By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Keith Sweeney said it was worth the wait.
After a two-year pause because of the coronavirus, Sweeney, who was named West Haven’s Irishman of the Year in 2020, finally received his honor on St. Patrick’s Day 2022.
With Mayor Nancy R. Rossi looking on, Sweeney, a decorated former police officer, unveiled a Kelly green street sign designating the Campbell Avenue side of City Hall as “Keith M. Sweeney Square” for the next year at West Haven’s 29th annual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration on March 17.
Sweeney, whose grandparents hailed from the counties of Roscommon and Offaly, Ireland, was presented with gifts of appreciation, including an embroidered “Irishman of the Year” jacket, and words of praise from Rossi for “sharing and preserving the culture of Ireland and the teachings of St. Patrick, personifying the qualities of an Irish Westie and the values of an American Catholic.”
In addition to Rossi reading a proclamation citing Sweeney’s dedication to the Irish American community, 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 he will pass his title to a fellow person of Irish ancestry.
At the start of the 35-minute program, Joan D. Connor, the 2019 recipient, received her rectangular sign to take home. Connor is now the longest-serving honoree in event history because of the twice-postponed celebration.
The West Haven St. Patrick’s Day Committee each year recognizes an Irish resident or couple who exemplifies service in the city’s rich Irish American community.
“I want to first thank the St. Patrick’s Day Committee for bestowing this honor on me,” said Sweeney, an integral part of West Haven’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as a committee member and participant. “I am humbled and honored to receive this distinguished award following all the great previous recipients, who have worked so hard trying to keep up the Irish heritage and tradition of our forefathers.”
As the sound of Celtic music played by bagpipers and drummers filled the air during the cultural event in honor of Ireland’s patron saint, Sweeney, 68, toasted his lineage with dozens of his closest friends and loved ones, along with a sea of shamrock-clad dignitaries, including police and fire officials, and descendants of folks from Erin.
“Whether it was working on the (Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day) Parade Committee or as a member of one of the different Irish societies in the area, we have to recognize all the hard work they do in an effort to keep the Irish traditions alive,” Sweeney told the crowd, many of whom donned Aran sweaters and other Irish garb on a misty St. Paddy’s Day.
In the 1890s, Sweeney’s grandparents left the Emerald Isle in search of the American promise, settling in West Haven.
The youngest of five brothers, Sweeney grew up in a single-family home on Lake Avenue overlooking Lake Phipps. He attended city schools and graduated from West Haven High in 1972.
At the midday ceremony, Rossi also presented an Irish flag to Sweeney, who was accompanied in the front row by daughter Erin Sweeney, of West Haven. Just a few rows behind, Bruce E. Sweeney, a long-standing member of the First Fire Taxation District’s Board of Fire Commissioners, looked on with pride as his brother was feted.
Keith Sweeney, a lifelong Westie, was also joined by former wife Kathleen Johnson, of West Haven. Daughter Shannon Sweeney and granddaughters Etta Aylwin Seely, 3, and Nellie Kate Seely, 1, all of Concord, Massachusetts, were unable to attend.
Among those attending the event were 2022 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal Seamus Bohan, of Orange, and 2022 Parade Queen Morgan Daley, of Hamden, and her honor attendant, Megan Burke, also of Hamden.
The opening procession was led by the West Haven Police Honor Guard and the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes & Drums.
After 2013 Parade Queen Fiona Stewart, of West Hartford, sang beautiful renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Irish national anthem, “Soldier’s Song,” the Rev. Mark R. Jette, the 2010 Irishman of the Year, offered an Irish blessing and shared a few funny stories about his adventures with Sweeney in Ireland.
Once at a pub in Ireland, Jette said Sweeney asked the barman, “What’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?”
“I’ll give you an Irish forecast,” the barman said. “Go and look out the window. Can you see the mountains?”
“Yes,” Sweeney said.
“It’s gonna rain,” the barman said.
“How do you know that?” Sweeney asked.
“If you can see the mountains, it’s gonna rain,” the barman said. “If you can’t see them, it’s raining.”
The invocation was followed by remarks by 2014 Irishwoman of the Year and state Rep. Dorinda Keenan Borer, D-West Haven, who served as the master of ceremonies and greeted the gathering before presenting Sweeney with a General Assembly citation on behalf of the city’s delegation.
Rossi then delivered remarks lauding Sweeney.
“Keith Sweeney’s accomplishments are a testament to the determination, joy and hope of the Irish, and on this special occasion, we remember with pride the inspiring contributions of Irish Americans like Keith Sweeney to our way of life,” Rossi said.
The program culminated in an emotionally charged performance of “Amazing Grace” by the emerald society’s array of bagpipers and drummers, who dedicated the rendition to Sweeney.
The society also serenaded Erin Sweeney, whose birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day, by playing a surprise birthday ditty.
Keith Sweeney is a member of the West Haven Irish American Club and was its Irishman of the Year in 1989. He is a former member of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee.
Sweeney, a longtime member of the St. Patrick’s Day Committee, has participated in many wearin’-of-the-green celebrations in his hometown by leading dignitaries in the opening procession and presenting the colors as a member of the West Haven Police Emerald Society.
Sweeney is best known for his career as a West Haven police officer and detective. He served on the department for 11 years, starting in 1979, and was the recipient of several commendations.
Sweeney received the department’s Purple Heart and Medal of Valor, as well as the Connecticut State Police’s Medal of Bravery, for gallantry in the line of duty while responding to an August 1988 mutual aid incident in which he suffered a gunshot wound to his right leg.
During his distinguished tenure, Sweeney also received the International Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association Award and the Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association Award.
Sweeney, a former member of the New Haven County Detectives Association, retired from West Haven’s finest in 1990.
He later served as an instructor at the Connecticut State Police Training Academy in Meriden and was an investigator at the state’s attorney’s office for the New Haven Judicial District, retiring in 2012.
Sweeney is a founding and charter member of the West Haven Police Emerald Society, was its Officer of the Year, and is a past president, trustee, quartermaster and treasurer.
He is a lifetime member of West Haven’s Elks Lodge 1537 and was its Elk of the Year in 2010. He is a past exalted ruler and has served as a trustee for nearly 30 years.
Sweeney’s propensity for public service included serving on the Board of Police Commissioners from 2016 to 2021. He also represented the 1st District on the City Council and served on the Democratic Town Committee.
Sweeney has given back to his community by coaching Conlan’s All-Stars — a girls hockey team in the late 1970s and early ’80s — and coaching and refereeing boys hockey. He has also volunteered at West Haven Hook & Ladder Company 1.
Sweeney is a former recipient of the Jimmy Fund award.
Watch the ceremony on West Haven YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApCo6sCQ0TY.