“When I was a little kid, my grandmother and my mother and my Uncle John would all play the piano and play the Irish songs and tell the stories behind them,” he said. “As I got a little older, as a teenager [and in my 20s], I wasn’t really so … focused on [those stories].”
But his love for his heritage and commitment to his community soon shone through, said Houlihan, a 1974 graduate of Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business.
“I started to get drawn back in through the music—I fell in love with the Irish music,” he said, and in the late 1980s, he began traveling to Ireland with his family and developing an interest in Irish and Irish American history.
Connected to Irish History
He was particularly drawn to those who shared stories about the hunger marches and walks to mass burial sites in Ireland to remember those who died during the Great Hunger, sometimes referred to as the Great Famine, a period from roughly 1845 to the early 1850s during which an estimated 1 million people died from starvation and related causes, and more than 1 million people left the country, many of them settling in New York.
“It was certainly an avoidable tragedy, and it was a dark stain on Ireland and also England,” he said. But while it undoubtedly “left a scar on the Irish psyche,” it also propelled many Irish families to work on “finding a better life for their children.”
That’s why, he said, when he was asked to help establish a Great Hunger memorial in Westchester County, he was determined to see it through to completion.
“There had been a couple of false starts or attempts that didn’t go anywhere,” said Houlihan, the managing partner of Houlihan-Parnes Realtors, the family business his great-grandfather Daniel Houlihan established in the Bronx in 1891, after learning the carpentry trade and working his way up to become a contractor, investor, and builder. “I was basically approached [by a few members of the Greater Hunger Memorial Committee of Westchester County]and [told], ‘We’re going to abandon this project unless you take it over.’”
So he did.
“We raised about $1.3 million in funds, and we had an international competition for artists to design the monument, Houlihan said.
The committee selected a design by artist Eamonn O’Doherty of Dublin, Ireland, and the monument was unveiled in June 2001 in VE Macy Park in Ardsley, New York. The memorial consists of three main elements—one representing five members of an Irish family; a second depicting a “deserted shell” of a home that they left; and a third representing the potato famine, featuring an overturned basket from which potatoes spill and turn into skulls.
The monument received widespread critical praise and won several awards, including American Institute of Architects’ community recognition as “Most Outstanding Work of Public Art.”
Making a Difference in His Community
This year, Houlihan was recognized for helping to establish the Great Hunger Memorial, among other volunteer and philanthropic works in Westchester and beyond, when he was named grand marshal of the White Plains St. Patrick’s Day Parade. While the parade was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, Houlihan said it was an honor just to be recognized.
“It was somewhat of a surprise, obviously good and exciting news. I’ve done a lot of [work]over the years in the Irish community, so it was nice to have that recognized and acknowledged,” he said.
For years, Houlihan has worked with the Irish Arts Center, based in New York City. He helped curate an exhibit for the center called the “Fighting Irishmen: A Celebration of Celtic Warriors”, which aimed to commemorate people who were “heroes to the Irish,” Houlihan said.
“I created that and it took on a life of its own,” he said, stating that it traveled from New York to Boston to Ireland to Phoenix.
Closer to home, Houlihan also helped erect The Rising, a monument to the 109 Westchester residents killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
He’s also been a longtime supporter of the Fordham community. A member of the University’s Board of Trustees, he previously served as chair of the Fordham President’s Council and as a member of the WFUV advisory board. He and his family have established scholarship funds for students and helped renovate the baseball diamond at Jack Coffey Field, which was named Houlihan Park in honor of him and his family.
The Houlihan family has strong connections to Fordham, with many alumni including his mother, Mary Murray Houlihan, D.S.W., a 1949 and 1986 alumna of Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service; his brother Jack Houlihan, GABELLI ’75; Claire O’Neill Houlihan, GABELLI ’77; Patrick W. Murray, FCRH ’57; John Thomas Murray, FCRH ’57; the late Monsignor James J. Murray, FCRH ’48 and LAW ’51; and Ellen Houlihan, FCRH ‘05. His daughter, Christie Houlihan, a 2011 graduate of Fordham School of Law, now serves as the senior director and counsel at Houlihan-Parnes Realtors. His son, Michael McEvoy, received his M.B.A. from Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business in 2018.
In 2011, Fordham honored Houlihan with its Founder’s Award, given to individuals whose personal and professional lives reflect the highest aspirations of the University’s defining traditions, as an institution dedicated to wisdom and learning in the service of others.
Upon receiving the award, he noted that like Fordham’s founder, Archbishop John Hughes, his family came to America from Ireland to pursue their dreams.
“In reading a book about our founder, I couldn’t help but think about my maternal grandmother, Rose Valerie Murray, who emigrated in 1913. She also came from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland,” he said. “She was much like John. She believed in family; she believed in her faith; she believed in the country of her origin; and she believed in her newly adopted country, the United States of America. And like the archbishop, she believed in education.”
Houlihan has received numerous awards for his philanthropic and professional work, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Martin S. Berger Award for Lifetime Achievement in Real Estate. He said his latest recognition is a testament to his family.
“Certainly, it’s an honor—not just to me but to my ancestors who came before me and gave me the opportunity to live in the greatest country in the history of the world,” he said.