A photo of the first parade in 1974 featured Dan Hogerty wearing a sandwich board reading “Parade” on one side and “End of Parade” on the other. Photo is courtesy of the O’Neill family.

Cheers to 150 Years of the St. Pat’s Day Parade

Irish immigrants and descendants helped shape Kansas City. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parade celebrates this rich and complex history.

By Diane Euston


  Fifty years ago on St. Patrick’s Day in 1973, a group of Irish friends gathered in a bar and hatched a plan. Nothing odd comes to mind in this statement – some of the best plans are devised in the darkness of a saloon over the haze of libations and toasts.

  Thankfully for all of Kansas City, these men wouldn’t let their idea go and, under the auspices of laughter, decided on that day to unleash a promenade of people – fueled by liquid courage -into the city’s streets. It would take another year, but the rebirth of a crowd of green was coming.

An early photo of one of the first St. Patrick’s Day parades in Kansas City. Photo courtesy of Pat O’Neill.

 The St. Patrick’s Day parade in Kansas City has an even-richer history that started 150 years ago and took an additional century to come back around to be a part of a tradition rooted in our city’s Irish.

  Historian Pat O’Neill eloquently tells the story of Kansas City Irish’s in his book, From the Bottom Up, and much of what can be said about these moments of shamrock green pride can be found within its pages.

The Early Irish in Kansas City

  First resident Catholic priest Fr. Bernard Donnelly (c.1810-1880) arrived at what would be Kansas City in 1845. Born in County Cavan, Fr. Donnelly was more than just a priest – he was a trained civil engineer. As the city grew from the riverfront, one of the biggest obstacles was carving out passable streets from the bluffs.

  Fr. Donnelly’s experience as a civil engineer and stonecutter would be well-served. They would need laborers to help tear down the bluffs and fill in the valleys. Donnelly said “he would bring hundreds of Irishmen from the East to level off and make streets and curb them, and construct sewers.”

 With the blessing of city leaders, Fr. Donnelly wrote to Irish newspapers in Boston and New York asking for the aid of Irish immigrants. He commissioned for 150 people from Boston and 150 from New York be sent to the area, offering to pay their passage and pay better than the wages in the east.

 There was a catch in his offer: men had to all be from the same county in Ireland in order to keep the peace and abstain from alcohol – at least while employed in Kansas City.

  Fr. Donnelly’s plea was answered. All 300 Irishmen sent from the east were from the province of Connaught. Temporary one-story buildings, comfortably furnished, facing 6th St. running from Broadway to Bluff St. were constructed to house the Irish laborers. Aptly, the area became known as Connaught Town.

  In the late 1850s, more Irish-born immigrants arrived in Kansas City. When the Civil War broke out, one of three Home Guards organized by Robert Van Horn was comprised strictly of Irish-born men.

  Men such as Patrick Soden (1830-1899) arrived in Kansas City in the early 1850s and with his brother worked hauling rock from excavation sites in Kansas City and later worked in real estate and construction. Patrick Shannon (1824-1871) and his brothers emigrated from County Cavan in the late 1840’s and established J & P Shannon, the “largest department store this side of the Mississippi.” Both men helped protect Kansas City as part of the Home Guard during the Civil War.  

  Patrick Shannon became interim mayor of Kansas City in 1864 and was elected in 1865. He was the first Irish Catholic mayor of the city.

  Dennis Malloy, born in County Clare, helped start Kansas City’s first police department in 1867, and the force began with 25 able-bodied men – most with an Irish brogue. The first fire department was founded by Ireland-born Joe McArdle in 1869 and was known as McGee Hook and Ladder No. 1. 

  Through the 1870s and 1880s, more than half of the police department’s force was born in Ireland, and three out of five firemen hailed from the Emerald Isle. By the 1880s, about 50,000 Irish-born people lived in Missouri.

The Birth of the First St. Patrick’s Day Parade

  150 years ago, Kansas City’s Irish organized and officially celebrated their patron saint and their deep heritage with a parade. Who was directly responsible for this parade is unknown, but the newspaper spent two columns commemorating it.

