Saturday, March 20, 2021

Not so great a day for the Irish...

Heffernan Bar in Wexford, Ireland
Photo was taken by a friend about 20+ years ago
Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shure and begorrah (oh-oh, careful Jim), we just celebrated the day for the wearin’ o’ the green (calm down, kid). St. Patrick’s Day came and went on Wednesday, apparently without incident. No observance that I know of inspires so many clichés.


St. Patrick’s day was always big around my house as I was growing up. The name Heffernan is Irish. My father was very proud of that heritage and often said that in the Emerald Isle (oops, there I go again) back in the days of the clans, our family name was O’Heffernan. Like O’Hara or O’Connell or O’Connor, the last name of a cousin of mine who had a few more pints of Irish blood than me.


It wasn’t mentioned as much that my father was half German as well. His father, my Irish grandfather and namesake, came to Duluth from Canada about 140 years ago where he met and married a German woman, thereby diluting the Irish bloodline. But the Irish name remains with me and my kids and some of their kids, who are mostly other nationalities and very little Irish. I’m actually one half Swedish.


Growing up, I took my Irish heritage more seriously than I do these days. I didn’t know diddly about what St. Patrick was being honored for. Something about driving snakes from Ireland is all I knew. Good for him. I hate snakes. And what is more, we weren’t even Catholic.


But we always wore something green on St. Patrick’s Day, even if it was only a furry little shamrock.


I never knew my Irish grandfather. He died in his 80s when I was just two years old. He had been a bricklayer by trade, and family lore had it that he was acquainted with Duluth pioneer entrepreneur Chester Congdon who, it was said, hired him to build the brick standards that hold up the metal fence along London Road at Glensheen, the Congdon mansion. I don’t know if that’s true, but I always think of him when I drive by.


Over the years I have come to know a few of the descendants of Chester Congdon and I’ve told them about my grandfather’s alleged role in building the Glensheen fence. They always seemed unimpressed. Can’t blame them. Their ancestor built an imposing mansion and mine built a fence?


The arrival of my Irish grandfather in Duluth around 1880 coincided with the burgeoning of Duluth as a city, when tycoons like Chester Congdon and many others — whose names are still recognizable and portraits of whom are on the walls of the Kitchi Gammi Club — were building the city. Many of these businessmen acquired great wealth, but my Irish grandfather just became a bricklayer. I wish he would have joined them in their enterprises. I could have used the money.


I did inherit a song from the old grandsire, sung lustily to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman”:


“Ooooooo, I wish I was back in my Irishman’s shanty, / Where money was scarce and whiskey was plenty, /A three-legged stool and a table to match, /And a door in the middle without any latch.” This did not fit in well with my family’s strong Swedish Lutheran associations.


Still, well into early adulthood, when I stumbled into a career in journalism, I took my one-quarter Irish heritage quite seriously. In the early days of my career as a reporter for this newspaper it was obligatory for the paper to run a local St. Patrick’s Day story on the front page each March 17.


Whoever was chosen to write it always got a byline with an O’ in front of their name no matter what ethnicity their name might imply. Names like O’Olson or O’Johnson or O’Leone or O’Pearson or O’Lhutala or O’Cohen or O’Konski (how’d he get in there?) might show up atop these St. Patrick’s Day ruminations. Tee-hee.


How I longed to be chosen to write the St. Patrick’s Day story so O’Heffernan could appear in the byline. At least it would be a genuine article. Finally I got the chance.


I have no recollection of what I wrote, save for a stirring final paragraph when I stole a line or two from that old Irish ballad “Galway Bay” by writing something like “if you ever go across the sea to Ireland, you watch the sun come up on Galway Bay.”


I was quite impressed. And I got my O’Heffernan byline for my father to see. The following day, when I showed up in the newsroom, I was met by one of the old guard working there, a man I didn’t know well at that point. He happened to be of Irish extraction himself.


“Watched the sun come up on Galway Bay, did you?” he growled. “Galway Bay is on the west coast of Ireland. The sun goes down on Galway Bay.”


