O'Neill's St. Patrick's Day Parade, a green dream with a horse
Turns out, my favorite St. Patrick’s Day parade grew out of a springtime bender involving two Irish guys, a couple of traveling salesmen and all the green food coloring in town.
I’m from O’Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, a windblown speck on the north central map of the state. We have a simple claim to fame: on the designated day we celebrate the Irish immigrant experience as only an old ranch town can. Lots of beer, a green horse and a Neil Diamond impersonator.
The Holy Day is a big deal this year, as O’Neill is celebrating 50 years. (Official theme: Cheers to 50 Years.) Among the events is a fish fry at the Knights of Columbus Hall (it’s still Lent, after all), the Shamrock Fun Run, the Mulligan Stew Feed at St. Patrick’s Parish Hall, and, of course, the parade.
As far back as I can remember, Pete Matthews, a local guy from a big family, always rode his green horse. And not just down the five-block Main Street for the parade, but into Dugan’s Bar afterwards.
When Pete got too old, his son, Leo, literally took the reins and he’s the guy in the picture above. Leo was in the same class as my little brother, P.J.
I called Leo this week and caught him at the bar late one afternoon. He swore he was taking a breather as he had to keep it together for the Irish Walk of Fame event that night. This was new to me and he described it as like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, only with stones on the sidewalk commemorating memorable O’Neill folks. This year, Junior Adamson, the local Coors distributor, was being honored, Pete said.
Leo said that his dad, Pete, and Joe Cavenaugh, one of the more colorful guys in a colorful town, dreamed up the parade one night in 1961. Seems a couple guys were in town who sold heating and air conditioning and they’d been out carousing with Pete and Joe all night.
The timetable is a little sketchy, but Leo said the guys decided O’Neill should have a parade. So they went to all the grocery stores (there were a total of three when I lived there) and cleaned them out of green food coloring. When they needed more, they went door-to-door, Leo said, until they had enough.
They doused the horse in green and covered the traveling salesmen’s burgundy convertible with green crepe paper. Then they decided they might need some official approvals, so they called the chief of police, who hung up on them, and then the mayor, who had the same reaction:
“You drunken bastards! Don’t be calling me at 2 a.m.,” is what Leo said the chief and the mayor said.
Sensing that was all the parade permit they needed, the boys went to work. A few hours later, Pete and Joe got on the green horse and stood on Main Street, up near the one stoplight. The salesmen were a block behind in the now-green convertible.
They started honking and the rest is history.
“People came out to see what the ruckus was and there was Dad and Joe on a green horse,” Leo said. “Two drunken Irishmen on a horse saying ‘Happy St. Pat’s!’”
I asked Leo how they got the horse that green and he started talking to me as if I had just fallen off the latest tomato truck that had pulled out of town.
“Sweetheart, we get the horse wet, then we brush the food color on,” he said.
So, I asked, have any animal rights people ever hit you up about the green horse?
“No,” Leo laughed. “Shit, people are gonna drink more green food color in their beer on St. Pat’s than what gets on the horse.”
Well, he has a point.
I won’t be in O’Neill this year, as I’ll be celebrating with family and old friends here in Kansas City. But I will admit that being from the Irish Capital of Nebraska makes me feel a special designation on St. Paddy’s Day, a tiny little badge of honor that goes beyond being from an Irish family. Like, putting mayonnaise on that Rueben sandwich. It just fattens it up.