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  • Writer's pictureThis Is Rutherford

This is The Rutherford Irish American Association

By Jennifer Ersalesi

Banner carriers proudly walk down Park Ave at the 1st Annual RIAA St. Patrick's Day Parade in 2018. All photos courtesy of Peter O’Brien

This year's parade will take place Sunday, March 3rd at 1:00 pm

What better way to to celebrate Irish Culture in the town of Rutherford than to create the Rutherford Irish American Association (RIAA), which is exactly what Rutherford resident Patrick O’Neill did back on July 4, 2017. “The RIAA was organized as a 501©3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide an opportunity for its members, their families and friends to meet in a spirit of comradery to promote, cultivate, and preserve interest in Irish arts, literature, history, culture, and celebrate the cultural ties between Ireland and the United States,” explained Patrick O’Neill. One of his goals for the RIAA was to seek members and his other goal was to create a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Both goals were met in record time and the RIAA now has over 400 active members.

This is Rutherford spoke with Patrick O’Neill, member of the Essex County Police and Fire Emerald Society Pipes and Drums, and Paddy Bonner, President of the Executive Officers of RIAA, to find out more about the RIAA and its success.

TIR: Rutherford resident Carol Gilhawley, who was born and raised in Dublin and came here in her 30s, explained, “Some people were connected to Rutherford before moving here, Irish are drawn here because of the small community appeal. It is great that there is a way to celebrate Irish culture and heritage.” Why do you think it is so important to have an Irish American Association in Rutherford?

PO: Having an Irish American Association in our own backyard to cater to our friends and neighbors! While there are a host of Irish American associations throughout the local region, South Bergen didn't have one so we decided we were going to bring one to them. We knew there were many people from this area who would avail themselves of the opportunity to join if it were right here.

PB: Having lived in Rutherford for almost 30 years, I always knew that there was a significant population with Irish heritage in town. When Pat O’Neill approached me and asked me what I thought about the idea of an association in town and our own parade, I knew right away that it was something that could be a success. So I was happy to get in on the ground floor and provide my support to his idea of promoting and preserving Irish culture right here in town.

TIR: Many people in Rutherford are very excited about the RIAA. How can someone become a member of the RIAA?

PB: The RIAA is a welcoming group always looking for new members – whether you are Irish, Irish-American or just a friend of the Irish (and who isn’t?). If you are interested in joining, you can visit the RIAA website at and look for the membership tab where you can apply directly online or print the application and mail it in.

PO: The RIAA is non-political and membership is open to all men and women who are at least 21 years of age and of good moral character. There are two levels of membership, Regular and Associate. Regular members must have a minimum of 25 percent Irish heritage, while Associate members (those not of Irish heritage) convert to Regular members after being active and in good standing for two years. The initial annual membership fee is $45 and renewals for subsequent years is $25.

TIR: In addition to the parade, the RIAA hosts many events throughout the year, what are some of your favorite events?

PB: That’s a tough question, because all of our events have been great, because of the members of our association who attend time and time again. However, if I had to pick one, my all-time favorite event was our First Annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. I’ve participated in a number parades here in Rutherford, and other St. Patrick’s Day parades, including the NYC parade. However, marching along Park Avenue and seeing the crowd four and five deep in some places along the way, coupled with the huge U.S. and the Irish tri-color flags stretched across Park Avenue hanging from aerial ladders, will be a lasting memory. We are planning this year’s parade, which will take place on March 3, 2019 at 1:00 pm, and are confident that we will build on last year’s success and continue to set the standard for a hallmark annual event among Irish Americans!

PO: Besides the parade, I think my favorite event would be meeting the high school seniors whom we awarded college scholarships to last year. Besides running the parade, one of the initial goals we had when we started the association was to be able to give back to the membership and the community in the form of scholarships to offset some of the cost for our youth to attend college. So last spring, after a lot of hard work and fundraising, as well as the gracious support of our sponsors, we were able to provide financial support to six graduating high school seniors. We hope to be able to award a number of scholarships again this year. To be eligible for consideration, students need to be the child or grandchild of a member, and submit a transcript and an essay on an Irish heritage-related subject.

TIR: There are over 400 active members in RIAA right now, that is a pretty amazing number. Why do you think so many people are interested in joining?

PO: That’s about right, and it is amazing! I think the short answer to your question is simple - because there are so many people in the U.S. and, more specifically, in our town that are of Irish heritage. As an example, according to a U.S. Census survey done in 2013, more than 33 million people in this country, or more than 10 percent of the total population, reported being of Irish heritage, and according to the 2010 U.S. Census returns, almost 24 percent of Rutherford's population reported Irish ancestry. For whatever reason, people of Irish heritage, regardless of how many generations they may be from their ancestors who first arrived, retain a strong sense of their heritage – clearly one of the main reasons there is so much interest in our association.

TIR: What is the best way for people to stay current with RIAA events?

PB: The best way is to become a member! By being a member you receive our regular email communication which covers all things about the RIAA, including the latest developments of the association and most importantly upcoming events. We also have a Facebook page for members, and the RIAA website includes information and announcements about our upcoming events. We also recently starting sending our events to the Rutherford365 website.

TIR: Now that the RIAA has peaked the interest of so many people in Rutherford and in the surrounding towns, what does the association plan to do to continue to celebrate the contributions of the Irish culture?

PO: As we continue to grow in membership, we also want to add events focused on Irish culture. We formed a cultural affairs subcommittee and recently held our first event recommended by that committee, an Irish music session that featured a well-known Irish songwriter/musician singing traditional Irish folk tunes. That event was an overwhelming success, so we’ll continue to look for similar events to encourage our membership to learn more about the culture and history of Ireland, and hopefully create a program for children of our members in the near future.

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