Feighan: Leaving Belfast behind, parade grand marshals find home

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Agnes and Paul Gowdy are grand marshals of the United Irish Societies' 61st annual Detroit St. Patrick's Day Parade. It's on Sunday.

Paul and Agnes Gowdy made a fateful decision in late 1977. They would leave behind everything they knew, their families and growing unrest in Northern Ireland, and move to Metro Detroit, where Paul had family.

Paul arrived first. He found a rental house near Center Line and even set up a Christmas tree since it was right before the holidays. Agnes followed a few weeks later with their three small kids at the time – Stephen, 6, Michael, 4 and Deborah, 3 – and seven suitcases. And within two weeks, Agnes, who’d left her entire family in Belfast, felt sure of their decision.

“I said, ‘This is it. This is where I want to be,’” remembers Gowdy.

That’s because in Metro Detroit, they didn’t have to worry about bombs going off in storefront windows like they did in Belfast. They could get jobs without worrying about being discriminated against because of their Catholic faith.

“There was no stress,” said Agnes. “You weren’t thinking, ‘I’m getting into Belfast so I can go here, here and here, but I can’t go there.’ There was none of that here.”

Four decades later, the Gowdys have become so entrenched in Metro Detroit’s Irish community that you can name nearly any Irish organization or group and they’re involved in it. I met them decades ago through Detroit’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick where I Irish step-danced with daughter Debbie.

On Sunday, the Warren couple will serve as Grand Marshals of the 61st annual Detroit St. Patrick’s Day parade. Presented by the United Irish Societies, it’s expected to draw more than 80,000. Paul and Agnes are the first Grand Marshals from Northern Ireland.

“It’s a big honor,” said Paul, who is retired from Comerica Bank. 

The couple – who just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last fall – say Detroit is lucky to still have its St. Patrick’s Day parade. As costs rise and sponsors dwindle, some cities, such as Washington D.C., have canceled their parades. 

Agnes, a retired executive assistant for Blue Cross Blue Shield, says Detroit relies on sponsors such as Ford Motor Company and others to help put on the parade. Barricades along the parade route, which runs down Michigan Avenue in Corktown, cost $16,000 alone, she said.

But they want to see the parade move away from its drunken party-like atmosphere and return to its roots, celebrating Irish pride and heritage. For the second year, there will be a Family Fun Zone at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Sixth Street where families can get a seat in the grandstands, hear live music and enjoy bounce houses. Tickets are $12 a person or $60 for six.

“Bring your kids down, give the kids something to the enjoy,” said Agnes.

The holiday isn’t about getting drunk and wearing obnoxious T-shirts, they say. 

“Saint Patrick is our patron saint,” said Agnes. “We need to be celebrating him and celebrating our culture.”

It was at a St. Patrick’s Day dance in Belfast that Paul and Agnes met as teenagers in the mid-1960s. 

“I turned 17 in May and he bought me a watch for my birthday,” said Agnes. “The old saying back home was ‘A watch and then the engagement ring.’ So when we were in his house and I showed his Daddy my watch, he said, ‘I hope you’ll be very happy together.’ We’d been dating for two months!”

A year after they met, they got engaged on St. Patrick’s Day. As they started to make wedding plans, Paul asked what day his future bride wanted to marry.

“Not St. Patrick’s Day,” replied Agnes. They married in early October instead.

On Sunday, they’ll mark the holiday in style: riding the parade route in the back of the 10 millionth Ford Mustang off the assembly line.

“A guy came over a few weeks ago who told us he’d be our chauffeur and I asked him, ‘At the end of the parade, do I get to keep the car?’” chuckles Paul.

And while they still visit Belfast every year and say it’s changed dramatically since they left – their son Stephen, 47, lives there with his two kids – the Gowdys know where their home is. It’s here.