By Kathy McGee Burns
The Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame has honored many dynamic women in its seven year history. This year we’ve chosen a hard-working, dedicated, fun-loving and determined woman named Attracta O’Malley.
Attracta arrived in America in 1961 at the age of 17 years. It was a long, arduous trip. Traveling alone, she left Charlestown , County Mayo, in a Hackney car, boarded a Lufthansa plane in Shannon, touched down in New York City, and after a two-and-a-half-hour layover, she took a shuttle plane to Philadelphia.
The trip was not over yet! Met by her aunt, Mary Ellen Higgins, and her siblings, Tommy, Kathleen and Mary Moffitt, they took the subway and the 23 Trolley to Germantown and finally, Attracta O’Malley had arrived!
Her parents John and Margaret Higgins Moffitt had given her three rules to live by:
- Always go to church.
- Always do an honest day’s job for an honest day’s pay.
- Come home often. Attracta never forgot this pledge made to her parents. To the best of her ability, she fulfilled her promise.
She secured the first position she went after. She remembers a test they gave her. Attracta had every question right except one. She was asked how many dimes were in a $5 bill.
Unfamiliar with American money, she confused nickels with dimes. It didn’t matter; General Accident Insurance Co. hired her on the spot. Her first paycheck was for $38. She ran immediately to the bank, sent $20 back to Ireland and then proceeded to Lerners Dress Shop, where she “bought out the store”. Attracta quickly learned, when she arrived home with two big bags and no money, that she still had rent to pay. Her siblings were very kind and generous with her when she arrived but enough was enough.
She loved TV, especially Bandstand, although her aunt thought she would like Lawrence Welk. She frequented Connolly’s Dance Hall, The Irish Center, Shamrock Club, the Crystal Ballroom and like a proper, young, Irish, Catholic girl…and the Miraculous Medal Novena on Monday nights.
Attracta O’Malley is no stranger to charitable works. With her brother and sisters, they spent a lot of time fund-raising for the Columban and St. Patrick Fathers and the Holy Rosary Sisters. No one has sold more chances and tickets than Attracta.
O’Malley quickly discovered the Mayo Men’s Association. Her brother Tommy was a member, but women need not apply. She rounded up her girlfriends and formed a Ladies Auxiliary. They met at the back of the room while the men were in the front. One of their duties was making tea for the men. Whenever the discussion to allow women into this organization came up, the recording secretary, Thomas O’Malley, was told to put down his pen. Until this day, there are many blank pages in the Mayo minutes. Finally, in 1966, the ladies triumphed. The M.M.A. was now known as the Mayo Association. Attracta O’Malley became the first woman president in 1981.She had that title in 1981-82 and then again in 1998-99. She confided in me that she had no idea had to run a meeting so she bought Robert’s Rules and proceeded to memorize it.
It is not surprising that she won that coveted title of president but she also won the heart of the recording secretary, Tom O’Malley. They’ve been married 39 years.
Attracta O’Malley has three favorite charities that she holds dear to her heart.
In 1985, she helped raise money to build Knock Airport. This project was not supposed to succeed. Its opponents said it was like throwing good money after bad. Its supporters could visualize the aid it would give to Mayo’s economy. Well, they beat the odds and Knock Airport is a successful operation.
In 1987, Sinead Jordon, a 1-year-old Dublin girl, was near death. She needed a bone marrow transplant. Her family reached out to the U.S.A., and Philadelphia’s Irish community formed a committee of all society presidents. Within four weeks, they raised $30,000. Together with the generosity of Boston, Chicago and New York organizations, they brought Sinead to Minneapolis and she was successfully transplanted. Sinead Jordon is now 21 years old. Attracta said how proud she was of this accomplishment, but prouder still of how beautifully all of the Philadelphia societies worked together as one united force.
And finally, in 1991, she was on the committee for the first Capital Improvement Fund, which was designed to renovate and refurbish the Irish Center. Under the leadership of Kathleen McGurk, they sold 1,000 tickets for $100 each and, once again, the Grand Old Lady (IC) went on to be the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Irish.
Attracta reminisced about the rivalry that went on between members of the committee. She would tell a little white lie about how many tickets she had sold, which forced others to try and top her. Keeping the Irish Center going is a Herculean task, and Attracta O’Malley appreciates the fine job Vincent Gallagher and the present board members have continued.
O’Malley has spent her lifetime giving to others. The issues in which she invests her energy are weighty. She helped to save a young child’s life; she contributed to the economy of her homeland, and she fights to keep the Irish Center going. Attracta would dismiss all of this as no big deal. She would give the credit to others.
I love to hear Attracta speak. She has a lilting voice and a small giggle which mesmerizes her listener. Her name, Attracta O’Malley, sounds like a song. I think the beauty of her name and voice is echoed by the beauty of her life.