Sláinte, toast to Irish traditions
Visitors driving through O’Neill might wonder about the giant green shamrock painted at the intersection of Highways 281 and 20.
The Holt County community of O’Neill has been the Irish Capital of Nebraska for 50 years. In 1874, long before that 1969 gubernatorial designation, Irish settlers put down roots here along the Elkhorn River. No matter their lineage, residents living in the thriving community today embrace and honor their community’s Irish heritage, and celebrate it during St. Patrick’s Day. Thousands attend for food, fun and O’Neill’s Irish traditions.
While at an O’Neill pub in March 1961, resident Peter Matthews bemoaned to his friend Joe Cavanaugh the lack of a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in their town.
According to Pete’s son Leo, the duo wasted no time calling the chief of police and mayor for a last-minute parade permit. “Back in those days, it was a party line, so people were not happy with the late-night calls,” Leo said.
They decided to dye Matthews’ horse from silver to “green smoke.” Legend has it they bought every drop of green food coloring at area stores, and begged door to door for more.
Pete and Joe startled onlookers as they sat upon the bright-green horse, followed by a convertible covered in green crepe paper. “The guys blared the car horn, and people would step out to see what was going on, and here come Joe and Dad on a green horse,” Leo said. As the horse strode by the post office, Father Sullivan declared, “I’ve never seen the likes of it – even in Ireland!”
Matthews took over his dad’s job of painting the green horse and riding him in the parade in the late 1990s. “When somebody sees that green horse for the first time, it’s like they’ve seen Santa Claus,” he said. “No matter their age, it brightens people’s day.”
Matthews is often asked to ride his green steed in other parades. “It’s O’Neill’s horse,” he said. “I won’t take it anywhere else.”
Some visitors are shocked to see a green horse in the parade, but even more astonished to find the animal in local pubs. One year, the green horse had a mind of its own and meandered into the steakhouse to meet Gov. Ben Nelson after the parade.
“The chief of police asked what I thought I was doing,” Matthews said. “I told him, ‘Well, the horse wants to graze at the bar and shoot the breeze with the governor.’ ”
That didn’t work out so well for Matthews and his horse, but they trotted their gaiety into several other downtown establishments.
O’Neill residents Al Reynoldson, and his brother-in-law, Ron Smith, knew they needed to put O’Neill firmly on the map for the 1967 Nebraska Centennial. They accomplished that feat and made other Irish communities in Nebraska green with envy by painting a giant shamrock at the intersection of highways 20 and 281. The location is Fourth and Douglas streets in downtown O’Neill.
“We tried to make the shamrock as big as possible that first year, without the city hollering about it,” Reynoldson said.
O’Neill’s famous shamrock has been repainted every March since, even the year the city’s police department ordered the guys not to paint it because it was disrupting traffic.
“We were told that if we tried to paint the shamrock, we would be arrested,” Reynoldson said, “But after the bars closed on Friday night, the whole crowd went outside to paint it. Yeah, the cops were watching, but the sheer number of people taking part took away any reasonable options they had.”
The rowdy group felt like they had some insurance since Gov. Jim Exon’s motor-vehicle-highway safety director John Sullivan was from O’Neill, and he was out there painting the shamrock right alongside them.
For the rest of the story see the March/April 2019 issue of Nebraska Life.