Mary Size was a young nurse from Tuam when her photograph appeared in the newspaper with a group of nurses that had arrived in Chicago from England, Ireland, and Scotland to work at Jackson Park Hospital in 1959.
An Irishman in Chicago then, PJ O’Dea from Kilrush, County Clare, saw the photo and made his way to the South Side hospital to meet the young lady who had captured his heart from the front page of the Tribune.
She’s now known as Mary O’Dea after over 60 years of marriage to “the Man from Clare." PJ O’Dea, is a true GAA legend who played with two clubs in 11 cities and in four countries. He won his first county medal in 1939 and represented Clare in minor, junior, and senior hurling and played senior football with Clare and with the Munster teams in 1951 and ’52. He won an All-Ireland hurling medal and then emigrated to the U.S. where he played hurling and football in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. He’s been my friend for over 35 years and is the narrator of the epic film, "OUR IRISH COUSINS."
PJ died recently, just a week before Christmas, at the age of 97. His life would have made a great John Ford movie.
Patrick Joseph O’Dea was born in Kilrush, County Clare in 1926. He was one of seven kids and spent his youth on the playing fields enjoying football and hurling. When he was just 19 he got a mis-directed letter inviting him to join the Clare football team. The letter was for Paddy “Baldi” O’Dea, not PJ. Nevertheless, he canceled a sailing trip with some pals scheduled for that weekend and started practicing. The three young men who went on the boat trip without O’Dea perished at sea and were never seen again. That postman’s mistake saved PJ’s life.
While playing for Clare in 1950, PJ encountered eminent judge Barry O’Brien at a hotel in Tralee. “We went to the dogs (racetrack), in Limerick. I had a great night and won 300 pounds, as awful lot of money at the time. We stopped at every pub on the way down to Tralee and I was buyin’ drinks nonstop. By the time I got to Tralee I was feelin’ pretty good.”
He took the wrong room and locked the door. “I put my pants under the mattress because I had all this money.” Around 2 a.m. PJ was awakened by the judge banging on the door and demanding entrance to his room. It was a cold November night and the judge was pleading for his pajamas. PJ told me, “I couldn’t give him the pajamas because I was wearing them!”
PJ eventually wound up in Chicago tending bar at O’Hagan’s Pub at Chicago and Laramie. Then he opened his own place on West Division, calling it The Notre Dame Inn after getting heat from alums who objected to the “”Fighting Irish." He told me, “There was a lot of fun there, a few fights of course.”
He became a Democratic precinct captain and learned the labyrinthian dynamics of Chicago politics, eventually becoming a bona fide expert of patronage. He last served as liaison to the Irish community for Cook County Sheriff Mike Sheahan. PJ told me, “I enjoy politics, it’s the best entertainment in Chicago.”
In Ireland, County Clare Mayor Madeleine Taylor Quinn told me a story about the day she brought a delegation to Chicago to meet Mayor Daley. She was with her cohorts at the Consul General’s office and one of the dignitaries was alarmed that PJ had stationed himself outside the mayor’s office and was waiting to join them for the meeting. This stuffed shirt was complaining of the audacity of PJ to crash their meeting. When they finally entered Daley’s inner sanctum, the Mayor jumped from behind his desk and walked across the room to announce, “PJ, how wonderful to see you again," while the fakers fumed.
PJ was an outspoken champion of our community whose charisma and irrepressible good nature were heard on Irish radio every Saturday in Chicago for decades.
PJ's film "OUR IRISH COUSINS" is available through vimeo on demand. His spirit will live forever in the hearts of Irish on both sides of the pond. God rest his lovely soul and condolences to his wife Mary O’Dea. We will not see his like again. The world owes that postman in Kilrush many thanks.
PJ O’Dea: Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam