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Grace: Searching for Mr. Begley, discovering the immigrant origins of South Omaha

Grace: Searching for Mr. Begley, discovering the immigrant origins of South Omaha

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I went to South Omaha to find Mr. Begley.

I had heard that the likeness of the late Daniel Begley, my family’s beloved former neighbor and a fiercely proud former South Omahan of Irish descent, had been included in a new ethnic mural being formally dedicated at a 2 p.m. ceremony Saturday. The retired mailman and grandfather was not a mover and shaker per se. He wasn’t a Munnelly or a Cavanaugh or a Kennedy.

But Mr. Begley, as we called him until his death in 2014, was emblematic of the South Omaha Irish political machine, an affable storyteller and walking who’s who of Omaha history. And he wore his Irish DNA on his sleeve, literally, wearing a distinctive plaid blazer and bowler hat every St. Patrick’s Day. Every Saturday, he flew the Notre Dame flag.

So I was drawn to this corner of South Omaha, 33rd and L to be exact, out of a longing to see an old friend. I also felt a visceral pull from my own Irish roots. And, having seen photographs of the mural with popping color, solid design and interesting details, like an Irish lace altar cloth, I had to see for myself how something that delicate could be rendered on the side of a 107-year-old brick wall.

Plus, I suspected that there was a bigger story here that’s about more than the Begleys and the Irish.

Gary Kastrick, a retired South High history teacher and bona fide S.O.B. (shorthand for South Omaha Boy), and artist Rebecca Harrison were eager to tell it. The story is about you and me and the social fabric of America and one of the most fractious issues facing our country, immigration.

This Irish mural is the latest in a series of murals popping up on the backs of grocery stores and the sides of bars and bakeries in a part of town that has been Nebraska’s Ellis Island.

The murals tell stories about the people who built South Omaha, and giving credit where it’s due, Omaha and Nebraska. And those people were immigrants. Croats and Czechs. Poles and Mexicans. Lithuanians and the Irish. And, more recently, the Maya, or people indigenous to Central America.

The paintings feature real-live historical figures and events that are built around a singular place — South Omaha. Kastrick, whose grandparents were Polish immigrants, is the project’s historical consultant. Harrison, whose father Richard is leading this effort, served as lead artist on the Irish mural.

We met at Donohue’s, an Irish pub flanked by a taco truck and taqueria in what was historically a Polish neighborhood. So very, very South O.

Standing on that noisy corner, trucks heading to and from the meatpacking plants, still part of the lifeblood for this part of town, the pair explained the story depicted on the pub’s two-story south-facing wall.

It’s an Irish story, to be sure, beginning with the image in the far eastern corner of a tiny gold harp, showing the old country and a ship fleeing it. The ship is draped in rotted potato vines signifying the great famine of the 1840s that caused so many Irish to flee, including Mr. Begley’s ancestors.


A Midsummer's Mural owner, Richard Harrison, looks at the new Irish mural at Donohue's Irish Pub with his granddaughters. The South Omaha Mural Project depicts the ethnic and cultural diversity of South Omaha through 10 community-based murals.

But Kastrick wants you to know that above all, this is “a South Omaha history mural.” Here’s the South Omaha stockyards, which employed wave after wave after wave of immigrants, including a group of Irishmen who fled the country after the Easter Sunday Rebellion of 1916. They tried to form a meatpackers union and organized a labor strike in 1919. They were unsuccessful at first, but eventually meatpackers did unionize, and the meatpackers union symbol appears on the brick wall. It was but one of other labor-rights efforts the Irish helped.

The mural should be viewed right to left, or east to west. And its triangular shape symbolizes the upward climb that the Irish and other immigrant groups experience as well. First they flee hardships somewhere else. Then they come to South Omaha and take bottom-rung jobs, facing discrimination and fear. Then they gain footholds. Then they prosper.

One foothold for South Omaha Irish was politics. And the mural prominently features politicos like Thomas Hoctor, the last mayor of South Omaha before it got swallowed whole in a 1915 City of Omaha annexation.

The mural also shows the Nebraska State Capitol and U.S. Capitol, where Irish descendants went on to serve. And it features Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 visit to Christie Heights Park, which drew 6,500 people.

Another foothold was business, and here on the mural is Jimmie Murphy, who once was the top hog salesman in the United States and, Kastrick noted, the first man in South Omaha to have a Cadillac.

Murphy is depicted with his sleeves rolled up, showing that even when he became rich he still got his hands dirty, not above hopping in stockyard pens with the hogs.