Ooooooo, I wished I was back in my Irishman’s shanty…


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Vaccination denial recalls earlier Duluth controversy...

Written by Jim Heffernan for the DuluthNews Tribune on Saturday, March 6, 2021

 I see where some people going through this global pandemic are refusing to get COVID-19 vaccinations because…well, because they’re afraid the vaccine is harmful to human health, or something like that. More harmful than the disease itself, apparently.


Let the record show that as a registered geezer I have had two inoculations of the COVID-19 vaccine and I am: 1) still alive, and, 2) feeling fit as a fiddle, to employ a well-worn cliché. But that’s just me, of course. I’d bet it’s you too, once you get the shots, although some people briefly feel a little sick after the second shot, they say.


Gosh, I go all the way back to the initial development of the Salk polio vaccine that saved so many lives and prevented serious crippling in others. I’m a true believer, I guess.


This vaccine phobia business reminds me of what I believe is the long forgotten controversy over the fluoridation of Duluth’s water supply. The addition of fluoride to our water to prevent tooth decay was being proposed in the mid-1960s, right around the time I started working as a reporter at this newspaper.


I had never even heard of fluoridation before then, having been an indifferent college student, more into smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo. So I had some catching up to do. That catching up involved being assigned to cover various civic gatherings organized to promote and explain the benefits of fluoridation and writing it up for the newspaper.


And what was said at those gatherings was most vehemently uttered by the opponents of fluoridating Duluth water — rabid opponents, obsessed opponents who fought fluoridation as though their lives depended on it. And, of course, they believed it did, just like the vaccine deniers.


The organized Duluth dentists all favored fluoridation in spite of the fact that if it worked their business likely would decrease. However, of course, one prominent dentist joined the opposition and readily issued statements warning about the dangers of fluoridation to the health. And the business community, generally in favor, also had one prominent opponent. I could use names here, but just about everybody’s dead anyway (not from drinking fluoridated water).


Fluoridation of the public water supply, opponents claimed, was part of a communist plot to poison Americans so that Russia (then called the Soviet Union) could take over the world, or at least defeat the United States because all Americans would be sick and dying from fluoride ingestion. That was one of several arguments. Communism is often a bugaboo, even used today in political campaigns.


While pro-fluoridation speakers and organizers did their thing, usually standing before a community club gathering of 50 to 100 people and explaining the benefits of fluoridating our water, the antis would mix with the crowd as it assembled or was leaving and bend the ears of anyone who would listen.


And the fluoridation opponents loved me, believing that as a reporter covering the meeting they could lobby me into including their side of the story in my report. Which, out of fairness, I would do. 


So the communist plot would find its way into my stories along with the scientific evidence that fluoridation would save the teeth of every child because cavities would soon disappear. That sounded pretty good to me, but I listened to the anti fluoridation people nevertheless.


I remember one prominent woman — her husband was a well known city official not involved in the campaign — trying to bend my ear at every meeting and who presented to me the most unique argument of all against fluoridating our water. After the usual claims that our health would be ruined and the communists were behind it she said (and this is a pretty accurate quote recalled from so many years ago): “Albert Einstein’s nephew in Seattle is against it.”


Well now, I didn’t know that Albert Einstein had a nephew anywhere, including Seattle, but maybe. I think I did the woman the favor of not including that argument in my story in the next day’s paper. Hope so.


I can’t recall the means by which the whole thing played out. There might have been a citywide vote approving it. In any event, they started fluoridating our water eventually, have been doing so for more than half a century, the dentists didn’t go out of business, and I’m not aware of any communist cells in Duluth cropping up in that period, although there were plenty 30 or 40 years earlier, before anyone even heard of fluoridation.


As for me, I can say I have been ingesting fluoride here in Duluth the whole time and I’m still going strong in my efforts to support Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin gang as well as keeping my Red flag flying, polishing up my hammer and sickle lapel pin and committing Marx’s Manifesto to memory.


So you can see fluoridation of drinking water has no deleterious effects at all to speak of.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at