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Hibernian Hunger Project


A Hibernian Ho-Ho-Ho

Mary Patrick loads up the truck.

Mary Patrick loads up the truck.

It was just after 9 o’clock Saturday morning at Shamrock Food Distributors in Frankford, a few minutes after local Hibernians were scheduled to start loading up trucks, cars and vans with Christmas baskets for the needy.

In all, 84 cardboard boxes were slated for delivery to local families. Each box contained a 14-pound frozen turkey with all the holiday trimmings, including enough for leftovers. And as well-organized as the Hibernian Hunger Project effort was last year, the project this time around was even more so. Minutes after the drive began, it was nearly all over. Most of the boxes had already been picked up and were on their way. Only a few volunteer drivers remained to finish up the job.

“It all went smoothly,” said chief Santa Bob Gessler. “We had a lot of volunteers from last year who knew what they were doing, and the people who came out last year brought more volunteers.”

Ten more families will receive gift cards, Gessler said.

Out on Fraley Street, Kathy Blair worked with Thomas Wiegel to cram boxes into an SUV. It was her second time out. “We only delivered two boxes last year,” Blair said. In some cases, she knows who’s on the receiving end, “and I know they need it.”

Michael Flynn of Chestnut Hill stopped to pick up three boxes for delivery in the Mayfair section. He works with the Irish Memorial at Penn’s Landing and the Mayo Society. “Bob sent an email to all the members of the Irish Memorial,” he said. “We do a lot for various charities. Hey … it’s Christmas!”

First-timer Anne Redmond came all the way from Medford Lakes, N.J., to help out. She heard about the project from Irish Philly Mickmail. Her decision to volunteer is all part of a larger personal process to get in touch with her roots. “I’m embracing it instead of running, screaming into the night.”

Tom and Anne Mitchell of Newtown Square also were alerted via Mickmail. For Anne, there was almost no choice whether to join in. “Christmas really only feels like Christmas if you reach out and help others in need.”


Help the Hibernians Brighten Up the Holiday for People in Need

Packing the boxes last year.

Packing the boxes last year.

The good people of the Hibernian Hunger Project don’t know when you’re sleeping. They don’t know if you’re awake. The only thing they know for sure is that many of you are struggling to make it in a depressed economy. And while they can’t turn the economy around, the one thing they can do is help you have a merrier Christmas.

Early in the morning of Saturday, December 17, organizer Bob Gessler will gather with volunteers at Shamrock Food Distributors on Fraley Street in Frankford to put the finishing touches on large boxes containing the fixings for a generous Christmas dinner—turkey, stuffing, veggies, bread, pie and even some cheery decorations. After that, they’ll load the boxes into cars and vans, and fan out throughout the city to deliver the boxes to dozens of needy families.

Last year, the Hibernians brightened up the holiday for about 70 families; this year, organizer Bob Gessler hopes to at least double last year’s total.

“That’s the number we anticipate, but quite frankly, if we wind up with 200 names, we’ll try to get that done,” he said.

As bad as the local economy was last year, it’s not much improved this year—it could even be a bit worse. Gessler knows people are hurting, although he and others who are working on this project often don’t have a line on exactly who needs help. Just based on personal experience, Gessler knows that many in the Irish and Irish-American community are reluctant to make their need known, so the folks behind the project have cast a wide net, looking for information on anyone who needs a bit of help come Christmas day.

“If you know a family in need, please let us know,” Gessler said. “A lot of families slip through the cracks of other programs. We’re looking to help everybody, regardless of race, color, creed … none of that matters. We just want to help people in need.”

Want to help? There are three ways:

  • First, help pack the boxes.
  • Second, drive boxes to the homes of the needy
  • Third, let the Hibernian Christmas crew know of families in need.

Communicate directly with Bob Gessler at

Joining the Hibernian Christmas effort will make many Christmases bright—including yours.


Hibernian Hunger Project Helps to Make the Season Bright

Making a list and checking it twice: Bob Gessler and Donna Donnelly.

Making a list and checking it twice: Bob Gessler and Donna Donnelly.

