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Last week O'Donoghue told me he was starting up a charitable group patterned after the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith. To hear him describe it, O'Donoghue's latest bid for the status of biggest kid on the block will be based on the notion of preserving Irish pride. He said he's thinking of forming a coalition of prominent lawyers modeled after B'nai B'rith that would make life difficult for people O'Donoghue deems to have sullied the idea of Irishness.
"There's no reason to reinvent the wheel," O'Donoghue said when asked for further details about his plans for his Irish B'nai B'rith. "We need a group or a body that can monitor when someone has been wrongfully defamed, especially from our culture. We need someone to step up to bat."
O'Donoghue's not talking about America's unhappy tradition of cracking Irish jokes, nor of the brutal conflict in Northern Ireland. Instead, he's consumed with protecting honest, hard-working people of Irish descent from the shame of Irish carpenters who use swear words. I'm not kidding.
To back up a bit: Last month members of Northern California Carpenters Union Local 22 picketed an excavation job conducted by Granite Excavation & Demolition Inc., a company owned by Joe Cassidy, who is treasurer of O'Donoghue's Residential Builders Association. Rather than hiring carpenters for the job, which consisted of removing earth and building wooden supports to keep the basement of a local Catholic church from caving in, Cassidy had hired members of Laborer's International Union Local 261.
At some point during the picket, the carpenters are said to have shouted some unpleasant words to passers-by -- a teacher, perhaps some kids, a parishioner or two. They also may have slashed a teacher's tires; the facts are in dispute. The Rev. Michael Healy, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Noe Valley, where Cassidy is a parishioner, wrote a letter to his congregation criticizing the carpenters. And that's when O'Donoghue -- who's recently backed Cassidy in a couple of high-profile feuds, including the aforementioned live-work apartment permit dispute, and in an effort to sic building inspectors on RBA critic Michael Hannon -- extended the fray.
O'Donoghue, who among his many activities is chairman of the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade, said he left "a real piss message" for carpenters' union leaders. "I was outraged," he said, "that they would try to block Father Healy, to block his access to his own church next to a convent where there were 80-year-old nuns."
O'Donoghue then moved to have the United Irish Societies of San Francisco, which sponsors the March 16 parade, ban the carpenters from the event. This could have created a sticky situation for his ally, Mayor Willie Brown, had other unions decided to boycott the parade in sympathy with the carpenters, but O'Donoghue was prepared. He said he'd contacted various union leaders around town and secured an agreement that there would be no sympathy boycott.
"We wouldn't want Willie not to be able to march," O'Donoghue said.
Next he lined up a group of Irish RBA members and their allies, along with Father Healy, to speak at a Feb. 11 meeting of Irish Societies members. For good measure, O'Donoghue told me, his friend Warren Hinckle wrote two columns mentioning the dispute.
But the night of the meeting came, and Father Healy failed to show up. Worse, Irish Societies members were in no mood to allow their organization to become a battleground between Irish developers and Irish carpenters. O'Donoghue said he'd withdraw his organization's support from the parade unless they banned the carpenters, to no avail; Societies members voted overwhelmingly to allow the carpenters to march. And O'Donoghue marched out of the meeting, saying he and the RBA would no longer support the parade.
"I think that if Joe O'Donoghue's claim was legit, he wouldn't have had to come in and try to threaten the Irish community," says Seamus Collins, an Irish Northern Aid member who moved to reject O'Donoghue's request. "He'd said, "If you don't support me, I'm going to withdraw my guys, my money, and my support.' This put the Irish Societies in a difficult position. If we'd supported Joe O'Donoghue's position, we would have had a parade that excluded unions. Other unions would have walked out of our parade, and we would have looked like a bunch of hypocrites."
John Moylan, a retired plasterer who also supported the motion not to exclude the carpenters, says backing O'Donoghue's stance would have put the Irish Societies in an awkward position.
"I was business manager in the plasterers' union for 25 years," he says. "Things happen when you're on the picket line you have no control over sometimes. I'm not saying the carpenters are right. But whatever happened out there didn't belong in the Irish Societies. It's nothing personal against anybody. The thing should have been settled at the labor council, or [in] negotiations between the parties, or in the courts."
Or, if O'Donoghue's latest plan pans out, a soon-to-be-launched Irish B'nai B'rith. O'Donoghue says his relentless offensive against the carpenters' union may provide a template for how the anti-defamation group will proceed.
"I didn't lose face. I rose two feet higher because I had the dignity and the courage to stand up in opposition to a huge power which was the [carpenters' union] and take the fight the full way. I lost the battle, but it's a battle in a campaign. And when it comes to honor, I'm the one who won."