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Maureen O’Looney, dead at 92, charmed Conan O’Brien, was a matriarch to many in Chicago’s Irish community

 
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Maureen O'Looney 2008. | Sun-Times library

Maureen O'Looney in 2008. | Sun-Times library

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Updated: August 23, 2014 7:44PM



Maureen O’Looney, whose couch was the first stop for many fellow Irish immigrants landing in Chicago, has died at 92.

Mrs. O’Looney fed the newcomers, lent them money, helped them find jobs, set up bank accounts and let them sleep rent-free on her living room floor — sometimes several at a time.

Irish Americans flocked to the store she opened in 1967 — Shamrock Imports at Belmont and Laramie — to stock up on Barry’s tea, soda bread, Irish newspapers and gossip.

“Anyone that came here in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and up to the present day would have known Maureen O’Looney,” said John Devitt, president of the Gaelic Park cultural center in Oak Forest, which Mrs. O’Looney co-founded. “She was always smiling and always willing to help.”

“She had her hand in everything,” said John Gorski, president of the Irish American Heritage Center. “She could gather more volunteers for a cause than anyone. She organized hundreds of charity benefits.”

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Mrs. O’Looney would get a request from the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

“He’d always say, ‘Maureen, put a loaf aside for me,’ ’’ she once said.

Her shop was lined with photographs of her with luminaries including Pope John Paul II, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), both Mayors Daley, Cardinal Francis George and actor Chuck Connors.

Once, she had lunch at the White House with President Bill Clinton.

She charmed fellow redhead Conan O’Brien in 2012, when he visited the Northwest Side’s Irish American Heritage Center, even starring in a video he shot as he toured the building. Friends who never forgot her largesse when they were “greenhorns” — new immigrants — had helped her move the Belmont-Cragin imports shop to the IAHC.

Mrs. O’Looney worked for immigration reform. When Irish immigrants had a chance at obtaining U.S. visas in a 1991 lottery, she flew to Virginia to hand-deliver their applications.

She had her own radio show on WSBC-AM.

She even hosted matchmaking sessions at the Irish American Heritage Center, where she was inducted as a “Hometown Hero’’ this year.

A staunch Irish nationalist, she helped found Irish Northern Aid in Chicago and was among the demonstrators who protested a 1991 visit to Chicago by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “She should not be welcome in Chicago,” Mrs. O’Looney said then. “Britain has oppressed our country for over 800 years.’’

She also helped raise money for Natasha McShane, an immigrant who sustained a grievous head injury in a 2010 Bucktown armed robbery.

Those who underestimated her — as merely an endearing grandmother — soon learned she had the Irish gift for politicking. She knew how to build constituencies, get out votes and outwit opponents with a combination of charm and steel.

Mrs. O’Looney was born Maureen Staunton in Bohola, County Mayo — a top exporter of hungry and ambitious young Irish. It’s said that there are more lawyers in Chicago with ancestral ties to Bohola than there are people in that town. She arrived in America by ship in 1953 to visit a relative and fell in love with Chicago.

She is survived by her daughter, Theresa Dermody, and four grandsons. A mass, memorial and reception is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday at the Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox.

Her final days were pleasant, her daughter said. “She got to see [Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams on the big-screen TV on Tuesday, and she had a cup of tea and a slice of brown bread Wednesday, and off she went.”

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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