Next generation: Janesville family passes on Irish pride

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, March 15, 2014

JANESVILLE--More than 40 years ago, little Caroline Finucan proudly danced an Irish jig on stage in front of classmates and their parents.

Dressed in a handmade green shirt and vest, she held her head high. She dropped her hands to her side. Then she pointed and hopped with all the joy of a Saturday night in Galway.

Today, the then 8-year-old with the short-cropped hair is married with a different name.

Who would guess that Carrie Kulinski treasures such a memory from St. Patrick's School in Janesville.

Carrie never lost her love of being Irish, thanks to her parents, Jim Finucan and his late wife, Mary. They passed on the pride in so many ways. On the eve of St. Patrick's Day and all year long, Carrie understands the importance of knowing your roots.

Her family emigrated from County Clare in the west of Ireland about 1900, long after the potato famine that brought so many Irish to America. Jim's great-grandfather John settled on farmland in Monroe County in a valley among Norwegians and Germans.

“My dad used to tell everyone he was Irish and proud of it,” Jim said. “I guess some of the pride wore off on me.”

The family became known as high-spirited and keen on innocent capers. But they also worked hard on the farm, which is still in the family. Jim knew early on that he did not want to spend his life tending the land.

In October 1956, he started on the line at Janesville's General Motors plant, where he assembled a 33-year career. Eventually, he represented hundreds of workers on the executive board of the United Auto Workers and met the highest GM officials.

Jim wielded his Irish wit and sense of humor to lighten many tense moments at the bargaining table.

He also courted a woman from Vilas County and married her in 1961 at St. Patrick's Church. The former Mary Jo Thomas, who died in 2007, started the first physical education program at St. Patrick's School, attended by Carrie and her brother John. Mary Jo taught Carrie how to jig.

“My mom was a great teacher,” Carrie recalls. “I can still hear her voice in my head saying, 'one, two, point and hop.'”

Carrie grew up down the street from St. Patrick's School and parish. Every year, her mother organized a big St. Patrick's Day celebration with the help of Father Patrick Doherty. Doherty was the first person Carrie ever met from Ireland, and he spent lots of time in spirited conversations at the Finucan home.

During Carrie's childhood, she recalls her mom and dad sharing stories about their Irish heritage.

Carrie's mom also collected Irish music boxes, antique leprechaun figurines and wall hangings with Irish blessings, displayed everywhere in the home.

In addition, she gave young Carrie Irish jewelry, with shamrocks and the traditional Claddagh symbol.

“It was her way of saying, 'Remember where you came from,'” Carrie said. “I guess the Irish spirit of perseverance rubbed off on me.”

Carrie has not been to Ireland—yet. But her father has been there three times since 1983. He has kissed the Blarney Stone, traveled from Shannon to Killarney on a horse-drawn jaunting cart and fallen in love with the Irish people.

“They will personally walk you to a store, if that's where you need to go,” he said.

He looks forward to returning to Ireland, where he has good friends. In the meantime, Jim treasures albums filled with photos and memories of previous trips.

Both Jim and Carrie will not let St. Patrick's Day pass without a little frolic.

In the past, Jim has dressed as a convincing priest. His alter ego—Father Finnegan—has fooled many a reveler.

Carrie will lovingly cook the traditional corned beef and cabbage for her husband, Ken, and her daughter and son, both teenagers. She also will wear shamrocks on her headband when she goes bowling.

She hopes someday her children will celebrate their Irish heritage, too.

For 20 years, Carrie counseled young people with alcohol and drug problems. Part of their emptiness stemmed from little or no connection with their pasts.

“I grew up in a close-knit family with faith and heritage,” she said. “A lot of kids don't have that these days.”

Carrie is now executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville and also manages a club in Delavan and three in Fort Atkinson.

She volunteers on this year's Irish Fest planning committee in Janesville and has taken over the group's Facebook page.

“It's great fun for me,” she explains. “I feel I belong to part of a community.”

On St. Patrick's Day, Carrie invites everyone to be honorary Irish folks for a simple reason:

“To join the fun.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com

Last updated: 2:47 pm Sunday, March 16, 2014

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