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Irish Americans

Above, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, right, joins Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker, left, who chose Walter Colleran for Legislative District 6. Photo from Steve Bellone’s Flickr page

In a sea of orange and green, Suffolk County officials, community groups and Irish Americans converged upon the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge on Friday, March 24, commemorating the first-ever Irish American Heritage Celebration in county history.

In 2019, the Suffolk County Legislature unanimously approved a resolution designating March as Irish American Heritage Month. Friday’s event marked the first such celebration sponsored by the county government.

Above, Legislator Leslie Kennedy with District 12’s pick, Matthew Kelly. Photo from Steve Bellone’s Flickr page

“We’re celebrating the incredible contributions that the Irish have made to the United States of America and to the world,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

The county executive also used the occasion to acknowledge the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, an Irish American heritage group with nine divisions across the county, including Port Jefferson, Selden, Smithtown and Huntington. Bellone said the AOH enriches Suffolk communities by celebrating Irish culture while giving back through various charitable endeavors.

Legislators from each of the county’s 18 districts had an opportunity to recognize an Irish American making an impact within their communities. Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) read off the biographical descriptions of each honoree.

Choral and bagpipe arrangements from several Irish American folk groups were performed, along with Irish historian Mike McCormack detailing the historical contributions of the Irish in Suffolk County.

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Florence Blydenburgh holds a proclamation from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone presented to her and others over 100 at St. Johnland Nursing Center. Photo from St. Johnland Nursing Center

Kings Park is known locally for its large Irish-American population. Many of the hamlet’s residents can trace their ancestry back to those who immigrated from Ireland and settled in Kings Park for jobs at the former psychiatric hospital.

One of those Irish Americans and longtime Kings Park residents is Florence Blydenburgh, 104, who currently resides at St. Johnland Nursing Center on Sunken Meadow Road. Blydenburgh, who goes by the nicknames Flo or Flossie, remembered those early days during a recent phone interview.

Both her parents emigrated from Ireland and took separate paths to Kings Park. Her mother was from Limerick and her father from County Clare. She said her father, John Coughlan, first worked in New York City, and when he heard of job opportunities at the psychiatric hospital in Kings Park, he traveled out to Long Island to see what it was all about. After working as a hospital attendant for a few months, he noticed several women regularly gathered together and wondered what they were doing. They told him they were part of a nursing school and told him how to enroll for the following September. Her father decided to sign up and went on to become a registered nurse and then took the test to be a licensed RN.

“He went up the ladder fast,” she said.

Her mother, Josephine, was brought to the United States by an aunt and uncle who promised her parents that they would treat her like a daughter and send her to school. Once her mother arrived in the city, Blydenburgh said the couple, who owned a bar and grill, made her work as a waitress. She said the Long Island Rail Road used to back their trains in where the bar and grill was, adding that people would stop at the restaurant where a few noticed how her mother was being used by her relatives as labor and told her all about Kings Park.

“She said, ‘I only have one day off, and that’s a Wednesday, I’ll go out and see,’” Blydenburgh said. “They said they would take her out on the train, and it wouldn’t cost her anything, and they’d pick her up on the train back.”

She said when her mother was in Kings Park a doctor hired her, and she was back in the hamlet a week later.

“She packed her clothes and she came out here, and her aunt and uncle never looked for her,” Blydenburgh said, adding her mother found a better life on the Island.

“In those days they gave you room and everything,” Blydenburgh said. “She had her own room. Oh, she loved it.”

After her parents met and married, they had Blydenburgh and her two brothers Francis and Vincent. She said her mother sent her and brother Francis to St. Philip Neri in Northport.

“It was the only Catholic school around, and my mother figured she didn’t know enough about her religion to teach us, so that’s why she sent us there,” Blydenburgh said, adding that there weren’t many public schools to choose from back then.

Blydenburgh, who worked as a secretary, met her first husband, Walter Lynch, who grew up in the city but came out to Kings Park to work. She said that at first his parents didn’t want him to work out on the Island, but he told his parents he just bought a car and needed to keep the job.

She said for about 15 years she and her husband lived in Brooklyn and had one daughter Marilyn. Blydenburgh missed Kings Park at times, she said, when she lived in the borough.

“I liked the nice and quiet, where you knew your neighbors,” she said. “When we moved into Brooklyn, we never got to know our neighbors.”

While she eventually moved back to Kings Park, she said one of the things she noticed changing over the years is that store employees don’t know customers’ names like they used to do in the earlier days.

“They got to know you, too,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anymore. Your face looks familiar to them, that’s it.”

Blydenburgh and Walter were married for 30 years before he passed away. When her husband passed, she said they had been dancing, which they loved to do, and he fell to the ground. She found out he had a blood clot. She was a widow for about 20 years when Joseph Blydenburgh, a widower and a descendant of the family that Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown is named after, asked if she would like to go out for dinner. The two attended the same church in Kings Park.

“No thank you, Joe, but I don’t want to become involved anymore,” she said she remembers telling him.

She lived with her mother and father at the time, Blydenburgh said, because they didn’t want her to live by herself. When she told her mother, her elder gave her some advice.

“My mother said, ‘You fool, why don’t you go?’” she said, pointing out to her that going to dinner wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would be involved.

The two eventually dated and were married for eight years before his passing in 1993.

Florence Blydenburgh said her daughter Marilyn still lives in Kings Park. The centenarian also has a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren who live in Connecticut. She said she’s had a great life and credits the people who have been in it.

“I had great parents, two great husbands, and my kid was a good kid,” she said. “My grandchildren are the same way.”

When it comes to the younger generations, her advice regarding tough times is not to worry too much.

“It would be great if everyone can do that, because we don’t have control,” she said.