It isn’t every day a press release from the Ancient Order of the Hibernians comes your way, a diamond in an email inbox full of cubic zirconia.
And it isn’t every day you get a guy like Ben Coleman on the line to talk about it — a gem of a not-so-ancient Irishman who grew up with the Czechs in David City and the Germans in Seward and can spout the history of his ancestors like a barkeep in Dublin.
The news from Coleman and the Hibernians — a word that basically means Land of Eternal Darkness — is an upcoming Irish Hooley (which basically means party).
That party is happening Friday night as Nebraska takes part in a weeklong national event to welcome immigrants and refugees.
Coleman says the hooley will be family-friendly and free. No beer. Plenty of potatoes. The Lincoln Irish Dancers will make an appearance.
If the Hibernians can’t find a band to play for a pittance (or less), they’ll pipe some ballads and jigs over the P.A. system at Connection Point, 33rd and Dudley streets.
It’s going to be an Irish welcome to the melting pot that is America, he says. Inspired by the rude welcoming his people received when they came ashore more than a century ago.
Coleman and his fellows from the ancient order (only fellows in the fraternal organization) will be wearing kilts and living out the Hibernian motto: Friendship, unity and charity.
“We stick together and help the next person off the boat.”
Coleman started the Lincoln division in 2017, after years of traveling up Interstate 80 to fraternize with the Omaha-area Hibernians. (Hi-Bern-E-ans.)
He’s a 40-year-old husband (to red-headed Casey) and father of two (a lass and a laddie) who works for the state.
His friend, Dave Vrbas, one of those Czechs, describes him this way: “He’s Irish in the sense that his core values are friendship, family, compassion, generosity, hospitality and wearing that damn kilt as much as possible.”
He’s a guy who loves his heritage so much his friends put together a secret GoFundMe this summer to send him to Ireland.
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“He makes shillelaghs (traditional Irish walking sticks) for friends and family, he and his family have hosted numerous St. Padraig's (Patrick's) Day gatherings in their home, and he will be happy to recount a vast quantity of (mostly true) Irish and Irish-American history for you over a pint or six of Guinness,” wrote one of the organizers.
He’ll do the recounting without a frosty mug, too.
Ask him a question about the land of the leprechauns and the Irish exodus to America, and Coleman is off. He can tell you about the Great Famine and Bloody Sunday, Irish heroes and the location of the next Irish festival in Nebraska.
And that hard-to-pronounce ancient order?
“They were founded in 1836 as a way to protect the Irish community as well as the Catholic clergy from anti-immigrant sentiment … the Irish were told they were not welcome.”
Until the late 1800s, Lincoln had its own chapter, he says, eventually chased out of town by the Know Nothings, an anti-immigration, nativist group of the day.
The Lincoln Hibernians are small by East Coast standards. The group's 25 members meet at McKinney’s Irish Pub on the third Wednesday of each month. They tip a glass and make plans to participate in parades or festivals or help out at fundraisers.
Bigger chapters with more manpower have a broad agenda, Coleman says, important issues that members here in Lincoln support but aren’t actively involved in.
“But because of our size, we’ve decided to focus on one thing and that’s immigration issues.”
Coleman grew up knowing the story of his Great Granddad O’Colmain, who came to America as a boy to escape famine and changed his name but kept the Irish traditions alive for the generations that followed.
“Every new group that comes down the pike, everyone sneers,” Coleman says. “After two generations, everybody forgets and starts over with the next group.”
No one looks sideways any longer at a Jameson or an O’Reilly, the Irishman says. And the Hibernians want Lincoln’s immigrant community to know that no matter where they came from, they belong here and are welcome here.
“We are inviting our newest neighbors,” he says. “We stuck together, we made it and now it’s our duty to help others.”