Ocean City area home to more Irish than almost anywhere in America

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Cindy Nevitt / Every March, for what he calls St. Patrick’s month, Rich Tolson of Plymouth Place flies the flags of Ireland, Notre Dame and the U.S., along with a decorative shamrock flag. Cindy Nevitt / Every March, for what he calls St. Patrick’s month, Rich Tolson of Plymouth Place flies the flags of Ireland, Notre Dame and the U.S., along with a decorative shamrock flag.

OCEAN CITY – On television, the Jersey Shore is Italian. But in reality, it’s Irish.

According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, the Ocean City Metropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses all of Cape May County, has the second-highest percentage of residents claiming Irish heritage in the country.

The place with the highest percentage of Irish is Butte, Mont. with almost 25 percent of its respondents claiming Ireland as their country of ancestry. The census, which asked Americans to trace their roots to one or two ethic groups, showed the Ocean City MSA next with 24 percent of its residents of Irish descent. Among the nation’s 942 metropolitan and micropolitan areas, only two others, Corinth and Barnstable Town in Massachusetts, reported Irish populations in excess of 20 percent. Irish is the second-most common ethnicity in the U.S., behind German (at 45.7 million), with 33.4 million Irish-Americans counted in all 942 markets.

Mining jobs in the late 19th century attracted Irish immigrants to the West, including Butte, home of the Anaconda Copper Mine. Proximity to New York City, gateway to the New World, kept many Irish close to the East Coast.

Here are the stories of three whose ancestors chose Ocean City, N.J., as the place they called home.

Michael Millar

Kathleen and William Millar moved their eight children from Philadelphia to Ocean City in 1972, when their youngest, Michael, was 4. Forty-one years later, Michael still lives in town, in a home on West Surf Road that dates to the 1920s, with his wife, Rose, and their three children.

Millar, a 100-percent, third-generation Irishman whose paternal grandfather emigrated from Cullybackey, Ireland, to the U.S. via Canada in 1923, celebrates his heritage modestly. A plaque made in Ireland, bearing the coats of arms of his family and that of his wife, whose maiden name is Donahue, hangs over a doorway on the first floor. A letter conferring Irish citizenship upon him is kept folded in a zippered plastic bag.

“I just think it’s kind of a link,” he said of the act of obtaining his Irish citizenship, something six of his siblings also have done. “I did it to honor my father and my grandparents.”

The Millars gave their children traditional Irish first names paired with Irish surnames that hold meaning to the family.

“It keeps those names alive,” Millar said of the practice of choosing family surnames for his children’s middle names.

Daniel Donahue has his mother’s maiden name for his middle name; Liam Devlin has his maternal grandmother’s maiden name for his middle name; and Bridget Egan has a great-great grandmother’s maiden name for her middle name.

Every year, Millar, who has 24 nieces and nephews, and his wife, herself one of 10 children and an aunt to 30 nieces and nephews, get together with family for St. Patrick’s. This year, 120 people attended a gathering on March 2 that served as a fundraiser for the family’s MS City to Shore bicycle team, the Irish Half-Wits. The team has participated for many years in the bikeathon in honor of a family member who has multiple sclerosis.

When the Millars added a pet to the family two and a half years ago, they chose a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a dog they say may be English, but isn’t by name. They call her Claddagh, which is the Irish symbol of love, loyalty and friendship, a fitting name for a dog with a white, heart-shaped spot atop her brown head.

Rich Tolson

The youngest of six, Rich Tolson is the only one who was born after his family moved from Philadelphia to Ocean City in 1954, after living for a year in Wildwood.

“I am a native,” said Tolson, a 1976 Ocean City High School graduate who, during what he calls St. Patrick’s month, flies the flags of Ireland, Notre Dame, the U.S. and a shamrock from the second-floor porch of his Plymouth Place home. “There are fewer and fewer of us these days.”

Tolson is three-quarters Irish, with a half-English, half-Irish father, Charles. His mother, Josephine Martin, is 100-percent Irish. His childhood Sundays, growing up at Second Street and Ocean Avenue, were spent watching Notre Dame football game replays on television after attending Catholic Mass and before heading out to play football himself.

Since 1999, as a member of the Bricklayers’ union, Tolson’s Irish tradition has been to march in the annual St. Patrick’s parade in Atlantic City. His wife, who is Italian, makes him Guinness stew, and his Italian father-in-law makes him ham and cabbage, even though, Tolson said, “I don’t like it.”  

Jim Ginn

Although he has lived outside of Ocean City longer than the 23 years he lived on the island, Jim Ginn is still an Ocean City guy. The 1974 Ocean City High School graduate, an Upper Township resident and father of six, grew up one of five children on 30th Street, where his mother, Gerry, still lives.

Ginn is the guy behind the OCNJ.com car magnets and related merchandise. Once only offered in a red-and-white color combo on an oval shape, the magnets have taken on new forms with the holidays. For St. Patrick’s Day, Ginn is distributing green OCNJ.com car magnets in the shape of a shamrock.

Ginn, whose heritage is 75 percent Irish, celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by indulging in Irish potatoes and Irish soda bread, and by joining 10 to 12 family members annually for a traditional ham and cabbage dinner at his childhood home.

As is fairly typical of Irish surnames, Ginn said his is a truncated version of the original. “Ginn is short for McGinn,” he said. “Supposedly, it was shortened when it was not popular to be Irish.”

While it is true that the Irish were discriminated against when the Great Potato Famine in the 1840s killed 1 million and drove another million out of the Emerald Isle, that appears not to have been the case in Cape May County, where generations of Irish have put down roots, practicing their Catholic faith, raising their large, loving families, and sharing their culture with the community.

Cindy Nevitt / For St. Patrick’s Day, Jim Ginn of Upper Township is advertising his business, OCNJ.com, on a green, shamrock-shaped car magnet. Cindy Nevitt / For St. Patrick’s Day, Jim Ginn of Upper Township is advertising his business, OCNJ.com, on a green, shamrock-shaped car magnet.

Cindy Nevitt / Michael Millar and his daughter Bridget hold a plaque, made in Ireland, showing the coats of arms for his family and that of his wife’s family, Donahue. The words beneath the Millar crest say, “Religion will render a man happy,” and the words beneath the Donahue crest say, “Never unprepared.” q Cindy Nevitt / Michael Millar and his daughter Bridget hold a plaque, made in Ireland, showing the coats of arms for his family and that of his wife’s family, Donahue. The words beneath the Millar crest say, “Religion will render a man happy,” and the words beneath the Donahue crest say, “Never unprepared.”


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