Everyone might be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, as the saying goes, but being Irish in Cincinnati sometimes requires a scorecard. There are lots of social organizations, clubs, and affiliations across the area celebrating different aspects of the Irish-American experience, and it’s easy for non-Irish (and even those of Irish descent) to get confused.
Dan Shea, a Silverton resident, is one of the few people who bridge all of the area’s Irish groups and, as chair of the Cincinnati Celtic Festival, those that celebrate Scottish and Welsh heritage as well. Now retired from the U.S. Army and DuBois Chemicals, he might just be Cincinnati’s friendliest son, particularly as St. Patrick’s Day approaches.
Shea is involved with two of the area’s most visible Irish groups, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Glee Club. AOH organized the city’s first St. Patrick’s Parade and will again lead it on March 12 along Cincinnati’s downtown riverfront. The Glee Club will stroll and sing there, and it has a number of other public performances scheduled this month; the Friendly Sons hold their annual banquet on the evening of March 17.
There were almost as many Irish pubs in 1800s Cincinnati as German biergartens, so Irish roots run deep here. Shea discusses the variety of Irish-focused organizations in the city and how they contribute to today’s multicultural Cincinnati.
Let’s trace back the two main Irish societies in Cincinnati, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick.
The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick for the Relief of Emigrants from Ireland was founded in 1771 in Philadelphia, and they’d evolve to take care of widows and orphans of Irish veterans killed in the Revolutionary War. In fact, one of the first members was the father of the American Navy, Commodore John Barry. Then they founded a society in New York in the 1780s, and George Washington joined. So two statues at Independence Hall, one in the front of George Washington and one in the back of John Barry, depict Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Cincinnati was the third chapter in the U.S., founded in 1868, and it became a fairly prominent organization in the city.
We probably had one group of the Ancient Order of Hibernians here in Cincinnati to begin with [in the 1860s], but they split into two. The St. Patrick’s Division represents the west side, and the Lady of Knock Division is on the east side. In the last three or four years they began to reach out to each other and become one group again. I kind of seized on that when we started the Celtic Festival back up three years ago and said, Why don’t we all march together in this one? And that’ll be one sign of you guys coming back together. I’m in both the Hibernians and the Friendly Sons, and my dad was a dedicated Hibernian.
In general, Hibernians are the more militantly political group. They’re a philanthropic organization and give out lots of scholarships and food for the hungry. They were the driving force behind launching the St. Patrick’s Parade [in 1967]. Wonderful, wonderful guys. The Friendly Sons still represent the “lace curtain” Irish, sort of the wealthier folks, and the Hibernians are the “shantyboat” Irish. I’m the only shantyboat Irishman in the Friendly Sons here. [Laughs]
There are also the Fenians, the Northern Kentucky version of the Hibernians. If anybody belongs to an Irish organization across the river, they probably belong to this one. Like most fraternal organizations, it’s mostly an older group now, and when I’ve invited them to participate in the Celtic Festival, only a handful of can come and march in the opening parade. The Cincinnati Hibernians and the Friendly Sons attend a mass in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day, and the Fenians host a mass the Thursday before St. Patrick’s at the Cathedral Basilica in Covington. Our glee club sings at both.
The Friendly Sons are known for the glee club, which performs for and with other local Irish organizations.
Under Dan McKenna, our longtime chairman, the Friendly Sons Society really built up in the 1980s, which is when several members said, They have a Friendly Sons Glee Club in New York, why don’t we form our own? The one in New York was founded by Victor Herbert, who was king of the musical universe in the early 1900s. He wrote operettas and several songs and in fact wrote our song “Hail to the Friendly Sons.” So we started the glee club in 1985, and now we go all over the area. In fact, we sang with the Cincinnati Pops and The Chieftains when they came here, we sang in Ireland five or six years ago, and we’ve performed around the country. And of course we march in the St. Patrick’s Parade.
The parade has given visibility to these Irish organizations and Cincinnati’s Irish community for decades. It’s when all of them traditionally have come together.
