By Paula Katinas
Mary Nolan has lived in Bay Ridge since 1965 and has been active in politics since the time she moved here from Park Slope. Nolan, who emigrated from her native Ireland to the U.S. in 1953, became an American citizen in 1959. Much of her political work is devoted to immigration reform.
“This is a great country. There’s so much opportunity here. That’s why people want to come here. We shouldn’t act like people are criminals because they’re looking for a better life. This country was built by immigrants,” said Nolan, who was born and raised in County Limerick and still has traces of her Irish brogue when she speaks.
Nolan is the president of the Bay Ridge Irish-American Action Committee, a group that used to hold annual marches in Brooklyn to commemorate the victims of “Bloody Sunday,” the infamous incident in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland in 1972 in which British troops shot and killed 14 unarmed men and boys taking part in a protest march.
Nolan and the committee would lead marchers up 60th Street to the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where a mass would take place to remember the victims.
“I used to bring my children to the marches when they were young,” Nolan said.
Last year, the group’s final “Bloody Sunday” march took place. The marches ended, Nolan said, because at last the British government took responsibility for the killings of the 14 victims and admitted that the soldiers had no right to shoot.
“For years, the British had blamed the victims. There was no compassion for people who were suffering,” she said.
The British government’s admission was the redemption the protesters had been seeking, Nolan said.
Nolan first became active in the Irish civil rights movement in the late 1960s.
“We raised money for the civil rights movement. I think the British were surprised at how much money we raised,” she said.
The Vietnam War was still being waged at that time. Bay Ridge was the site of one of the largest anti-war protests in New York City, a demonstration that took place in John Paul Jones Park and drew tens of thousands. Nolan said, however, that despite her feelings about the war, she respects and admires the soldiers who fought in the war.
“I have tremendous respect for all of our veterans. Without them, we would not have the freedoms we have,” she said.
Nolan has also worked with elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, to ease visa restriction for the country’s immigrants.
“We’re talking about legal immigration. A lot of immigrants come here on a visa and they overstay their welcome,” she said.
Nolan was also involved in politics in another way.
“I used to campaign for candidates running for seats on the local school board. We used to collect petition signatures for them,” she said.
Under decentralization, the state education law that was in place in New York City from the late 1960s until 2002, each local school district had a school board composed of nine members elected by the public. School board elections were fierce contests because the boards wielded a great deal of power. They hired and fired school superintendents, formulated budgets, and made decisions on curriculum in schools.
Nolan, who cast her first vote as an American in the 1960 presidential race, voted for John F. Kennedy.
“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” she said.
Nolan said she loves living in Bay Ridge.
“It’s a good community to raise children,” said Nolan, the mother of four. “My children went to Saint Patrick’s School and I was always involved there. The school was wonderful. They gave you a chance to become involved, even if you were a newcomer. They welcomed the help.”
Nolan is a member of Community Board 10 and serves on its Police and Public Safety and Environmental committees.
“I wanted to help people with neighborhood issues,” she said.
As a proud Irish-American, Nolan also works to promote the history of the Irish in the U.S. She is president of the Commodore Barry Club, an organization named in honor of Commodore John Barry, a Revolutionary War hero known as the “Father of the American Navy.” Barry hailed from County Wexford in Ireland.
“Currently, we are focusing on raising money for a fitting memorial to Commodore Barry at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland,” Nolan said.