For many, St. Patrick’s Day is a day of celebration, a green-lit bacchanalia of parades, beer, shamrocks and kisses – all of which are definitely worth investigating. While San Antonio is not known for being an Irish town in the same way as New York City or Boston, down here in South Texas the Irish roots still run deeper than many might think.

This St. Patrick’s Day in San Antonio, a number of organizations with diverse takes on modern day Texan/Irish culture, will remember the Irish as well as the Alamo (the Rivard Report staff has also compiled a selection of events on our calendar):

“St Patrick’s Day is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Jim Fox, musician, former ethnomusicologist for the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, and Vice-Chair for the recently formed ‘An tAthair Sean MacAodghain’, or Fr. Sean Egan San Antonio Branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

Comhaltas is a global organization dedicated to promote Irish music and culture around the world.  Since the San Antonio branch organized in 2010, one of its goals is to show that there’s more to Irish Culture in Texas than green beer, and leprechauns.

“There are so many aspects to Celtic culture here in San Antonio,” Fox said. “After St Patrick’s Day, there is Fiesta, so it is kind of like one big party from the 17th of March to the end of April. Multicultural is the whole theme of it, and the Irish are well represented.”

The Comhaltas musicians with Fergus O'Flaherty at his pub in September 2012. Photo courtesy of James Fox.
The Comhaltas musicians with Fergus O’Flaherty at his pub in September 2012. Photo courtesy of James Fox.

Fox and fellow members of Comhaltas, like banjoist Mike Hollern of the San Antonio Irish band Boru, will be bringing Irish tunes to the River Walk as part of the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Hollern said playing St. Patrick’s Day on the famous Arneson Stage is particularly fun.

“It is a unique venue,” said Hollern. “We might be in the middle of a jig or a reel or something, and there comes the barge with about 40 people, and they pick up on the music, and the barge drivers are doing the boogie-woogie, and people are screaming.”

St. Patrick's Day reveler
A St. Patrick’s Day reveler. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

For Fox the increased interest in Irish music that follows in the saint’s beery footsteps is very important, and combines with the community-centric aspects of events run by all the Irish organizations in San Antonio throughout the year.

“After St Patrick’s Day, you always have more interest,” said Fox.

The Irish have been part of the history of Texas since Spanish times, as soldiers and statesmen in the 1600s, and as colonials under Mexican law in 1800s.

In 1768, a red-haired conquistador known as Capitan Colorado by the Native Americans, and Hugh O’Conner from Dublin by his family, was present at the laying of the cornerstone of the San Jose Mission, now part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

The ‘Spanishization’ of Irish names somewhat disguises the map of their journey from Mexico to Texas, but the tracks remain in modern Spanish family names that reflect their distant Irish ancestry; names such as O’Dononju  from  O’Donoghue, and Morfi, from Murphy.

They came in the form of pragmatic priests such as Father Muldoon, who left Texas with the term ‘Muldoon Catholic’ and as generals under the command of Santa Anna – General Miguel Barragan.  They came as fighters at the Alamo (more than 140 Irish died at the Battle of the Alamo), at Goliad, at the aptly named San Patricio, at Coleto Creek, Refugio and Agua Dulce Creek.

“There is a pretty broad Gaelic community in San Antonio,” said Tyler Tully, co-founder and former Chairman of the San Antonio Gaelic Athletics Club (SAGAC). “Youngest to oldest, you have the Irish Dancing Schools, the SAGAC, the Irish Cultural Society of San Antonio, the Harp and Shamrock Society, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. You also have the San Antonio Highland Games, which is pretty pan-Celtic.”

YouTube video

[Video: “Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile,” SAGAC’s victory song.]

These groups work year-long to preserve and promote Irish culture, but on St. Patrick’s day, it seems, everyone is a little bit Irish.

“Just because you wear green on St. Patrick’s, and drink green beer doesn’t make you Irish,” said Tully, “There will be libations, but it is not all about just getting piss drunk and crazy – it’s about community.”

A very happy St. Patrick's Day Reveler. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.
A very happy St. Patrick’s Day Reveler. Photo by Sharon Armstrong.

Originally from Oklahoma, Tully’s family claims Native American as well as Irish ancestry. Tully, like many Americans enjoys and is proud of his mixed ethnicity, and feels a deep connection to his Irish ancestors.  However, he says, native Irish friends often tell him that Irish-Americans have too much nostalgia for Ireland. It’s ironic, Tully points out, because Irish immigrants – his ancestors included – were forced to leave Ireland because of famine and economic collapse.

“I have had good conversations with native-born friends of mine,” said Tully. “We think Ireland is this paradise. That it’s always sunny, green and fertile, there are castles everywhere, and everyone is friendly. But … for good or bad, it is definitely an Irish American stereotype to be nostalgic, and I think it’s natural,”

He explained that his own ancestors moved west as a ‘Clan’, traditionally travelling as multigenerational family group that depended on one and other. According to Tully this way of life is not part of American society anymore, and for those who come from that older tradition, it creates a longing for community.

“In the last 60 or 70 years we have kind of transitioned here in the United States to single home family units … when people get to a certain age you put them away in a retirement center, and you don’t talk to them anymore, “ he said.

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[Video: 2012 St. Patrick’s Day Parade and The Wild Geese Soldiers And Heroes of San Antonio]

Louis P Kelly is the President of the San Antonio Irish Cultural Society. He too feels that many Irish Americans have a simplistic view of their culture. The SAICS’s many events tend to focus on the historical aspect of Irish history in the United States as a whole, and San Antonio in particular.

“We are not a party group,” Kelly said. “A great party gang are the Harp and Shamrock Society. They have quite a bit going on; they are going to be riding barges down the river. One of our primary goals is to emphasis the non-stereotypical aspects. It is important to teach these things in America – to know where you come from and what you can be proud of. We have enough people going around emphasizing the drinking and the fighting and all that stuff.”

He paused.

“Although I have been accused of singing,” he said. “And if you have a couple of drinks, I sound really good.”

Fox agrees that there is more to Irish/Texan heritage than the beverages, heritage that can be found in the music. While researching the history of Texan music, it surprised him to find so much Celtic influence here.

Fox is a regular player at the weekly Thursday Irish sessions here in San Antonio, out at Pizza Italia, 3023 Thousand Oaks. He also conducts a free Sunday ‘slow’ session’ for those who trying to learn Irish music, as well as giving private music lessons on fiddle, mandolin and guitar. In 2012, musicians from the San Antonio Comhaltas performed in Dublin for the current Irish President, Michael Higgins.

“It was a great time,” remembered Fox. “It is important, even just from a cultural perspective, to be able to express yourself musically – to actually understand the music and see where it applies. If you don’t know where you came from, how are you going to figure out where you are gonna go?”

Sharon Armstrong is a Scottish freelance journalist currently based in San Antonio, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana. She has a BA in English and Psychology from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, and a Masters in Journalism from Napier University, Edinburgh.  She has worked as a writer, photographer, producer and DJ for media outlets in Greensboro, Edinburgh, New Orleans, Austin (Edible Austin), and (now) San Antonio.

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