Community: The Shamrock Club of Columbus reflects on 80 years of celebrating Irish culture
Green beer is for amateurs. It's a shamrock, not a four-leaf clover. And under no circumstances should one ever say “St. Paddy's Day.”
Those are a few points the officers of the Shamrock Club of Columbus made during an early-March interview at their headquarters on West Castle Road. In honor of St. Patrick's Day on Friday, March 17, members of the Irish social organization will attend mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church and host the holiday parade Downtown and the Irish Family Reunion at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
“[St. Patrick's Day] is where we shine,” said Vice President Mary Grady Strickland. “We're not these people that drink and fall down.”
The Shamrock Club of Columbus has been serious about celebrating Irish heritage and honoring the patron saint of Ireland since it was founded by a small group of men in 1936. The men hosted the parade and a small breakfast, and hung out at the old Neil House Hotel Downtown. Not only were women forbidden to join the club, they also faced restrictions during mass at St. Patrick Church.
“The women had to sit up in the choir balcony,” said current President Brian O'Reilly, repeating information his mother relayed about her past experience. “They weren't allowed to sit on the main floor with the members.”
There were still limitations during Strickland's childhood. “You had to stay in the back of the church,” she said. “Here's my old grandma, [and] they wouldn't even give her a seat. … That's how bad they were.”
Eventually a picnic was added to the lineup of St. Patrick's Day events, giving the children something to do. O'Reilly remembers going to the grounds at Murphy's Party Barn for the food and climbing over the hill to watch cars race on the nearby track.
Over time, the club became more inclusive, first allowing Protestant men to join in 1978.
“I guess you never [thought], ‘Oh, I have five daughters and they're Irish Catholic and they cannot join the Shamrock Club, but a non-Irishman, non-Catholic could,'” Strickland said.
That same year, Irish-American women's organization Daughters of Erin was formed. The group began collaborating with the Shamrock Club on events like the annual feis, or dance competition, which is still running today, and the first Irish Family Reunion in 1979, which was held at the since-torn-down Veterans Memorial Coliseum. “It's been a great brother-sister relationship,” Strickland said.
Women were finally permitted to join the Shamrock Club in the early '90s. The club had its first female president in 2011 and Strickland will become the second once she succeeds O'Reilly.
“We would not be where we are if we hadn't allowed women to be involved,” O'Reilly said.
Today the club, which includes a public, in-house pub at its headquarters, hosts myriad events and activities year-round. There are monthly music performances, a golf outing and dart, horseshoe and cornhole leagues.
Larger events include the Irish Family Music Festival and a Flag Day celebration. Shamrock Club members also volunteer at the Dublin Irish Festival. You also may have seen their paintings of shamrocks around town in front of establishments from India Oak Grill in Clintonville to Hey Hey Bar & Grill in German Village.
The club's approximately 1,800 members include core families that have participated for generations — O'Reilly's own father and brother have both served as president — and, overall, the average member's age skews above 40.
“It's harder to get younger people to come in,” O'Reilly admitted, and pointed to Irish-Catholic families having fewer kids than in years past. “You don't have as many offspring joining the club. … And it's not something to do on a Saturday night if you're 25 years old.”
The club, which relies on annual dues to cover expenses, is hoping to increase its overall membership.
“We're financially strapped almost every month,” O'Reilly said. “It would be great to get some financial stability. … We need to get more people involved.”
That includes anyone, Irish or non-Irish, who has an interest in the history and culture. And the club supports its members, especially in times of need. It recently raised about $1,800 for a past president who has a grandson with brain cancer. There's also a bereavement fund to assist with food preparation when a community member dies.
Especially touching is 65-year-old Director Karen Komatsu's experience. “I'm an only child [and] both of my parents are deceased,” said Komatsu, who is of Irish and Japanese descent. Four families in the Shamrock Club made a gesture to legally adopt Komatsu for her 60th birthday.
“The judge actually had the papers drawn up by the probate court,” Komatsu said. “I could go down right now and file.”
“You make friends you never would make otherwise,” Strickland said. “And then you become a family.”
St. Patrick's Day Parade Celebration
11:30 a.m. Friday, March 17
Parade steps off at St. Patrick Church
280 N. Grant Ave., Downtown
Irish Family Reunion
Noon-6 p.m. Friday, March 17
Greater Columbus Convention Center
400 N. High St., Short North