though, comes in the form of a blessing.
With a lilt in her voice and a smile in her Irish eyes, she says, “May you arrive in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”