On a chilly Saturday morning, a small fleet of cars, minivans and trucks pulled up in front of Shamrock Food Distributors on Fraley Street near the Frankford Armory. Bob Gessler, founder of Philadelphia’s Hibernian Hunger Project, pulled up, and within minutes the huge loading dock doors rolled open. Volunteers wearing jackets and shirts from many local Ancient Order of Hibernian divisions poured from the vehicles, and within a short time a very smooth-running assembly line spontaneously took shape.

Boxes were loaded into truck beds and wedged into car trunks. Gessler handed envelopes neatly filled with addresses and street maps to drivers, and soon all those vehicles were headed out of the neighborhood in all directions.

This rarest of things—an Irish project run with Prussian efficiency—was the Hibernian Hunger Project’s first Christmas food basket operation. The local Hunger Project committee hatched the idea maybe three weeks before, not knowing how it might go or how many needy families would be provided with frozen turkeys with all the trimmings for their Christmas dinner.

In the end, the local committee raised funds for 70 boxes loaded with food, and easily found needy families to receive them.

“We had a committee meeting to propose the idea, and we all said, let’s just do it,” explains Gessler. “We sent the message out to as many people as we could, and we got a list of names. This year, so many people need it. What’s nice about this is, it really does some good. Everyone we talked to was appreciative.”

Helping the project get off the ground was Jimmy Tanghe, owner of Shamrock, who found a way to turn the many donations into boxes crammed to the lids with nutritious food. “I asked if he was up to the challenge,” Gessler says, “and he was.”

This year’s project was so successful, Gessler says, there are already plans to do it again. And Gessler and his gang are already thinking big: “I think 200 baskets is the minimum for next year.”

People, Sports

Bowling for Hunger

Hibernian bowlers in action.

Hibernian bowlers in action.

It must have been a little painful for Jim Donnelly to watch the 40 bowlers on his Hibernian Hunger Project league roll games with scores that might be great out on the gold course, but in a bowling alley. . .not so much.

“They ain’t the greatest bowlers,” deadpanned Donnelly, the bowling team coach at Father Judge High School, “but. . . “

But, over the past 12 weeks, these bowlers, dropping $5 into the kitty every Tuesday night at Thunderbird Lanes in the Northeast, have raised about $2,500 for the Hibernian Hunger Project (HHP), a program that feeds thousands of needy people in the Philadelphia area and, since it’s been adopted as an official charity of the national Ancient Order of Hibernians, tens of thousands around the country.

Founded in 2000 by former AOH Div. 87 President Bob Gessler, the program delivers food—usually packaged meals prepared fresh by volunteers during the annual “Cook-in”—to senior centers, homeless shelters, churches, and service agencies such as Aid for Friends which provides meals to the elderly and shut-ins.

“The bowling league is illustrative of what we envision the Hibernian Hunger Project to be,” says Gessler. “Jim Donnelly on his own initiative decided that he could combine fun with helping others. He had a great idea, put it out there and like-minded people joined together and made a real difference. That is the HHP, the power of people joining together to help those in need.”

We went out to Thunderbird Lanes this week and saw what it looks like when you combine fun with helping others.

Food & Drink, People

Stew Cook-Off Winners Rise to the Top

Hibernian Hunger Project

Tom Coffey, right, Mary Carr, and daughter Bernadette. (Click on photo for more.)

On one side of the table, Mary Carr. On the other, son-in-law Tom Coffey. In front of each: a foil tray filled with simmering Irish stew. Her stew. His stew. And only one stew can be … the best. It’s Mom vs. Tom.

On this Sunday afternoon at Finnigan’s Wake in Northern Liberties … Tom is the winner. His Irish stew is judged the best in the amateur category at the Sixth Annual Great Irish Stew Cook-Off, sponsored by the Hibernian Hunger Project.

Tom Coffey accepted his award with grace. Of Mary Carr, he said, “She needed a good ass whuppin’.”

But seriously, now, folks … “She (Mary) is a good sport,” says Tom. “I didn’t marry my wife. I married a family, and they’re a very social group.”

So no worries about where Tom Coffey will have Easter dinner. Rivalry aside, Tom’s making dinner. “And I always invite myself,” he says.