  “For the first time in the history of our glorious young city, has the fete day of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, been served with proper magnificence and respect,” the Kansas City Times wrote. “For once the Irishmen of Kansas City may speak with a glow of pride mantling their brows while they relate the incidents connected with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, 1873.” 

  Starting at the Junction of Main and Delaware at 9 a.m., groups including the St. Joseph’s Society, Irish Benevolent Society, Ancient Order of the Hibernians and even the St. Vitus Society hailing from the German Catholic Church gathered with bands and proceeded to march to St. Patrick’s Church at 7th and Cherry. There, participants crammed in the church for High Mass before marching west.

  There, McGee Hook and Ladder No. 1 met the parade. The firemen were proudly outfitted in grey caps and green shirts trimmed with red.

  The parade stopped at the old St. Teresa’s Academy near the present-day Cathedral where the young ladies “advanced with four beautiful wreathes of white flowers and shamrocks.” 

  The parade concluded in front of Annunciation Parish in the West Bottoms. The church was established in an area of the West Bottoms known as “Irish Patch” where the growing Irish population settled. There, Fr. Bernard Donnelly ceremoniously washed and blessed the new bell for the church.

  This first St. Patrick’s Day parade was more of a somber day of remembrance. Although firmly rooted in religion, people post-parade would drown dried shamrocks, sent from Ireland, in a glass of golden liquor. As each year ticked by, more and more Kansas Citians found a love for the day. In 1886, over 5,000 people were IN the parade, and a year later, the parade was reportedly 18 blocks long! 

The Surprising Stop of the Parade 

  In 1891, the St. Patrick’s Day parade fizzled out of favor. This wasn’t because the Irish had left the area; in fact, even more families with Irish heritage moved to Kansas City. The stop of the parade is linked with the lack of tolerance for Catholics in general.

  At the same time the parade faded away, Kansas City’s Irish were on the rise politically. Jim Pendergast ruled the West Bottoms while Joe Shannon controlled the east side. By 1890, the Irish were locked into some key government positions. This fostered fear, and an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish group called American Protective Association (A.P.A.) emerged.

  In the spring elections in 1894, A.P.A. “protectors” attacked Irish poll workers on Kansas City’s Westside. There were shootings and beatings at polling places around the city. Many were injured, and one man was killed. “Protestant and Catholic church leaders called for more ecumenical celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day,” Pat O’Neill, Jr. explained.

  But following World War I, the Ku Klux Klan was busy spreading hatred of Blacks, Jews and Catholics. An anti-Catholic newspaper called New Menace run by Klan member Billy Parker spread further hate. 

  Kansas City’s population in the 1920s was about 25 percent Irish, and in 1922, the Klan came to Kansas City with hopes of signing up 20,000 new members. Shockingly, 10,000 Klansmen gathered in August 1922 south of Independence and initiated 1,100 new members. Local newspapers condemned the organization, but their hate couldn’t be ignored. 

  As Prohibition claimed Irish saloons, the illegal back-door operations were taken over by Italians and Kansas City’s downtown thrived for a few more decades.

  The environment wasn’t ripe for a parade celebrating Irish heritage, and some could even argue that over time, the pride of the Irish was subdued as these families moved to the suburbs. By the 1970s, Kansas City’s downtown was desolate and desperate for a reason to celebrate once again in the streets.

The Rebirth of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade

   At 1209 Baltimore on St. Patrick’s Day 1973, a gaggle of Irishmen huddled in the dark of Dan Hogerty’s Baltimore Street Saloon and gazed out at the empty streets of the city. Iconic KMBZ Radio talk show host Mike Murphy, staring into the bottom of a beer and saddened by the lack of crowds, turned to Dan Hogerty and public relations man Pat O’Neill (father of the author of From the Bottom Up) and proclaimed, “Look out there. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and there’s not a soul on the street. There’s no celebration, no party, no anything.”

  The men lamented over libations and Murphy continued, “Next year I’m gonna do a parade.”