The Catholic church provided footholds for immigrants of all stripes. The South Omaha Irish claimed four parishes: St. Bridget’s and St. Mary’s, which remain operational, and the old St. Agnes and St. Patrick’s, which do not.

Irish women are not forgotten on this mural and they are shown making sausage. Women were a vital part of the South Omaha labor force. And women with some political and economic pull, like a pair of matriarchs: Kitty Gaughan and Anne Conroy Munnelly. Gaughan’s daughter Rosemary married architect Leo A. Daly. Her son, Jackie, became a Las Vegas casino owner. Anne was an Irish immigrant whose husband, children and grandchildren all played big roles in Omaha labor and political movements.

Kastrick said there were too many prominent South Omaha Irish people to feature, and it about killed him to leave out mayors, business owners and others. But one scene, meant to be inclusive and symbolic, occurs at the old Duffy’s pub at 37th and Q. Patrons include a boy playing pinball. That boy is Jim Cavanaugh, current Douglas County Board member and son of Jack Cavanaugh and Kathleen Munnelly, who are also pictured.

Donohue’s owner, Mike Donohue Jr., who grew up in South Omaha, graduated from Gross Catholic High and lives above his bar, gets a cameo on the mural.

It took no convincing for Donohue to agree to putting the Irish mural on the side of his pub. The mural was painted on special material and mounted to the brick wall. He liked that it told a real-life story instead of boiling the Irish-American experience into a banal cliché.

“They told me there would be no leprechauns sliding down a rainbow into a pot of gold,” he said. And he’s right. Donohue has appreciated that the mural offers a new reason to visit the pub, where inside he plans to showcase other South Omaha historical artifacts. He attended planning meetings that taught him about the Irish contributions to his native South Omaha.

And then there’s our Mr. Begley, appearing as he does in the photograph on his funeral card: bowler hat, blazer and big grin.

It’s all so familiar and so new at the same time.

This is a goal of the South Omaha Mural Project, a grant-funded effort produced by the company A Midsummer’s Mural that is based, you guessed it, in South Omaha. Richard Harrison, an artist, administrator, consultant and father of Rebecca, runs the company.

The murals grew out of frustration, curiosity and a desire to remind Omahans that one of the most divisive issues of our time is a large part of the city’s shared story.

Kastrick, who was born, raised and continues to live in South Omaha, said he gets irked by all the old former S.O.B.s who say their ethnic neighborhoods have changed too much for their liking. He sees the murals as a way to link people together and give those who have moved away a reason to come back. Plus, it helps on his South Omaha tours having visuals to explain who came when and why and what they did.

“I constantly have to explain that the Hispanics have been here since the 1860s,” he said of the Mexican mural at 25th and N.

Harrison said he’s driven by a desire to increase empathy and understanding and help people see how similar the immigrant experience is across ethnic lines. But he hasn’t shied away from hard truths. Among the images of the new Maya mural near 24th and N is a chain-link fence to symbolize the current controversial immigrant detention centers, housing Central Americans who include ethnic Maya, at the U.S. southern border.

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“These are human beings,” he said, “with the same amazing personalities, skills, talents and culture.”

The South Omaha Mural Project next is focusing on the contributions of African Americans.

You don’t have to be Irish to appreciate the immigrant story.

“What’s an old Bohemian like you think about this?” Kastrick asked Richard Benak, a Donohue’s patron and “full-blooded Czech.”

The full-blooded Czech said he could see his own family story reflected in the Irish one.

“Beautiful,” he called it.

Bar patron Ron Kopiasz, ethnically Polish, called the Irish mural, “Pretty impressive. It adds a lot to the neighborhood.”

That is Kastrick’s hope. He said Omaha, unlike bigger cities like Boston and Chicago, had a smaller geography for incoming immigrants. People in South Omaha couldn’t isolate themselves into nationalistic communities. They worked together, sharing the same dirty, demanding, dangerous meatpacking work. They often drank together at the same taverns. This doesn’t mean they were always best friends. There were culture and other clashes as more established groups had to make room for newcomers.

Yet in time, people have lived “so smushed together in such a small area” that they started identifying by what they shared, place. South Omaha.

Mr. Begley didn’t stay in South Omaha. But South Omaha stayed in him. And South Omaha is where I found him.

“He was an S.O.B., through and through,” said Begley’s son, Jim. “He was incredibly proud of the fact he was from South Omaha.”