On June 25, 2018, Craobh Dugan bid farewell to our beloved co-founder, Jim O’Looney, at a beautiful funeral Mass at Historic Old St. John’s Catholic Church in Utica. To the sweetly somber notes of the highland pipes played by Michael Roddy on the church steps, Jim’s loving wife, his seven children and their spouses, his 12 grandchildren, and his many friends gathered to celebrate the full and generous life Jim lived.
In 2005 Jim preserved the story of his life in an autobiography called A Time to Reflect. The section that stayed longest in my memory is the story of how he met Diana, an American teacher on vacation in Ireland. Chapter 11 begins, “On the evening of August 26, 1954, my life was about to change in a wonderful way.”
At the time, Jim was playing accordion with the Lough Lein Ceili Band at the International Hotel in Killarney. And that night Di and her friend decided to stop in and check out some local music. After the show, they lingered to chat with the musicians and that’s when Jim noticed something special about Di. The next day by a romantic stroke of serendipity, they happened to meet along the road to Muckross House and Gardens as they were riding bikes in opposite directions. They spent the rest of the day getting to know more about each other as they wandered through the beautiful gardens. Before the end of the day, Jim and Di knew they were in love.
Diana soon canceled her return ticket to the United States and after staying with friends of Jim’s for a few months, getting to know his family, and returning home to Utica for a few months, Di returned to Killarney just three days before the wedding. Jim and Diana were married at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney on June 30, 1955, and celebrated their reception at the hotel where they had met.
Now, 63 years later, we had gathered to celebrate the love story that continued and grew throughout Jim’s life. He loved his wife Diana, and said so daily as his son Michael told us in his eulogy. He loved his seven children, Mary, Katie, Siobhan, Nora, Ellen, Michael, and Roisin, and all of their families. He loved his home country of Ireland and his adopted country of the USA becoming an American citizen in 1986. He loved Utica, his hometown for over 50 years, and made many contributions there to the Observer-Dispatch newspaper as a printer and a process camera operator and as a professor in the Advertising Design and Production program at Mohawk Valley Community College. He loved music, helping to found our local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Craobh Dugan in 1978. And he loved life.
As his daughter Mary said, “My father was a doer.”
This is evident from the many honors he received, including induction into the MVCC Hall of Fame and the CCE Northeast Region Hall of Fame. He received the Spirit of Ireland award at the Great American Irish Festival in 2008 and served as Grand Marshal for the Utica St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2009.
Jim's musical idol was Scottish accordionist Sir Jimmy Shand, whose influence could be seen in Jim's waltz styling. Jim once had the honor of meeting Sir Jimmy and was paid a very high compliment by the elder Shand saying to Jim, "You have nice touch on that accordion."
A week before Jim died, Diana called Chris and Mike Hoke, the current leaders of Craobh Dugan, and asked them to gather a few musicians to come over.
“He seemed so weak, I thought he would die that night,” Chris said. But as they began to play the ancient and familiar tunes Jim had loved since his childhood in County Kerry, he gathered strength. He asked for his accordion. His fingers moved over the keys and the lovely sad melodies of his favorite waltzes filled the room. Then a few days later at 9:00 am on June 21, the first day of summer, Jim peacefully passed away at the age of 86.
After seeing the obituary on the Craobh Dugan Facebook page, many people commented about Jim’s kindness and generosity to them. At the calling hours and at the funeral reception it was the same. Everyone spoke of the happy times at gatherings in the O’Looney’s house on Springate Street in Utica after the Boilermaker Road Race, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the weekly Irish music practice sessions. Jim always wore a friendly smile and was ever ready to help. He even cared for a neighbor’s dog after the man passed away.
Jim’s life was indeed a love story, and one that will live on through the book he wrote, the CD where his accordion music is recorded, his beautiful family and the Irish cultural organization he founded. He was the kind of soul we don’t encounter often in this world. Kind, gentle, generous and refined. As his son Michael said, “He was the perfect example of a life well lived.”
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.