McBrides carry on family storytelling tradition

Published on: 3/14/2012

Dennis McBride wears many hats. He's an alderman and an attorney, and even the title author can join the list.

He's spent many years researching his Irish heritage in an attempt to find out if the many stories his mother, Marian "Toni" McBride, told were true.

"My mother was the primary storyteller when it came to ethnic history," he said. "She was about 90 percent right. That's really pretty good for oral history."

The working title of his book is "A Spirit Moved Our Feet: What You Need to Know about Being Irish-American." He's written the text but has yet to seek out a publisher, letting the book sit on the shelf since he was elected to office.

The McBride family (clockwise from top) includes Dennis, Gillian, Karen Barry and Donovan. Photo by Mary Catanese.

The move to Tosa

McBride and his seven siblings grew up on Rogers Avenue. His mother and father, Raymond, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel newspapers.

Toni's mentor was Jeremiah O'Sullivan, dean of Marquette University's journalism school, who happened to live in Wauwatosa.

"She'd ride the streetcar out (to have dinner at O'Sullivan's home) and said, 'I'm going to live here one day.' "

He's carrying on his mother's tradition of sharing family and Irish history with his own family: wife Karen Barry, daughter Gillian and son Donovan. He also has a daughter, Meredith, who's away at school in Chicago.

"He likes to educate us at the dinner table every night," Gillian said. Donovan added, "We've learned that anything that has to do with anything has to do with someone that was Irish."

Embracing music

Gillian performs with the Milwaukee Irish Fest choir, singing and playing the tin whistle (an instrument smaller than a recorder that can pay about two octaves).

Also called the penny whistle, it was one of the few things poor Irish people could afford, her father said.

Entertainers including Gaelic Storm and the Celtic Tenors have the choir accompany their concerts the summer festival.

"Most of the songs are in English, but some are in Gaelic," Gillian said.

Members of the McBride family have a shared love for Irish music. Donovan was named after singer Van Morrison, and he is quick to name his favorite tune, "Star of the County Down."

When the radio show "Thistle and Shamrock" aired, the family listened during dinner, Barry said.

Keeping history alive

Donovan has yet to find as much interest in his Irish roots, but he's definitely up for a trip to Ireland. His father thinks his son will develop a curiosity about his heritage with age.

"Everybody ought to know where they come from," McBride said.

For now he finds a rapt audience as coordinator of the Hedge School, a tent at Irish Fest where lectures about history, music and culture take place.