Here are the other winners:

  • Hibernian: Maryanne Burnett (LAOH 87)
  • Irish Organization: Helen DeGrand (Mayo Association)
  • Professional: Josh Landau (a 2007 winner)
  • People’s Choice: Team Kerrigan (a 2009 winner)
Food & Drink

Bragging Rights for Fishtown in Irish Stew Cookoff

Joe Kerrigan accepts his prize from Hibernian Hunger Project director Ed Dougherty.

Joe Kerrigan accepts his prize from Hibernian Hunger Project director Ed Dougherty.

There was something about Joe Kerrigan’s Irish stew. Maybe it was the tarragon. Possibly the Worcestershire sauce. Perhaps all the beer.

Whatever the secret—and there was, unquestionably, something mouth-wateringly different about Kerrigan’s stew—it was clearly the people’s choice for best stew by an amateur cook at the annual Irish Stew Cook-Off at Finnigan’s Wake, benefiting the Hibernian Hunger Project.

One key difference Kerrigan was willing to admit to: the meat. Most of the contestants went with American-style beef, a few with lamb in the Irish fashion—and one entry included both. Kerrigan, a Fishtown florist and member of AOH Division 87, used beef brisket, cooked long and slow until fork-tender.

Kerrigan, who looks a bit like John Goodman, says he and his buddy Tom Sullivan started Thursday morning (the event was Thursday night) in Sullivan’s kitchen. And it sounds like Kerrigan’s not a neat cook. “We both were working on it,” he says. “We started at 11:30, and it’s been cooking since 1. At 2, we realized we didn’t have enough meat so I had to send him (Tom) out for more … I really destroyed his kitchen.”

The recipe started out as a variation on Kerrigan’s chili, which, in his own very humble estimation is “awesome.” All of his buddies were telling him to give the competition a shot. The 2009 cook-off was his first.

Taking first place in the pro category was the Starboard Side Tavern, also in Fishtown.

We have photos from the night.


Fighting Hunger, One Tray at a Time

Emily Semon and Miranda Shaw put the finishing touches on a mac and cheese meal.

Emily Semon and Miranda Shaw put the finishing touches on a mac and cheese meal.

How many people does it take to make 6,000 meals?

About 160, working side by side at long tables propped up by apple juice cans for about three hours.

I know that because I saw it for myself on Saturday, March 30, at the warehouse of Aid for Friends in Northeast Philadelphia, just off the Roosevelt Boulevard. Dozens of members of Delaware Valley Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) divisions and their distaff LAOHs filled aluminum trays with slabs of meatloaf, scoops of mashed potatoes, mountains of peas, and puddles of creamy mac and cheese. The individual meals were frozen and will be distributed to the more than 2,000 needy shut-ins served every week by Aid for Friends, a 34-year-old organization that provides three meals a day and an empathetic listener to the homebound, mainly the frail elderly. And it’s all free.

Not for the AOHers, though. They collect money all year long–at parades, Irish events, fundraisers–to buy the food that they whip into meals once a year. And we’re talking enough to prepare more than 60,000 meals since the charity was founded 9 years ago by AOH Div. 87 member Bob Gessler, who was honored by the national organization this year for his efforts.

Though the program started in Philadelphia, the national AOH has adopted the Hibernian Hunger Project as an official AOH charity and it’s quickly spreading across the country from one division to the next.

It’s easy to see why. With Irish music blaring from a portable CD player, the volunteers, bustling in assembly lines, still took time to chat with their neighbors, laugh, and joke. It’s a little like a party–one of the ones that take place mostly in the kitchen.

“This is always a real feel-good kind of day,” said Donna Donnelly, Philadelphia County co-chairman of the organization, who was doing a lot of bustling herself. “But this was amazing. We had members, kids from local high schools, other volunteers. We’ve never been done this early.”

The meatloaf, however, was done before the side dishes ran out, so an executive decision had to be made: The last meals would be light mac and cheese suppers with lots of peas. Then the clean-up. It only took a few minutes to whip off the tablecloths, yank the apple juice cans that raised the folding tables to waist-high for better prep, and fold the tables and put them away. Around noon, the volunteers started to drift away, 6,000 trays of food stocked neatly in a walk-in freezer. It was done. Till next year.

You can learn more about the Hibernian Hunger Project here.

You can learn more about how to volunteer for Aid for Friends here.

