Mike Houlihan's St. Patrick's Day Diary
Irish diva puts song in the hearts of even hard-bitten Chicagoans
March 13, 2002
Most Irishmen start looking for a woman around midnight on St. Patrick's Day. Something about that witching hour makes even Janet Reno look like Mary Kate Danaher in "The Quiet Man.''
Don't start cruising on Sunday with the visual aid of a snootful. Here's the real thing, a dazzling Celtic nightingale who serenades Chicago's Irish every year.
Catherine O'Connell is Chicago's Irish Diva, and this is her busiest week. "I was at the mayor's party last night. I'm singing the national anthem at the Irish-American breakfast, singin' at the Irish Fellowship Club Friday night; on Sunday night I'll be in Siamsa Na nGael at Orchestra Hall, and, oh yeah, on Saturday I'll be in the parade on the old queens float.''
''The old queens float'' is not a reunion of entertainers from the Baton Lounge, it's all the former St. Patrick's Day Parade queens. O'Connell was queen of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1976. Ask her how old she was then and she'll wisecrack, "I was young then, about 5. Talk about getting some mileage out of something.'' Ever since she's been singing for the Irish, mostly at weddings and funerals. "I marry 'em and bury 'em.''
O'Connell sang at my mother's funeral, and three of my brothers asked me, "Who is that gorgeous Irish gal with the fabulous pipes? She sings good.'' Yes she does, she's a Maureen O'Hara clone, and if you're planning on dying anytime soon, book her now for your funeral.
Her own dad, James "Mush'' O'Connell, fire captain from St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, died the year after Catherine was crowned queen in Chicago. She was 20, oldest of six kids, and just leaving for Ireland for the Rose of Tralee competition. Mush, Catherine and her mom, Mary, had visited the Old Country right before he died. Two years later the kid broke into show business singing in bars.
"I started singin' in the Emerald Isle. Tommy McCauley was the owner. He asked me to sing because I was so loud.''
Her first band was the Irish Ramblers, and then she joined up with Seamus O'Kane and Jimmy Moore to form Parting Glass. She's a solo act now.
O'Connell paid her dues in Irish bars all over Chicago. Her "Danny Boy'' will knock your socks off. Mush O'Connell taught her that. "Tell the story and sing the song with a tear in your voice.''
Catherine took the advice to heart.
Singing in Irish bars can make a young lady feisty. Just ask the guy who slipped a condom onto her microphone between sets at Kitty O'Shea's one night. "My mother was there. I was seven months pregnant and I was horrified.'' Catherine's brother Mike and Marty Dolan were ready for a donnybrook, but she stepped into the fray and grabbed a fresh pint of Guinness.
"I dumped it on his drunken head and said, 'I wish your mother had used one of those things!'''
That was then; today, "I'm in church more than some priests.''
O'Connell got hooked on the hymns when two Irish sisters took her aside after their mom's sendoff. "She squeezed my hand, and says, 'I never thought I could live through my mother's funeral. And you made me sing!' ''
The Diva made a difference and found her calling.
You fellas who would like to meet O'Connell this week have three options:
Pick up her CD, "I Arise Today,'' this week at an Irish shop.
Start hanging out at classier functions.
Drop dead of a heart attack on St. Patrick's Day. Meet her at your funeral.
Hey, you could do worse. Remember, death is big with the Irish. Ask O'Connell: "Oh, it's huge; it's a growth industry, ya know. People are dying today who never died before!''