Articles of Interest

(MAY 28, 1950-MAY 9, 2010)



May 14, 2010

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Sue McKenna has asked me to say a few words in tribute to her late husband, Ray McKenna. I am deeply privileged to do so.

Let me begin by once again expressing my deepest sympathy on your loss to Eileen, Sue, Brendan, and the entire McKenna Family. Your loss is our loss, too. It is most keenly felt by the Famine Memorial Committee; by Ray's "Brothers" in Warwick Division 1 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians; by members of the Providence Saint Patrick's Day Parade Committee, who dedicated the March 2010 Providence Parade to Ray; by other organizations too numerous to mention here, and by the State Board of the A.O.H..

I am the A.O.H. State Board Historian, and I am wearing around my neck the symbol of that office. I can think of no more appropriate an occasion than today to fulfill my office of Historian by eulogizing our distinguished "Hibernian Brother," Ray McKenna.

Let me also thank Governor and Mrs. Garrahy, Bill and Nancy Gilbane, and Dr. Patrick Conley and his wife Gail, all Honorary Co-Chairs of the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial Committee, Inc., for their presence here with us today. Without their generous personal and financial support, the Famine Memorial would never have been completed. Permit me, also, to apologize to any other dignitaries whose presence I may have failed to acknowledge.

In his beautiful homily from the altar, Father Dan Trainor has already touched on many aspects of Ray's life. I have no need to repeat those sentiments. Rather, I would like to spend the next few minutes reflecting with you on what I think was at the core of Ray's being: his "Irishness." Patrick Pearse, the Revolutionary Irish Nationalist, poet, and teacher, once said, "A short life with honour is better than a long life with dishonour." Pearse gave practical expression to those words. For all of a week during April, 1916, in what we know as the "Easter Rising" or the "Easter Rebellion" in Dublin, Pearse served as the first President of the fledgling Irish Republic. Pearse gave his life willingly, even deliberately, for the successful cause of Irish independence.

But my charge here today is not to talk about the life and death of Patrick Pearse. Rather, I would like to spend the next few minutes with you reflecting on how admirably Ray McKenna's life exemplified Patrick Pearse's concept of "personal honor."

Ray McKenna lived a relatively short life, but, by any standard, a profoundly honorable one. Ray honored God by the practice of his Roman Catholic faith. Ray honored the obligations of family superlatively, in every respect. To his mother, Eileen, he was a devoted son to the end. To his wonderful wife, Sue, he was a loving husband during their more than thirty years of marriage; Sue reciprocated Ray's love, measure for measure, during all that time.

Ray was an exemplary father to both of his sons. Brendan, I can tell you that, long before your father's illness, he would give me rides home from innumerable Famine Committee meetings, and he would be so "wound up" that it would take him an hour to decompress" (and fifteen minutes more just to say "good night").

On many such occasions, our conversations would turn to you. Your father would say how much he loved you and how much hope he had for you. Apart from our mutual love for your father, you and I have something else in common. We share the legacy of having the blood of Pearl Harbor Attack Survivors coursing through our veins! So I can assure you that the proudest day of your father's life was when you took the oath and put on the uniform of the United States Navy to begin what, I believe, will be a long and distinguished career of service to our country. On that day, you fulfilled your father's dream and, I think, eased his physical and psychological suffering a bit, too.

Ray honored each of us with his friendship and his insight, both of which were extraordinary. No one ever had a conversation with Ray without learning something from that exchange. But, although he had much to teach, Ray was one of those remarkable people who was as eager to listen and to learn from others as he was to teach them.

Most of us came to know Ray because of his devotion to his Irish heritage, which he deeply loved and honored.

Ray will, likely, be best remembered for his long involvement with the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial project. He was President of the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial Committee from its start in May of 1997 until his death last weekend.

As we all know, Ray had a very dry sense of humor, so I hope he would be amused, and perhaps even pleased, if I describe him as "the Moses of the Famine Memorial Committee."

This comparison of Ray to Moses is not as facile as it might, at first glance, seem. Moses had twelve tribes of Israel to deal with. Ray had no fewer than fifteen, fifteen, distinct Irish organizations to deal with at one and the same time; bringing these organizations under the umbrella of the Famine Memorial Committee was no easy task, but Ray did it, with grace, humor, vision, and an unfailing self-discipline.

He led us from nothing -- from a time when we had no money, no credibility, no standing in the community, a time when skepticism was rife and our critics were legion and all of them said, "The Irish can't achieve anything; the Irish will never get their act together." -- to the completion of a million-dollar project which graces the Providence skyline and which will tell the story of our immigrant ancestors for, literally, centuries to come.

There is, sadly, another parallel between Moses and Ray. Moses, as you recall, was allowed to see but not to enter into the "Promised Land." Ray lived long enough to see the Famine Memorial Project completed. But he did not live long enough to see that project placed on a sound enough financial and institutional footing so as to secure its long-term future beyond any doubt. That is the unfinished work which Ray has left us to complete.

In a very real sense, the Rhode Island Irish Famine Memorial has become Ray McKenna's "public monument." Not today, but on another day very soon, we in this room, as representatives of Rhode Island's Irish-American community, must come together again to take up and to complete Ray McKenna's unfinished work as a lasting tribute to his memory.

Ray McKenna honored us with his life. How then, apart from assuring the future of the Famine Memorial in perpetuity, can we honor Ray's memory? We can do this, I think, in two ways. First, we can continue to pray for Ray and know that he will pray for us. Second, in the days and weeks and months ahead, each of us in our own way can and must reach out to Eileen, to Sue, to Brendan, and to the entire McKenna family, to help them begin to heal from their terrible loss.

Despite the similarities I have mentioned, Ray McKenna was not Moses, nor are we "Ancient Israelites." He was, and we are, Irish-Americans, and most of us are practicing Roman Catholics. As such, we are "An Easter People" for whom The Resurrection is a certainty. So we know that we will see our Brother, Ray, again, one day soon. And what a reunion that will be!

I hope you will indulge me, for a minute or two longer, as I end on a deeply personal note.

Ray McKenna was my best friend in adulthood. He and I were, effectively, only children of almost exactly the same age. Each of us lost our siblings in infancy. Apart from that, we shared our Catholic Faith, our Irish culture, a sense of humor and a very similar, if slightly jaundiced, "world view."

In addition, during the last year of his life as Ray's mobility became more limited as a result of his illness, we shared the common experience of physical disability too. As fellow "Hibernians," Ray and I were taught to call each other "Brother." For me, this title was much more than a formality. In everything but the strictest biological sense, Ray was, truly, "the brother I would never otherwise have had!"

Ray and I, and many of you here too, are members of the great Irish Diaspora which extends around the entire world. We are a real part of the great Irish National Family.

In this mystic "Irish Family," where the bonds of personal loyalty are as strong as the ties of blood itself, Ray McKenna was, is and always will be, "MY FRIEND, MY LEADER AND MY CHIEF!"

When two Irish people of "a Certain Age" meet -- wherever in the world they may be -- and one tells the other of the death of a third person they both knew, the person receiving that awful news does two things simultaneously. He or she "Makes the Sign of the Cross" and utters aloud the simple, heart-felt prayer, "May God be good to him/her!" And so, in that same spirit, I say, here and hereafter, now and forever, "Dear Brother Ray, 'may God be good to you!' In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN!"

Ray McKenna died on May 9, 2010. The Irish Famine Memorial is part of his legacy. Click here to read more about his life's accomplishments.