By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Keith M. Sweeney, an integral part of West Haven’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations as a committee member and participant, will receive the city’s Irishman of the Year award at noon March 17 at the 29th annual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration.
The West Haven St. Patrick’s Day Committee will fete Sweeney, the grandson of emigrant grandparents from the counties of Roscommon and Offaly, Ireland, by hanging a green street sign designating City Hall’s Campbell Avenue entrance “Keith M. Sweeney Square” for a year.
Last year’s recipient, Joan D. Connor, will take home her sign at the start of the ceremony.
The “Irish Person of the Year” honor is bestowed annually on an Irish resident, or couple, who personifies service in the city’s rich Irish American community.
“I am humbled to receive this award following all the great Irish recipients before me,” said Sweeney, a lifelong Westie 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 Erin.
Accompanied by Celtic music played by bagpipers and drummers, the West Haven Police Honor Guard will escort Sweeney, a second-generation Irish American, to the Campbell Avenue side of City Hall for his special recognition.
A corned beef and cabbage lunch will follow in the First Congregational Church of West Haven’s Fellowship Hall, at 1 Church St. opposite City Hall on the Green.
The St. Patrick’s Day Committee, co-chaired by 2011 Irish Couple of the Year Glenn and Joanne Conlan, includes the lifeblood of West Haven’s Irish American society, such as members of the Irish American Club and former honorees, as well as former and current city, fire and police officials.
“Keith Sweeney’s accomplishments are a testament to the determination, joy and hope of the Irish,” Mayor Nancy R. Rossi said. “The residents of West Haven join me in congratulating Keith on his well-deserved recognition.”
Sweeney, 66, hails from an ancestry whose legacy is stitched into the tapestry of the American fabric.
More than 200 years ago, countless Irish people, escaping the Great Famine, embraced the dream of a brighter future and departed the Emerald Isle for a new beginning in the United States. With indomitable spirit and unshakable perseverance, the sons and daughters of Erin embarked on a perilous 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 the 1890s, Sweeney’s grandparents left the Emerald Isle in search of the American promise, settling in West Haven.
Born in 1953, Sweeney, the youngest of five brothers, grew up in a single-family home on Lake Avenue overlooking Lake Phipps. He attended public schools and graduated from West Haven High School in 1972.
Sweeney was married to the former Kathleen Johnson. They have two adult daughters — Erin Sweeney, of West Haven, and Shannon Sweeney, of Concord, Massachusetts — and a granddaughter, Etta Aylwin Seely, 1, of Concord.
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.
Rossi praised the civic-minded Sweeney for his dedication to the yearly St. Paddy’s Day event and the Irish American community, saying, “Keith Sweeney’s Irish eyes have smiled on West Haven as a goodwill ambassador of our robust Irish American society.”
Rossi will present him with an Irish flag and a proclamation citing his commitment to “sharing and preserving the culture of Ireland and the teachings of St. Patrick.”
Sweeney will also receive a blue jacket embroidered with his new title: Irishman of the Year.
The Irish American community in West Haven 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.
The New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes & Drums will lead the opening procession, followed by remarks from committee member David Coyle, the master of ceremonies.
The Rev. Mark R. Jette, the 2010 Irishman of the Year and former pastor of St. Lawrence and St. Paul churches in West Haven who now serves Sacred Heart Church in Suffield, will offer an Irish blessing. City resident Caitlin Morrissey will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Irish national anthem, “Soldier’s Song,” followed by a greeting from Rossi.
Sweeney will then pull off a shroud revealing the rectangular sign.
Sweeney is perhaps best known for his decorated career as a city police officer. 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, along with the Connecticut State Police’s Medal of Bravery, for gallantry in the line of duty stemming from 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 the police force as a detective in 1990.
He later served as an instructor at the Connecticut State Police Training Academy in Meriden and also worked as 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 former president, trustee, quartermaster and treasurer.
He is a lifetime member of West Haven Elks Lodge 1537 and was its Elk of the Year in 2010. He is a former exalted ruler and has served as a trustee for more than 25 years.
Sweeney’s propensity for public service includes serving on the Board of Police Commissioners since 2016. 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 1970s, 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.