We’re as collegial now as we’ve ever been. It’s mellowed out, and everyone gets along. There’s very little sniping from the sidelines. The parade is Saturday, March 12, starting at noon. It’ll run along Mehring Way at the riverfront from near Paul Brown Stadium to Great American Ball Park and up to Second Street, ending at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
The Cincinnati Celtic Festival is another opportunity for local Irish groups and people to celebrate together, and you’re in charge of it now. What are your plans for the return of a live festival this summer?
The festival had been held at various outdoor places, from Ault Park to Sawyer Point to Washington Park, but then it stopped for a variety of reasons. We wanted to bring it back, so when I retired several years ago I said I’d run it. We put it out at Summit Park in Blue Ash, which quite frankly was too big of an area. Unless we had 150,000 people there, it looked empty. So we dabbled around looking for new spots and finally sent a letter to Bob Castellini asking about the area around the Reds stadium. The Castellinis actually are very Irish, despite that name. When Bob got married, he did his honeymoon at the Presidential Estate in Dublin.
Phil Castellini got back to me and said they didn’t want to block Mehring Way, our top idea for holding the festival, because that’s the entrance and egress for a lot of Reds fans. But he said, Let’s talk about putting it right on The Banks next to our stadium. So this year’s Celtic Festival will be July 8–10 in the street outside of Great American Ball Park, while the Reds host the Tampa Bay Rays for a three-game series. We’ll get a built-in crowd of 120,000 or so for the games that weekend. We’re working to bring the world-famous Three Irish Tenors to perform.
Cincinnati is recognized for its German heritage, partially due to Over-the-Rhine and Music Hall, but the Irish were among the first Europeans to arrive in Cincinnati in the 1800s.
John Morris Russell’s wife, Thea Tjepkema, who’s an expert on the history of Music Hall, took me through there when they reopened Music Hall after its renovation. She showed me that, if you looked at the top, there are two Celtic knots engraved up there. The Irish began working on Music Hall and then, because of some outrage that they perceived was committed against them, they kind of backed off and German workers finished up. But it was originally an Irish project. And the Irish originally lived in OTR and were displaced by Germans over time.
In case you don’t know, the Irish are inclined to hold grudges—especially against the English, but also occasionally against each other. They never got to the right place at the right time as a unified presence here, whereas the Germans did.
What other groups carry the torch for Irish heritage in Cincinnati?
The Irish Heritage Center in Columbia-Tusculum has been around for more than 10 years now, founded and run by Maureen Kennedy and her husband, Kent Covey. They have the Irish American Theatre Co. there, a museum upstairs, an authentic Irish pub, and a doctor of genealogy who can help you figure out your Irish family history. And they bring some musical acts and storytellers to town. Maureen and Kent do a bang-up job. A bunch of our big business people and Friendly Sons told her years ago, This building will never make it. But she made it happen.
The Briogaid, pronounced brigade, are an interesting group of Irish guys, many of them from Ireland living here now, who became big supporters of FC Cincinnati. They gather together primarily at Taft’s Ale House for every home game and then march together to the games. They asked me a couple years ago if they could become part of the Celtic Festival.
You have several very good dancing clubs here, the Erickson Academy, the McGing Irish Dancers, and the Riley School. There’s also the Cincinnati Highland Dancers, affiliated with the Caledonian Society, the local Scottish organization.
After celebrating with these and other local Irish organizations at the St. Patrick’s Parade, how and where will you be toasting on St. Patrick’s Day itself?
The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick hold our annual black-tie banquet on the evening of St. Patrick’s Day. We’re back at Music Hall Ballroom, our traditional banquet spot. It’s a stag event, so our wives and girlfriends will get together and go out that evening, then meet us down at the Netherland Plaza Hotel about 10:30. We pack it all the way to the back of the restaurant, and they put out kegs of Guinness for us.
We had to cancel the banquet the last two years because of the pandemic, but we’ll be back this year come hell or high water.