  Hogerty and O’Neill weren’t so sure that the loosely-laid plan would work. Maybe a few more libations would convince them otherwise. O’Neill and his pals were all proud Irishmen, to be sure. But they liked nothing more than a cold beer and good, hearty conversation with lots of laughs. This conversation was no different.

  Murphy wasn’t going to let it go. “Next year I’m gonna give it a shot. We’ll start at the Continental Hotel and we’ll walk down Baltimore and we’ll end at Hogerty’s saloon and get Dan some business.”

  That loose plan didn’t yet have legs, and little did they know they’d hatched a plan exactly a century after the first documented parade. “I think my dad (Pat O’Neill, Sr.) and the boys left that conversation at the bottom of their glasses and, come March of 1974, they’d sort of forgotten their promise and their not-so-strategic plan to stage a parade,” O’Neill, Jr. laughed.

  Murphy used the radio waves to resurrect his idea one year later on St. Patrick’s Day 1974.  Listeners began calling in and asking when the parade would start, and an anonymous tip about a parade was called into KMBC-9 just down the road.

  “Murph, my dad and Hogerty quickly went into closed session in the darkest corner of an already-dark bar and spent at least 30 minutes planning what Murphy predicted would be ‘the world’s worst and shortest parade,’” O’Neill, Jr. explained to me with an Irish smile. 

Monsignor Arthur Tighe rides passenger in a 1970s parade with Dan Hogerty at the wheel. Photo courtesy of Pat O’Neill.

  Even though the plan was to meet in front of the Continental Hotel at 11th and Baltimore around noon (Irish time- give or take a few minutes), the streets emulated every other St. Patrick’s Day- they were a ghost town and free of Kelly-green patrons.

  Murphy and Cy Perkins stood there alone and more than weary to walk the long “block and a fifth” to the end of the parade – Hogerty’s saloon. 

  Before the men could back out, up walked Mike Murphy and Dan Hogerty. Hogerty was wearing a hand-painted sandwich board (purportedly painted by Jean O’Neill, Pat’s wife, as she sat as a passenger in the car on the way to “the parade”) with “PARADE” on the front and “END OF PARADE” on the back.

  The motley crew of Irishmen were joined by Pat O’Neill, Chiefs legend Jim Lynch, Carl DiCapo and a small, enthusiastic crowd of Murphy’s radio fans who paraded that one block stretch of downtown and straight into Hogerty’s saloon for further celebration.

  The rest, as they say, is history.  

Irish History and the Parade in Kansas City  

  Within a few short years, Hogerty, O’Neill and Murphy were joined by mayor Charles Wheeler, and the city thankfully supplied a trash truck on Baltimore to collect the slew of beer bottles from parade goers. 

A 1940 tax photo shows the building Kelly’s Westport Inn would occupy. The building is now the oldest standing building in Kansas City, built in 1851.

  Today, just shy of 50 years later and 150 years after the first parade, Kansas City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is one of the largest in the nation.

  One iconic spot in Kansas City’s Irish past resides in a famous bar called Kelly’s Westport Inn, and it’s been 75 years since Randal Kelly bounced from a rural Ireland farm and into the role as saloonkeeper at Kelly’s in Westport. It, too, holds many memories of St. Patrick’s Day post-parade celebrations.

  Kansas City is a big, small town, and Kelly’s holds countless memories over the past 75 years. A book commemorating this history, The Poor Man’s Playground: 75 Years of Kelly’s Westport Inn was released this month by Pat and Kyle Kelly and Pat O’Neill. The book can be purchased for $25 and is available at their still-iconic saloon in Westport.

A new book released this month covers 75 years of Kelly’s Westport Inn history and is available at their location.

  Kansas City embraces its rich Irish past with events and places such as Kelly’s, the annual parade, the Irish Fest and the year-round events held by the Irish Center at historic Drexel Hall. We are reminded – with pride – of our city’s rich Irish history and of all the families who took a gamble on a growing yet unattractive town emerging from the bluffs on the Missouri River.  

  Perhaps its success is in part owed to the luck of the Irish.

Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com 

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