“Nothing Stops Me”
Kathy McGee Burns grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia where, except for her sister, she was the only Irish girl in the neighborhood.
“I didn’t have much of an ethnic identity,” she says. “My family was well-to-do: We belonged to three country clubs. We were bused to Catholic school because there were no Catholic schools in our neighborhood. I never knew Irish people did step-dancing. The only Irish record we ever had was Bing Crosby and we only played it on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Yet this “clueless” Irish girl went on to become the first woman president of the Donegal Association of Philadelphia, the first president of the Delaware Valley Irish Hall of Fame, and next year will be only the second woman to serve as president of the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Observance Committee, which oversees the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, a Philly tradition since 1771.
That McGee Burns had time to discover her Irish roots is miraculous. By the time she was 21, she was the mother of six children under the age of 4. After the seventh, she became a single mother and enrolled in Montgomery County Community College to get her associate’s degree. It took her eight years. Then another eight years to get her bachelor’s in medieval history at Chestnut Hill College.
In the midst of all that, she met and married Mike Burns, the love of her life, and had two more children. At 50, she entered Temple University Law School where she joined the Brehon Law Society and it was there she had her Irish epiphany.
“In Ireland, Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers were starving themselves to death, and Bobby was the same age as my son Tony. I thought, here I am, with a son that age, and I thought of Mrs. Sands, waiting for her son to starve to death. What would I give my life for? Of course, my children. And I started getting interested in my roots—but I had no idea where we were from.”
Her father could give her only one clue. “We’re related to every McGee in Bridgeport, PA, Kathy,” he told her. So she contacted every McGee in Bridgeport until she found one who offered one slim lead: the lines to an old song they’d heard their parents sing, “We come from Donegal where they eat potatoes, skins and all.”
Of course, she did find her family in Donegal. “Nothing stops me,” she says. In fact, there’s very little Kathy McGee Burns sets out to do that she doesn’t accomplish. Today, she is a successful realtor, a cancer survivor, and grandmother of 13 who knew what she was really looking for when she began that search for her roots. “I grew up in Flourtown,” she says, “but the Irish community is my real hometown.”