Written by Howard Blankman Friday, 15 March 2013 00:00
“On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish.” So said John J. O’Neil III to me yesterday. Why was he talking to me? Well, to begin at the beginning, not too long ago I read in the Port Washington News (where else?) that John J. the Third, had been honored at a fancy dinner by the John Michael Marino Lodge 1389 Order of the Sons of Italy in America (SOIA). It seems that he had been a two-term president of that civic-minded, charitable organization. Presently, O’Neil is president of the Sons of Italy Foundation and is active with the national organization. That got me thinking. With all due respect, how does a man whose family roots are in Ireland get so involved with a group whose members’ family roots are in Italy? “When he has a wife whose maiden name is Principe,” said O’Neil without missing a beat.
Although his background is in graphics design, illustration and advertising, O’Neil’s real passion is going to the dogs – that is, painting dogs, which he does expertly and on commission. Using acrylics, O’Neil he is equally adept at painting less lively subjects. His painting of a Nantucket waterfront is so warm and colorful it can bring on a sudden urge to hop on the next plane for Nantucket. “When I paint, I turn off the world,” says O’Neil.
Is there a Leprechaun in Port Washington? I think so. And you can find him sometimes at one of my favorite watering holes, Sullivan’s Quay. When he’s there, he’s tending bar or dispensing warm words of welcome to returnees and newcomers alike. His speech is a dead giveaway. No doubt about it; he’s from the old sod. “I’m from Kells, County of Heath,” he admits, “but I grew up in Middleton, County Cork. That’s the home of the Irish whiskey distilleries.” He says his name is Victor Cunneen. (Doesn’t sound like the name of a leprechaun.) “I came to America in 1986,” said he.” Why? “I wanted to see the place and play their music,” he replied. Aha, I got him, I thought, so I asked him about the instrument he used. (Don’t leprechauns play harps?) “A guitar,” he said, “and I sing.” Cunneen said he got the idea in 1983 while on business in Cairo. “The band was playing Irish songs, so I got out my guitar and joined in. It was a most interesting engagement.” Since then, when he’s not doing his thing at Sullivan’s Quay, Cunneen morphs into an Irish balladeer. He and his guitar have appeared together in 42 states of the Union and Canada. In the weeks including, before, and after St. Patrick’s Day, Cunneen says, “I’m shut out all weeks. I’ll be entertaining at the Irish-Americans in Government luncheon and later I’ll be off to Myrtle Beach for an engagement.” He’s been living this double life for 20 years. When does he plan to stop? “The only time I’ll stop is when I’m 12 feet down and somebody is standing on my grave,” Cunneen replied. (I still think he’s a leprechaun.)
Howard Blankman is a Public Relations Society of America Fellow, longest current member of the Dramatists Guild of America, former CEO of The Blankman Group and Nassau County Planning Commission Chairman.