By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Retired West Shore fire Capt. Richard “Woody” Beirne, one of the hardest working volunteers on the West Haven St. Patrick’s Day Committee and in the Irish American community, has been named the city’s Irishman of the Year.
Beirne, the grandson of Irish immigrants, will receive the honor at West Haven’s 30th annual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration at noon March 17.
The committee will fete the lifelong Westie by hanging a green street sign designating City Hall’s Campbell Avenue entrance as “Richard Beirne Square” for a year.
Keith Sweeney, the 2020 recipient who was honored in 2022 after a two-year pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will take home his sign at the start of the ceremony.
The “Irish Person of the Year” award is bestowed annually on an Irish resident or couple who personifies service in West Haven’s robust Irish community.
“I’m both humbled and honored to receive this (award),” said Beirne, who will toast his Irish heritage with scores of his closest friends and loved ones, along with an array of shamrock-clad dignitaries and descendants of folks from the Emerald Isle.
Accompanied by Celtic music played by bagpipers and drummers, the West Haven Police Honor Guard will escort Beirne to the Campbell Avenue side of City Hall for his special recognition.
A reception will take place before the event in the basement conference room of City Hall at 355 Main St.
The committee is co-chaired by 2009 Irishwoman of the Year Mary Lyng Malenda and 2011 Irish Couple of the Year Glenn and Joanne Conlan.
It includes the lifeblood of West Haven’s Irish society, such as members of the Irish American Club and former honorees, as well as former and current city, fire and police officials.
“I am thrilled to recognize Richard Beirne as our Irishman of the Year,” Mayor Nancy R. Rossi said. “Woody is well known in the community for his civic participation, and I thank him for his service with the West Shore Fire Department.”
Beirne, 65, hails from an ancestry whose legacy is woven into the tapestry of the American fabric.
More than two centuries ago, countless Irish people, escaping the Great Famine, embraced the dream of a brighter tomorrow and crossed the Atlantic for a new beginning in the United States. With indomitable spirit and unshakable perseverance, the sons and daughters of Erin embarked on an intrepid journey to make their new home in a place of hope and promise. And when they landed on America’s shores, they shared the true treasures of their homeland: song and literature, humor and tradition, faith and family.
In 1891, Beirne’s paternal grandfather, Patrick Beirne, left the family farm in County Roscommon, Ireland, in pursuit of prosperity in America, settling in New Haven. Four years later, his grandmother, Mary Jane, whose last name coincidentally was also Beirne, came to the Elm City from the Irish parish of Bornacoola, which straddles counties Leitrim and Longford. Each Beirne had followed cousins to New Haven, where the couple met and later wed at St. Mary’s Church in 1901.
Beirne’s paternal grandparents’ journey from celestial green shores to the States was preceded by his maternal great-grandparents.
In 1848, Beirne’s great-grandfather, Thomas Mathews, then age 2, left County Down with his mother and sibling. Seven months earlier, Mathews’ father went ahead to Norwich to find work. In 1865, Beirne’s great-grandmother, Ellen Connell Mathews, departed from the Emerald Isle and worked as a maid in Norwich before later marrying Mathews in 1877. The couple settled in New Haven in the 1880s.
Beirne, the youngest of three brothers, grew up in a single-family home on Magnolia Avenue in West Shore. He attended public and private schools in West Haven and New Haven and graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1975. He also attended Southern Connecticut State University and the University of New Haven.
His father, J. Vincent Beirne, was a deputy inspector with the New Haven Police Department.
His mother, Dorothy Mathews Beirne, was a teacher for 44 years, including 16 years at Union School in West Haven and stints at St. John the Evangelist and St. Francis schools in New Haven. She worked at the West Haven Community House during summer vacations and was a charter member and an officer of the West Haven Laurel Woman’s Club.
Woody Beirne and his wife, Suzan Beauchamp Beirne, live on Rockefeller Avenue in West Shore and will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in November. They have two children, Katie Beirne Rossi and Patrick Beirne, both of West Haven, and two grandchildren, Jillian Rossi, 3, and Brayden Beirne, 1.
The city’s top Irishman is a longtime member of the Knights of St. Patrick in New Haven and the Irish American Club in West Haven. He is a former member of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.
A long-standing member of the St. Patrick’s Day Committee, he has participated in many wearin’ o’ the green celebrations in his hometown by leading dignitaries in the opening procession and presenting the colors as a member of the West Shore Fire Department Emerald Society.
He is also a longtime member of the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society.
The mayor praised the civic-minded Beirne for “devoting his time, talents and energy” to the yearly St. Paddy’s Day event and the close-knit Irish American community.
At the event’s pearl anniversary, Rossi will present him with an Irish flag and a proclamation citing his dedication to his “deep-rooted heritage.”
Beirne will also receive an embroidered “Irishman of the Year” jacket.
West Haven’s Irish community takes great pride in the St. Patrick’s Day traditions handed down from each generation. Every March 17, those of Irish birth or lineage honor the memory of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who brought the message of Christ to the Irish people nearly 1,600 years ago. Teaching the word of God, St. Patrick used the three-leaf shamrock, with each leaf representing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The need to preserve their Celtic identity in the U.S. led the Irish to form the Hibernian Society, which held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades, and local organizations, such as the West Haven Irish American Club.
Members of the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes & Drums will lead the event’s opening procession, followed by remarks by committee member David Coyle, the master of ceremonies.
The Rev. Mark R. Jette, the 2010 Irishman of the Year, will offer an Irish blessing. Jette is the former pastor of St. Lawrence and St. Paul churches in West Haven and now serves Sacred Heart Church in Suffield.
Fiona Stewart, the queen of the 2013 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade, will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Irish national anthem, “Soldier’s Song,” followed by remarks by Rossi.
Beirne, joined by his wife, children and grandchildren, will then pull off a shroud revealing the rectangular sign.
Other relatives accompanying him will include his brother and sister-in-law, Vincent and Laurie Beirne, of Chantilly, Virginia.
Woody Beirne is perhaps best known for his decorated career as a West Shore firefighter. He served on the department for 29 years, rising through the ranks to captain before retiring in 2008.
During his distinguished tenure, he was a two-term president of West Haven Professional Fire Fighters Local 1198 and served as an officer on the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut for more than 20 years.
He is a founding and charter member and a past president of the West Shore Fire Department Emerald Society. Back in the day, he spent numerous hours getting the society off the ground with his friend Arthur Sheehan, the 2001 Irishman of the Year.
Beirne is a lifetime member of West Haven’s Elks Lodge 1537 and was its Elk of the Year in 2019. He is a past exalted ruler, serving on two occasions, and has served as a trustee for 20 years.
His propensity for public service includes serving on the Parks and Recreation Commission for the past 10 years and supporting nearly every charitable cause and fundraiser in West Haven.
Beirne has paid it forward to his community by serving as a commissioner, an EMT and a trustee of the Ray Tellier Midget Football League and the West Haven Seahawks organization for nearly three decades.
He has also volunteered for the West Haven High School football team as a spotter, helping to identify the players for announcer Steve Dargan.