By Kami-Leigh Agard
In 1991, Congress recognized March as Irish American Heritage Month, and since then, beginning with President H.W. Bush, it has been a bipartisan declaration celebrating the achievements and contributions of Irish Americans nationwide. In this month-long series, The Rockaway Times salutes our local Irish Americans, expanding on the conversation around what it means to be Irish American. In this week’s installation, meet Mark Edwards, longtime Belle Harbor resident, and president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians-Division 21 Rockaway Beach/Breezy Point, recently awarded the prestigious appointment as Queens County Aide to the Grand Marshal of this year’s NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Have a chat with Mark Edwards, and you can’t help, but smile. You’ll come away with the feeling that this man truly loves serving Rockaway. Though the peninsula’s cultural footprint as the Irish Riviera has diminished, Edwards has worked to keep it alive, while serving the community at large. Whether through his almost 20-year servitude to AOH Division 21-Rockaway Beach/Breezy Point, serving as president for the last 10 years and spearheading AOH’s annual Rockaway Irish Festival, involvement with the Knights of Columbus as a third-degree brother, and volunteer work with The Graybeards—Edwards continually works hard to keep Rockaway’s Irish presence and legacy relevant.
“I’m all about neighborhoods. It’s important to get involved and volunteer. It really makes a difference, and especially in passing along Irish pride to the next generation,” he said.
A first-generation Irish American on his dad’s side, Edwards shared that he moved with his family to Rockaway in 1971. “My dad, Dublin born, immigrated to NYC when he was 16. He soon met my mom, who is first-generation Irish; her family is from County Mayo. They went to their high school prom together. My dad was 19, and mom, 20, when they got married. In 1971, our family moved from Flatbush, Brooklyn to Beach 141st Street in Rockaway,” he said.
When asked what Rockaway was like in the 1970s, he laughed. “Back then, where we lived on Beach 141st, was predominantly Jewish. There was a lot of head turning when my parents moved there with three boys and a girl. I migrated further downtown as I became friends at school with kids who were culturally similar to me. You could say that I basically grew up on Beach 90th Street, which was the big hangout for the Irish kids. While my friends were in Catholic schools like St. Francis and St. Rose of Lima, I went the public school route, attending P.S. 114 and J.H.S. 180, where Scholars’ Academy is located today. However, we all reunited for high school at Beach Channel,” Edwards said.
At age 14, Edwards spent three months working in Ireland as a summer guidance counselor. And according to him, this is when pride in his family’s Irish roots were sowed.
“This was my first real experience in Ireland. My father’s sister, Maureen, got me the job. So, here I was, this big American living in a little town in Ireland, and I fell in love with the country. Having a father who was born there, and the stories that I grew up with, it was something to hold on to. Then when you get into the history of the Irish, it’s very intense; giving a good reason to keep our pride and lineage going on to our children. Thank God, my first two children have taken it on, and now my youngest is interested in doing her college semester abroad there. The world is changing, but tradition and heritage are a big thing,” he said.
And, according to Edwards, “tradition and heritage” is what piqued his interest in joining the AOH at the age of 45.
“Being first-generation Irish American, I grew up in a very Irish Catholic-oriented house. It was actually my father-in-law, who passed away a few years ago, who encouraged me to join. Our local AOH Division 21, then called the James McFarland Division 21, was kind of floundering. Membership was down, and it had gotten very old. So, I joined, and took it very seriously upon myself to build membership up.
“I reached out to my high school friends, most of them in the same boat as me, first generation Irish. So, we started building the membership up. When I joined, we had about 42 members, and today, we have 170,” Edwards said.
The AOH is America’s oldest Irish Catholic fraternal organization, founded concurrently in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania and NYC in May 1836. The Order can trace its roots back to a series of similar societies that existed in Ireland for more than 300 years. Today the AOH exists in America, Canada, Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland. Active across the U.S., the Order seeks to aid the newly arrived Irish, both socially and economically, whilst preserving and fostering art, dance, music, and sports in Irish culture.
With a robust and active membership, AOH-Division 21, for the last 10 years, has hosted the Rockaway Irish Festival, which features popular Irish bands, food and activities for all in the community to celebrate Irish culture. And impressively, over the years, the festival has donated $300K to local Catholic parishes.
Today, Edwards lives in Belle Harbor, raising his own family with wife, Alice; daughters, Maeghan, a teacher at Scholars’ Academy, Maura, a college bound student, and son, Sean, a NYC firefighter.
This August, after 38 years in service, Edwards will be retiring from Con Edison as a high voltage troubleshooter in its Brooklyn Emergency Department. As for what it feels like to be appointed the Queens County Aide to the Grand Marshal of this year’s NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade, he was quite humble.
“The Queens County Board nominated me, and the vote was unanimous. It’s pretty nice. I couldn’t be happier and prouder to represent AOH-Division 21 and Rockaway in the parade,” he said.
While Rockaway’s footprint as the old Irish town has diminished over the years, though he misses the old, Edwards says he embraces the new. “Rockaway today is a very different planet. When you get reminiscent, you think of the old times. It’s like everything else in life. The world changes, and we all gotta be like a tumbleweed. You roll with it, and it all works out,” he said.
Watch Edwards and Division-21 march in NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade this Friday, March 17! For more info about the parade, visit: https://www.nycstpatricksparade.org/ And for more info about AOH-Division 21, visit: https://irishfest21.com/fest/