It was Galway, Kerry, Cork, Donegal and Mayo.
But in 1985, Billy Higgins found himself in Limerick, Ireland watching his daughter Andrea compete in a track and field event.
Andrea was a two-sport female high school sports star, track and basketball. She would go on to be one of America’s best college basketball players for Boston University.
Billy was a devoted, attentive father and very proud of his daughter’s athletic and scholastic achievements. Wherever Andrea competed, he was there to cheer her on, along with his wife Rachel.
Sports became Andrea’s ticket to college providing her with a full scholarship to one of America’s finest institutions of higher education.
Billy Higgins grew up in a section of South Boston known as The Lower End. The Lower End was home of the D Street Projects. While in Limerick, Billy found himself in a section called Southill. He felt like he was back in The Lower End.
Sitting down for breakfast, Wednesday morning with Billy at the Westside Kitchen on West Broadway, South Boston he recounted for me his initial impression of Southill. “Southill reminded me so much of the South Boston (Southie) where I was born and raised. I was just a poor kid but so were all my pals. The other end of Southie was where the families with money lived – The Eastside or better known as City Point. In later life I considered myself very lucky when I purchased a three-decker home on Farragut Road facing the broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean where it was said the next body of land was Ireland. I lived on the top floor and rented out the first and second floors. This allowed me to build a rooftop deck. I had really made it big – the ultimate dream of every South Bostonian in my time and still today when similar homes along the beach ways fetch well over a million dollars. Truth is, there’s none for sale. To a Southie person, there was no other place you would want to live, not even a castle in the old country.”
As a teenager Billy Higgins was infatuated with cars. He became a top notch auto mechanic and with the help of his wife and her Italian-American family bought a gas station in the town with a two bay garage. From that point on, life was very good to Billy Higgins. His friends came from all over Southie to get their cars fixed at Billy’s Place, the L Street Exxon.
During his first of many visits to Limerick, Billy stuck up a friendship with people from Southill and these friendships would ultimately result in the coming to Boston of ninety-six youngsters from Southill. The kids from Southill prepared for their trip to America and South Boston by becoming entertainers. They rehearsed for days on ends the songs they were going to be singing as a group to the many Boston audiences Billy had carefully booked in advance. Boston loved them. They were outstanding. Boston families adopted them for the length of their visit and the kids from Southill got to live just like Americans while they were here.
But to turn these Southill kids into performers worthy enough to represent the land of our forbearers, one of the organizers in Limerick was Tracey Boylan, a member of a distinguished Limerick family who owned and operated Boylan’s Bed and Breakfast. Tracey too was just a young girl at the time.
Needless to say, the trip proved to be successful beyond anyone’s expectations. Billy Higgins called every friend he ever knew in Southie to help him raise funds to bring the Southill troupe to Boston and to provide each and every kid a home away from home. He set up the Southill Children’s Fund and for several years donations received seemed to wane at both ends – Southie and Southill until last year when Billy received a telephone call from Tracey Boylan who was now Tracy Fitzgerald, a young mother of three and a wife of a successful Engineer.
Tracey Boylan Fitzgerald never forgot her trip to Boston. It was a major highlight of her life. She loved performing before the American audiences and most importantly, she loved the Irishness of our City and of course, the most Irish community in the history of America – South Boston. She also loved the Higgins family and in the years after that visit would make sure Billy Higgins had the best room in Boylan’s Bed and Breakfast when he would come over to Limerick to help his Irish counterparts also raise funds to support the Southill Junior School. On one of those visits he was accompanied by Jack Hart, a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives (160 members) who had just won election to the Massachusetts State Senate (40 members).
Billy Higgins elaborated on those subsequent visits to Limerick. “I was treated like a member of royalty everywhere I went. Jack Hart was very impressed and I came to know that I could always count on his support in the future whenever the word Limerick or Southill was mentioned. Hart’s picture hangs prominently on the wall at Boylan’s Bed and Breakfast as does a picture of former Mayor of Boston and American Ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn, and Kathleen O’Toole, former Commissioner of the Boston Police Department now working in Dublin as an advisor to the Irish Police Force (Gardai).
Tracey Fitzgerald would continue her love of music by attending Cork University, majoring in Music and starting up a choir in her cherished Limerick community. The Holy Trinity Abbey Choir, Adare is a voluntary Church Choir and sings at the 11:30 a.m. Mass each Sunday and at all liturgical festivities throughout the year including the open-air Mass of the Resurrection at dawn in the ruins of the 15th century Franciscan Friary in Adare on Easter Sunday morning. A pamphlet produced by the choir reads as follows: “Thirteen years on the sheer enthusiasm, perseverance and love of music and God have brought this choir together as a “family” which has received many graces.”
Among the many graces was the choir’s selection as Ireland’s Church Choir of the Year in 2005 and 2007. Tracey Fitzgerald was very proud of her “family” and began to dream of taking this spiritual family to America. This dream became a reality when Billy Higgins said to her, “Let’s make it happen.” It did and for twelve days (July 23 – August 3) a large contingent of the family came to Boston to sing at Masses in Catholic Churches in the Archdiocese of Boston. The pamphlet they produced in Ireland contained all the family names. Those able to make the trip were in bold print, twenty-four of them. Unable to travel with the family were twenty members.
They departed Shannon Airport on the 23rd of July and arrived at Logan Airport, Boston at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday where they were greeted by members of the United States Custom Department and a Motorcycle Escort Team of the Boston Police Department. This fast paced adventure was just beginning.
They were whisked to the spectacular Westin Hotel in the new and quickly emerging Seaport District of South Boston, next door to one of the world’s largest and most successful convention centers, the Boston Convention Center.
They arrived at the Westin where they were greeted and welcomed by the staff and management who had also set up a stage in the hotel lobby where they would later sing several songs to the delight of those guests lucky to be on hand for this momentous occasion, the first visit outside of Ireland of the famed choir. Indeed they were the “star” of the Westin for their entire stay.
Billy Higgins never left their side from the time they arrived at Logan to the moment they departed from the same airport, twelve days later. “The Westin people were wonderful. They treated us as V.I.P.’s I don’t think Bono and U2 could have received better treatment than that accorded us.” Checking into their rooms, they were surprised to see a complimentary goodie package with typical American snack favorites.
They didn’t have too much time to settle in as it was off to the rooftop deck at the Higgins home where they enjoyed that old time American summer pastime – the cookout. I was fortunate to be a guest at this welcoming reception. It was a special treat for me too, my first rooftop BBQ ever.
I don’t know if they loved the cheeseburgers as much as I did, but they were all eating, talking and taking in the breathtaking view of the Boston skyline from all directions. They truly had arrived in the good old U.S. of A.
Cead Mile Failte to our country’s most Irish community.
Still with a bit of the jet lag, they moved down the steps of the rooftop deck to the Higgins family parlor, where they sat around informally for their first rehearsal on American soil.
Listening to them sing, brought out the Irish in me and I asked could I sing the “Our Father”, a beautiful part of the Mass for me, All eyes were on me, but I didn’t flinch. I was determined to prove that we Irish Americans were just like our counterparts in the Emerald Isle, ready to sing an Irish song at the drop of a coin.
“Would you like to hear the Our Father in Gaelic,” they asked when I had finished my selection. It was beautiful. Up to that point in time, I thought it was only my crowd, the Galway people who could talk – or sing – in Gaelic. There was an immediate bonding and I couldn’t wait to attend Mass in their presence which I was privileged to do twice while they were here.