Editor's Views: Heritage helps pull Janesville together

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Scott Angus
Saturday, October 5, 2013

Janesville is a nice city in many ways. In my mind, though, it has always lacked an identity.

Sure, it is known as the birthplace of Parker pens, and the company that made them was a huge part of this city for a century. As we've seen, though, companies come and go, and they can't define a place.

General Motors was a perfect testament to that. The automaker started small around 1920 and grew into the biggest driver of the city's economy, eventually employing 7,000 people in the late 1970s. The workforce diminished during ensuing decades, though, and GM pulled out five years ago.

Yes, Janesville will always be remembered for those companies and many others, and it has other attributes and claims that make for a rich and colorful history.

What, though, goes back to the beginning and is likely to endure going forward? What, more than anything, holds this city together?

The Irish.

Many of us knew that the Irish played a big role in Janesville's past, and many descendents of those early settlers remain key players today in business and politics in the community.

I, however, had no idea that Janesville has the highest percentage of Irish descendents among its population of any major city in Wisconsin. Some 13 percent of Janesville residents are Irish, according to the website zipatlas.com.

My wife spent her early years in Stoughton as part of a Norwegian family, and we often visited her relatives there. I've always loved that community and envied the closeness and camaraderie that its Norwegian heritage engenders in the residents.

For years, we took the kids up to Stoughton every May for Syttende Mai, and I'd marvel at how even those who weren't Norwegian joined in the fun and celebrated the city's past and its passion for all things Norse. Stoughton's downtown is among the area's most quaint and vibrant thanks to the Norwegian flags, symbols and stores.

Examples of other cities that celebrate their histories and heritages abound in Wisconsin. It's exciting that Janesville has finally joined that group with this weekend's Irish Fest.

It's unlikely that Janesville will adopt its roots and the festival with the same fervor as other communities that have been celebrating their histories for generations. That's OK. Irish Fest could start a movement, however, that gives this city another reason to come together.

The whole thing started in Janesville when the Janesville Performing Arts Center booked Gaelic Storm for Saturday night. The band has a big national following among Irish music fans, and some industrious folks decided Janesville should build more events around the show. One thing led to another, and the four-day Irish Fest was born. It wraps up Sunday.

The organizers behind the festival deserve heaps of credit. The number and variety of events they helped pull together are astounding for a first-time affair. They no doubt will review what went well and what might be improved, added or dropped as they consider plans for another party next year.

I'm among the 13 percent of Janesville residents with Irish in my blood. The Angus clan started in Scotland, but some moved to Ireland and mixed with folks there before heading to America. My grandmother on my mother's side was a Shaw not far removed from the Emerald Isle.

I've always identified with Ireland and the richness of its culture. I'm glad Janesville has joined me, at least for one weekend.

Scott W. Angus is editor of The Gazette and vice president of news for Bliss Communications. His email is sangus@gazettextra.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @sangus_.

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