Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day and Irish-American Heritage in Schenectady

Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Postcard from Larry Hart Collection.

Over the years, St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated in Schenectady in a variety of ways. Newspaper clippings of the 1860s mention special church services and parades. In the early days of the 20th century, dinners, dances, and parties were held, and local merchants such as Barney's sold green carnations. Newspapers of the 1950s featured St. Patrick's Day recipes for home entertaining, and St. Patrick's Day sales were promoted by local businesses.

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day this Saturday also offers an opportunity to highlight the history of Irish-Americans in the city and county. Schenectady's division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a Catholic, Irish-American organization, was founded in 1880. The organization first met at the Center Street Opera House; the organization first appears in the 1882 city directory, listing Bernard Whyte as President and Martin Kelly as Secretary. The Hibernians met at a number of locations over the years, including the Van Curler Opera House, 729-733 State Street, and their current location at 1746 State Street, where the organization moved in 2000. The Schenectady Ancient Order of Hibernians have been active in promoting the culture, music, and language of Ireland, and have also been an important part of Schenectady's Irish-American community over the years, holding numerous social events including dances, variety shows, parties, communion breakfasts, Celtic Faire, and cocktail parties. As a group, the Schenectady AOH has also donated money to local causes, including scholarships for local high school students and funds for St. Clare's Hospital. The Hibernians have also organized and/or marched in St. Patrick's Day parades in Schenectady and in Albany.

A notice regarding the celebration of St. Patrick's Day in Schenectady in the March 19, 1866 Evening Star shows that imbibing on the holiday is nothing new. Image of newspaper retrieved via

Another organization that was active in annual St. Patrick's Day festivities was the Schenectady chapter of the Society of Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick. During the 1910s, the Friendly Sons hosted large dinners in celebration of the holiday, featuring speakers, songs, and fellowship. A 1911 newspaper clipping describes the celebration at the Vendome Hotel: "Sprigs of genuine shamrock were worn by many of the guests. The menu cards and favors were printed in green and tied with green ribbons and even the menu was tinged with the same color wherever possible, as in the ices, ice cream and punches, which were flavored and colored with pistachio and creme de menthe. Then there were green lights and the green ribbon insignia was displayed across the shirtfront of every guest, running from the northwest to the southeast."

Monsignor John L. Reilly, 1940.
Photograph from Grems-Doolittle
Library Photograph Collection.
One of the speakers who consistently addressed the annual St. Patrick's Day festivities of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick was the Monsignor John L. Reilly. The Rt. Rev. Msgr. John Liguori Reilly was born in 1853 in Albany. He attended Niagara University, where he earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees. After completing his studies at St. Joseph Provincial Seminary in Troy, he became an ordained priest in 1876. He served as pastor for a few churches in New York State before coming to Schenectady in 1886. He was appointed a Monsignor by Pope Pius in 1904. He served the churches of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist for nearly 60 years. He often spoke before various organizations on behalf of the welfare of the city, and was recognized for his service in the fight against tuberculosis in the 1920s. He was a chaplain of the Schenectady council Knights of Columbus since its organization and was a charter member of the Schenectady Hospital Association and the Board of Managers of Ellis Hospital, member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Schenectady County Historical Society, the Ingersoll Home, the Rotary Club, and the Schenectady County Humane Society. He received an honorary doctorate degree from Union College in 1943. He died at the age of 91 in 1945; at the time of his death, he was the oldest active priest in the United States. His obituary in the Schenectady Gazette stated that Reilly was "the symbol of Catholicism in Schenectady." He is buried at St. Agnes' Cemetery in Albany.

A ledger book of John Piper shows money sent to people in Ireland. The first page of the ledger reads, "John Piper is my name. Ireland is my nation - John Piper, Schenectady, New York." Image from Alonzo P. Strong Ledgers.

Schenectady Hibernians raise the Irish flag at the
corner of State and Jay Streets on March 17, 1986.
Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.
Monsignor Reilly and other prominent local Irish-Americans were highlighted in a clipping dated March 17, 1906, which included photographs of "Schenectady Irishmen typical of the race." Many of the men were prominent members of the community as well as men who were involved in Irish-American organizations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Friendly Songs of Saint Patrick. The men featured are: James Devine, Thomas M. Gleason, Patrick B. Kearney, John McDermott, Patrick H. McDermott, James C. McDonald, P.H. McDonough, John McEnroe, Daniel Naylon Sr. and Jr., Michael Nolan, William P. Nolan, and Monsignor John L. Reilly.

Many resources are available in the library to help researchers explore the history of St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Schenectady, as well as to trace the history of thr Irish-American community in Schenectady and Irish genealogy. Some materials include clipping files, family files, naturalization records, church records, original documents, books on Irish and Irish-American genealogy, and photographs.

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