Holidays

How some Sacramentans will celebrate Independence Day in a town 4,000 miles from U.S.

Irish town celebrates American Independence Day in 2016

A compilation of scenes from the 2016 4th of July celebration in Killarney, Ireland. The video features choral music, Wild West reenactments, a parade, a movie screening, general festivities, and of course, fireworks.
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A compilation of scenes from the 2016 4th of July celebration in Killarney, Ireland. The video features choral music, Wild West reenactments, a parade, a movie screening, general festivities, and of course, fireworks.

This Fourth of July, some 35 Sacramentans will wave American flags alongside spur-wearing cowboys, decked-out Disney characters, brass bands, cheerleaders and SpongeBob SquarePants in an Independence Day parade.

The celebration will happen more than 4,000 miles from U.S. soil in Killarney, Ireland.

It's the fifth year that the town will pay homage to all things Americana with a day of festivities. The 14,500-person town shuts down all its roads for the revelry, which is expected to draw 15,000 people this year, said Ollie Favier, event coordinator for the Killarney Chamber of Commerce.

The celebration is both a thank you to the American tourists who frequent the town — "We thought it seemed a great way of rewarding them, making them feel at home while they're on holiday," Favier said — and a loving parody of American culture.

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Actors portraying U.S. presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton made an appearance at the 2016 Fourth of July parade in Killarney, Ireland. Valerie O'Sullivan Courtesy of Killarney Chamber of Commerce

Sacramento priest Dan Looney will be among the thousands marching. He visits Killarney every summer because, like so many Californian priests of his generation, he grew up there.

His 2018 homecoming will be different all those before it. After years of eager prodding from congregants at the Holy Spirit Church in Sacramento where he last preached, and other friends, Looney will lead about 35 other locals on a whirlwind tour through the Ireland.

They'll leave from the Holy Spirit parking lot Monday, wind their way from verdant glen to ancient castle to rocky coast, and drive into Killarney on Wednesday afternoon, just as the party gets going.

Dot O'Connor, a Holy Spirit churchgoer who helped organize the two-week trip, said she's excited to reconnect with the community Looney spent his career cultivating. A couple Looney married and a man he baptized will be a part of the group, she said. Plus, Looney retired recently, and his birthday falls on July 3.

"We're going to sing to him on the plane over the Atlantic," O'Connor said. "It's going to be wonderful."

In many ways, Looney's story is emblematic of the Irish-American exchange of a generation past.

As a youngster in Killarney, he spent years giving traditional horse buggy rides to eager American visitors to make extra money. After becoming an ordained priest in 1971 and traveling in Europe, he moved to the U.S., preaching at different churches in Northern California.

He wasn't alone.

"When I arrived in (the Sacramento) diocese, 75 percent of active priests were born Irish," Looney said.

Since the 19th century, when the Irish potato famine sent all who could scurrying for the New World, a large Irish population had been growing in Northern California. Irish priests went where the Irish Catholics were, so Looney and his peers settled amongst their kin.

That era may be over. Only one pastor who still preaches in Sacramento was born in Ireland, Looney said. So, too, has the American tourism boom in Killarney. It has shrunk in recent years, as citizens of other countries frequent the town more often than Yankees.

But on Wednesday, time will stop and warp in Killarney. Looney and O'Connor will join a representative from the American Embassy and some 15,000 others in a full-out American-Irish nostalgia fest.

Actors dressed up as Wild West gunslingers will perform mock bank robberies. Brats will be barbecued. And fireworks will crackle over the Killarney House & Gardens, a sprawling estate.

A favorite feature is the open-air movie. It was "Top Gun" last year. This year, they're showing "Dirty Dancing."

The movie screening, and the event in general, "went a little viral," Favier said. "All our tickets sold out immediately."

This hoopla isn't just for passersby, Favier said. A lot of second generation Irish-Americans retired in Killarney. Everyone's story is different, Favier said. But for many retirees, "their parents emigrated from Ireland to America, they were born and worked in the states, and after retirement, they settle back home to tell the story of their parent."

Behind the kitsch and stereotypes of the parade, then, is a complicated history of cross-cultural migration. This shouldn't sound foreign to Americans, who have turned the nuanced traditions of Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick's Day into margarita- and beer-marketing opportunities.

But Killarney's celebration is different. Irish customs have made their way into the Fourth of July as well. A local choir and two bagpipe bands are slated to perform throughout the day. Whether attendees are proud of the transplanted patriotism or find the display semi-ironic, everyone gets to be in on the fun.

And as Looney walks the childhood streets with his congregation and Scooby-Doo beside him, he may get to feel something quite unusual: home away from home away from home.

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