By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
With Mayor Nancy R. Rossi looking on, Irishwoman of the Year Joan Downing Connor unveiled a Kelly green street sign designating the Campbell Avenue side of City Hall “Joan D. Connor Square” for the next year at West Haven’s 28th annual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration on Friday.
Connor, the daughter of immigrant parents from County Kerry, Ireland, was presented with gifts of appreciation, including an embroidered “Irishwoman of the Year” jacket, and words of praise from Rossi for “carrying on the spirited traditions of Ireland and the spiritual teachings of St. Patrick, personifying the qualities of an Irish Westie.”
In addition to the mayor reading a proclamation citing Connor’s dedication to the Irish-American community and “inspiring contributions to the story of West Haven,” the ceremony featured the hanging of the street sign outside City Hall’s Campbell Avenue entrance naming the public square for the honoree until next year’s celebration, when she will pass her distinction to a fellow person of Irish ancestry.
At the start of the 35-minute program, last year’s recipient, Coleman W. Walsh Jr., received his rectangular sign to take home.
The West Haven St. Patrick’s Day Committee recognizes an Irish resident, or couple, each year who exemplifies service in the city’s rich Irish-American community.
“I am very proud — and a little nervous — to be given this award,” said Connor, a founding member of the West Haven Irish-American Club. “I am proud of my heritage. It was always important in our house to uphold our heritage and to pass it on.”
Connor also received a certificate of special recognition from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who jokingly introduced himself as “O’Blumenthal” before commending her meritorious good works.
As the sound of Celtic music played by bagpiper Richard Mount filled the air during the cultural event in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, Connor, 86, toasted her lineage with more than 200 of her closest friends and loved ones, including her two daughters, along with a sea of shamrock-clad dignitaries and descendants of folks from Erin.
“Receiving this award means the world to me” … (and) “is right up there with swimming with the dolphins,” she jokingly told the crowd, many of whom donned Aran sweaters and other Irish garb on an otherwise cloudy but mild day.
In 1911, at the ages of 24 and 21, respectively, Connor’s parents, John Downing and the former Nellie Reilly, left their homeland in search of the American promise, eventually meeting in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood and marrying there in 1922.
Her father worked as a waiter and bartender, and her mother toiled as a maid and homemaker who raised the couple’s four daughters.
At the midday ceremony, held two days before St. Patrick’s Day, Rossi also presented an Irish flag to Connor, who was accompanied onstage by her daughters, Joanne Connor, of West Haven, and Patricia Connor Thompson, of Shelton, and her 6-year-old great-grandson, Liam Buckheit. Just offstage, her grandchildren looked on with great pride as their grandmother was feted.
Joan Connor was also joined by several nieces and nephews and other relatives.
Among those attending the event were 2019 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal Courtney Lundgren Connors, of Hamden, and 2019 Parade Queen Taylor Besciglia, of West Haven, and her honor attendant, Claire Bohan, of Orange. Other attendees included state Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, and North Haven First Selectman Michael J. Freda, a native of West Haven.
The opening procession was led by members of the West Haven Police Color Guard. It was followed by remarks from master of ceremonies David Coyle, who greeted the gathering before presenting Connor with a General Assembly citation on behalf of the city’s delegation.
Before an Irish blessing from the Rev. Mark R. Jette, former pastor of St. Lawrence and St. Paul churches in West Haven who now serves Sacred Heart Church in Suffield, 2013 Parade Queen Fiona Stewart, of Meriden, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Irish national anthem, “Soldier’s Song.” Rossi then delivered laudatory remarks about Connor.
“Joan Connor’s Irish eyes have smiled on the clan of the Emerald Isle as a goodwill ambassador of our deep-rooted Irish-American society,” Rossi said. “With determination, skill and grit, Irish-Americans like Joan Connor … have enriched our community with their achievements and service.”
Connor, born in the Elm City in 1932, grew up in a two-family home at 109 Lilac St. in Newhallville.
She graduated from Wilbur Cross High School in 1950. Two years later, she married James J. Connor and had three children, including James P. Connor, who died in 1980.
The Connors moved to West Haven in 1957 to raise their family and “build a better life for themselves.”
The couple were instrumental in founding the Irish-American Club in 1962 with John and Mary Reynolds, Jim and Rita Artes, Jack and Bea Neylan, Dick and Kate Jones. They were joined by the Gallagher, Hudson and McDonough clans.
According to Connor, they asked one another at the time, “New Haven has an Irish club, why not West Haven?”
After more than a half-century of continuous operation, the Irish club is still going strong. And Connor is still a hands-on member.
Connor and her husband, who died in 2003, wore many hats in the Irish club. They helped plan the open house party after the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the spring Easter egg hunt, the summer picnic in Painter Park, and the “Christmas in Ireland” dinner dance.
She ran the Feis, the club’s Irish dance competition, and made traditional Irish dance costumes for her children, who took lessons from Kathleen Mulkerin Jones.
In the 1995 parade, Connor led the club as marshal. She received the club’s Appreciation Award in 2000.
A woman of faith and family, Connor, who lives on Jones Hill Road in West Shore, is a longtime parishioner and volunteer at the nearby Our Lady of Victory Church. She is also a Eucharistic minister who gives the sacrament of Holy Communion to the sick and homebound.
Connor’s love of all things Irish and passion for community service has been passed on to her children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, many of whom have followed in their mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps as active members of the Irish club, the Irish community and charitable organizations.
Both her daughter Joanne and granddaughter Cathleen Steinau Buckheit, the 2003 parade queen, are former club presidents. Granddaughter Katie Thompson was the parade’s honor attendant in 2012 and 2013.
In addition to participating in the Irish club, Connor is perhaps best known for having worked as a security officer for the Board of Education at West Haven High School for years.
Long before the advent of school resource officers, it was Connor and her dear friend, Mary Reynolds, who monitored the halls keeping teens in class and out of trouble.
Connor was affectionately known as the “Blue Lady” and Reynolds the “Pink Lady.”
“Mary was already known for her pink smock, so when my mother took the position, she asked that her color be blue in honor of the Virgin Mary and her strong Irish Catholic faith,” Joanne Connor has said.
Although Joan Connor retired from the school board in 1996 after a 31-year career, she is still recognized by former students.
Near the end of her remarks, Connor said she was surprised and humbled by the nomination.
“Thank you all from the bottom of my Blue Lady heart!”