A glimpse at Hegarty’s volunteer resume gives some idea of the extent of his commitments: he’s chairman of the Philadelphia Divisional Youth Board of the GAA and treasurer of the North American Youth Board; chairman of the Irish Immigration Center; and treasurer of the city’s influential Irish American Chamber and Business Network.
He’s also involved with organizations that aren’t specific to the Irish community. He’s treasurer, for example, of the Anti-Violence Partnership and is coach of the West Chester United soccer club.
And Hegarty, who was raised in Counties Donegal and Meath, holds down a fulltime job, too, as a partner in the accountancy firm Parente Randolph.
He said he couldn’t manage it all without the support of his wife Maureen, a director of the Cara School of Irish Dance, and sons Billy, who’s 15, Patrick, 12, Kevin, 10, and Michael, 6.
He credits another family member back in Ireland, however, with his interest in giving back to society.
“My mother was a huge proponent of volunteering,” he said. “She did a lot of fundraising and as kids we did it with her, selling tickets for different organizations.”
One of her favored charities, he recalled, was the work of a missionary priest in Africa. “She’d raise money and send it out to him,” Hegarty remembered.
His father and four younger brothers are also live back home in Ireland. That he’s the only family member in the United States has lot to do with the fact that he was born here the year before his parents decided on a transatlantic move to his father’s native Donegal (they later relocated to Kells in Meath). He returned as a college student with friends, finding work painting houses in the Philadelphia area. He also had family connections in the city, specifically an uncle from Donegal. (Liam Hegarty’s first cousin introduced him to her best friend’s sister, a champion step-dancer named Maureen Murray. The couple married a few years later.)
Ultimately, he decided to stay in Philadelphia. His plan was to transfer his two years of credits from Ireland and study at St. Joseph’s University at night. “I figured: Here, I could work, still go to school and have money,” he said.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” he recalled. Indeed, he considered quitting a few times. But he persevered. “I’m glad I did,” he said.
“I enjoy it,” Hegarty said about his job. “You service your client. They call you for advice. I really enjoy that type of relationship.”
After he gave up house-painting and started work fulltime as an accountant in 1996, he also had to reconsider his position as a player with the local Donegal football club (now Four Provinces). His busiest time of the year professionally coincided with the beginning of training for the new season.
Within a few years, his firstborn was old enough to kick a ball and that was another reason to shift his focus towards the Youth Divisional Board.
He’d more than enough energy left over, though, for other organizations, such as the Anti-Violence Project, which, Hegarty said, has two main programs. It helps families of murder victims through every aspect of the process, from identification of the body through the conclusion of any court case. Secondly, it has an outreach program in the schools teaching young people about conflict resolution.
His record of commitment made him an obvious choice in recent times when the New York-based Consulate was looking for a chair for the new board of the Irish Immigration Center. He accepted the job.
“We were able to bring Siobhan [Lyons] on board and help develop additional programs there and she’s doing some great work,” Hegarty said, referring to the center’s new executive director.
But it’s his work with youth football locally — he’s been chairman for five years — and nationally that is mainly responsible for profile in the community.
Last year, Philadelphia hosted the Continental Youth Championships, which attracted about 3,000 people during each of the tournament’s three days.
Hegarty, the treasurer of the North American Youth Board, estimated that 1,500 children are playing Gaelic sports nationally. But he and his wife are concerned about four of them in particular. It’s important to the couple that their sons’ involvements in Gaelic football, soccer, baseball and dancing overlap with their own coaching and teaching in those activities.
There is increasing pressure for students to specialize as they get older. That’s one reason that Gaelic football loses out to soccer. School coaches are emphasizing a year-round commitment, while parents nurture dreams of a college scholarship.
Billy Hegarty is one who has kept up both and that’s possible, said his father, with a particular type of dedication. Those whom the GAA retain at under-16 and under-18 levels, he added, tend to continue to play as adults.
There are hopeful signs. The Catholic Youth Organization recently accepted Gaelic football as a sport. “That will definitely help,” said the Philadelphia Youth Divisional Board chairman.
Often it’s the children themselves who are the best ambassadors for Gaelic football, Hegarty argued. That’s seen by the increasing number of non-Irish Americans getting involved through their Irish friends.
It’s hard to describe football and hurling to those who’ve never seen them, he said. The GAA could do more in this area. Hegarty decribed this as a “pet peeve” of his. He has no problem with Setanta carrying out its commercial responsibilities with regard to live GAA and soccer, but he said “filler” material on the big sports channels might raise awareness and interest.
“Obviously not live games,” Hegarty said, “but I think the GAA should give ESPN the rights to older games.”