Food & Drink

Big Night for Fishtown and Port Richmond at Irish Stew Cook-Off

Amateur winner Dan Hazley and second place finisher Phil Bowdren.

Amateur winner Dan Hazley and second place finisher Phil Bowdren.

Dan Hazley has been making his Irish stew for years. “I got the recipe from my aunt Mary, my dad’s sister,” said Hazley. “It’s made with beef. I only get to make it a couple of times a year. I always knew it was pretty good. I just didn’t know whether anyone else would think so.”

So do they? You bet they do. Hazley’s Irish stew was this year’s winner, in the amateur category, of the Irish Stew Cook-Off at Finnigan’s Wake. The savory cook-off is sponsored annually by the Hibernian Hunger Project.

Better yet, Hazley—who represented Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 87 of Port Richmond in the all-you-can-eat event—shared honors with a good friend, chef Mary Kate McCaughey of Fishtown’s great little Irish eaterie called Ida Mae’s (2302 E. Norris St.). Mary Kate picked up a first in the professional category.

Dan may have his aunt Mary to thank, but Mary Kate credits her mother-in-law Veronica. “It’s her recipe,” she said. And it’s as authentic as Irish stew gets. Her husband Feargus, co-owner of Ida Mae’s, is from just outside of Belfast. He’s one of 11 children—the only one to have left Ireland. So when Mary Kate decided to enter the cook-off, she called her mother-in-law. “I said, ‘I need your beef stew recipe.’ She said, ‘Honey, it’s lamb. You don’t make Irish stew with beef.'”

So, like any good daughter-in-law, she listened. Good thing. Her savory concoction was top drawer—and the judges clearly agreed.

Mary Kate can also thank the winner on the amateur side. “I did the air conditioning in their restaurant,” said Hazley. “Their food is just phenomenal. (The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan agreed.) Their chowder is really great. So I suggested that she enter. She’s a neighborhood girl, so it’s nice to see her do well.”

Of course, lots of other folks did well, too. Here are the 2nd and 3rd place finishers:


2. Finnigan’s Wake
3. Tir na Nog


2. Phil Bowdren, AOH Division 51 (Fishtown)
3. Denny Gaw, AOH Division 2 (Horsham, Montgomery County)

Regardless of the objections of Mary Kate’s mother-in-law, more than a few of those stews (including the amateur winner, of course) contained beef.

Probably the most unusual stew was Denny Gaw’s. Denny, the AOH board president, went traditional … but only to an extent. His stew contained lamb as its main ingredient, but his was the only one not gravy-based. “Mine is cream-based,” he said. “I got the recipe 10 years ago. We were in Ireland, doing the Ring of Kerry. We stopped at a restaurant … it was up on a mountaintop, a mom-and-pop place. I ordered this stew, and it was great, so I asked them for the recipe … and they gave it to me! I make it all the time.”

This year’s contestants—six in each category—had quite an appreciative audience. For five bucks, they could sample all the stews in the place. (And a lot of the contestants included a good-sized slab of soda or brown bread.) The place was jammed.

Among the guests sopping up brown gravy out of little plastic bowls was Rowan Fealy, a lecturer in the department of geography at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He and partner Dr. Laura McElwain, who works for the Ireland meteorological service Met Eireann, had arrived at Finnigan’s earlier in the evening to delivery a presentation on climate change and its impact on Ireland. Happily, they were able to take in the stew cook-off as well. “This is just an added bonus,” Rowan said. “It’s great. It’s got everything an Irish male looks for … beer and food. It’s perfect!”

Another guest was Geralyn Keating, director of the Irish American Cultural Institute in Morristown, N.J. “We came for the lecture, and then we got all this, too,” she said. “It was a winner.”

Of course, the big winner was the Hibernian Hunger Project, which takes the evening’s proceeds and funnels them back into the group’s many local activities, including Aid for Friends. “We do an annual ‘cook-in’ for about 200 shut-ins through Aid for Friends,” said Ed Dougherty the national and Philadelphia county chairman. “Their cooks go away in the sumer, so we go up and do bulk meals for them.”

The ninth annual cook-in takes place at the Aid for Friends facility in Northeast Philadelphia on Saturday, March 29, starting at 9 a.m. and ending … whenever they’re finished. To volunter, contact Donna Donnelly at