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Joan Counts Proud of Irish heritage and legends

by Darlene J. Taylor

LIFESTYLES REPORTER

Many people will partake in the "wearin' o' of the green" Friday in observance of St. Patrick's Day. But for some people the day means a lot more than wearing green clothing and drinking green beer.

Local resident Joan Counts was nearly a teen-ager when she found out that she wasn't really born on St. Patrick's Day.

"My mom wanted so much for me to be born on St. Patrick's Day that we always celebrated my birthday then," she said. "So I continued the tradition after I found out that my real birth date was March 15 and still observe my birthday on March 17."

Counts recently visited Ellis Island, where she says she gained a deeper appreciation of what her ancestors went through to come here.

Her paternal grandparents, John and Bridget Dougherty of Donegal, Ireland, and her maternal great-grandparents, John and Anna Hughes of County Court, Ireland, were all born in that country and traveled to the United States to escape the potato famine.

"My great-grandparents met on their journey from Ireland to the United States. They settled in Philadelphia, Pa., and married. My grandparents were married before they came to this country," she said.

She remembers her grandfather talking about how difficult it was to find a job when they settled in the Irish community of Philadelphia.

"The Irish were hard workers. But they were turned away so many times due to stereotypes. Signs in business windows read, 'Irish need not apply.' He ended up running a jewelry store until his retirement," she said.

Counts was born in Philadelphia and has resided in West Virginia for 26 years. "America is the greatest country there is and I love West Virginia. But I won't forget the struggle my ancestors went through to be here."

A framed Dougherty Blazon of Arms family history hangs in her dining room.

Dougherty is one of the oldest names in Ireland. The first one dates back to the fifth century. Doughertys became Lord of Irishmen in the 15th century, and it's one of the most numerous names in Ireland today, most of whom are in the Donegal area.

The Blazon of Arms represents purity, fleetness and solitary life. It signifies longevity.

Counts' father, John Dougherty Jr., was a prize fighter and Golden Gloves champion for 10 years. He was never knocked out but did lose on a technical knockout to boxing greats Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney.

"His last fight was stopped because he lost an eye. He went on to work as a body guard for Al Capone. Many former fighters became body guards for prominent members of various organizations back then," she said.

Counts' father also worked as a barker for Dick Crane Clothing Store and was head mummer for the annual parade for 15 years.

"He served as head marshal in the St. Patrick's Day parade many times. Dad always showed pride in his heritage."

Counts' mother, the former Ann Hughes, wrote short stories while raising Counts and her three sisters and three brothers.

"My heritage has helped me to overcome adversity, as many Irish have done," Counts said, seated in her living room among some of her other Irish memorabilia, such as an Irish doll given to her 50 years ago by her grandmother, a book titled "Irish Clans," a CD by the Irish Tenors, a memento from Ellis Island and a Patrick O'Santa figurine.

Like those of other nationalities, Counts said Irish people have a deep love for their country and their heritage. She also believes it is important to carry on the tradition of handing down heritage stories to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I remember hearing stories about the make-believe 'Murphy the Leprechaun' when I was young. When I became a mother, I told the stories to my children and now to my grandchildren. They enjoy hearing about their heritage. I think they will appreciate it more as they get older," she said.

The Stealey resident feels fortunate that she will be able to visit Ireland in a couple of years. "I want to see Donegal, one of the places where my ancestors came from. The first one came to this country in May 1850."

Counts' sister is taking her to Las Vegas, Nev., for her birthday. "I am going to see 'Lord of the Dance.'"

Counts also plans to celebrate the special holiday by attending the Spring Festival in Ireland, Lewis County, being held March 12-20.

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