March 14, 2023 at 10:45 p.m.
O’Brien fondly recalls celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Melrose
The Irish heritage in the Melrose area can still be found in family names, St. Patrick’s Cemetery and looking at a list of early settlers.
For a time, in the 1970s, that heritage was noted on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, with local Irish celebrations.
“The Irish families kind of stuck together for a while,” Barbara O’Brien said March 7 at her home in Melrose. “It was a way to celebrate their culture.”
O’Brien was an import to the Melrose-Irish culture. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, moving in 1967 to Melrose, 3.5 years after marrying George O’Brien, who passed away in 2011. His parents, George and Sylvia O’Brien, relocated to Melrose in 1938 to run the Melrose Theatre.
Today the door on the entrance to O’Brien’s house still has a shamrock-adorned green top hat with the word “Welcome.”
That is about the extent of her St. Patrick’s Day notations today, but close to 50 years ago, the O’Briens were involved in events that included daylong Irish traditions.
“For three years, from 1976 to 1978, we had a parade on main street,” she said. “There was a police car, a fire truck, Charlie Gebeke drove an old green car, and Bueckers Sanitary had a trash truck with a sign saying ‘Irish Camper.’ The rest of us walked behind.”
Many of the families involved had Irish last names – O’Brien, Sullivan, Hughes, Timmins, Graham, O’Donnell and Murphy. There were others with non-Irish names that married into an Irish family. O’Brien’s maiden name was Schisler.
“George always said he had to leave Melrose and go to the East Coast to find a German girl,” O’Brien said.
On St. Patrick’s Day everyone was Irish.
The parade started at the four-way stop with participants traveling down main street three blocks, ending at the Melrose VFW Clubrooms (now Martinez Meat & Grocery, LLC).
As the luck of the Irish would have it, no parade was ever canceled.
“In 1977, it was snowing and raining to beat the band, but we just marched right through it,” O’Brien said. “Of course, as good Irish Catholics we started with a Mass. Fr. (Tim) Baltes said the Mass.”
Following the parade, celebrations continued at the VFW. St. Patrick even made an appearance.
“George was dressed as St. Patrick,” O’Brien said.
They only had the parade three years, she said.
“For another two years, we had a party at the Billy Goat Inn (now El Portal),” she said. “After that, it kind of fell off.”
The St. Patrick’s Day celebration featured Irish music, a meal, a dance and, of course, green beer.
“We named a Miss Leprechaun,” O’Brien said. “There were three of them. The first was Mae Lippsmeyer. That’s a German name, but she was born a Wood. Then there was Mary (Sullivan) Rieland and Jackie O’Brien, a teacher.”
One year a dance instructor came to Melrose and taught an Irish jig to party-goers. Other years a trained dancer performed the jig and there was an Irish harpist.
Homage was even paid to a long-held tradition in Ireland.
“We had a Blarney Stone,” O’Brien said. “We had cards made up and whoever kissed this stone got a card that said the bearer of this card had kissed a ‘genuine imitation copy of the Blarney Stone.’”
While the Melrose St. Patrick’s Day celebrations only lasted five years, memories remain for O’Brien – who was reminded of some of them by Mary Ellen Gebeke – and others with Irish connections, and it is even talked about occasionally.
“It was fun,” she said, “and a good time.”
That’s no Irish blarney.