When Irish Eyes are Smilin’

O'BrienThis week that the entire world becomes Irish, we once again post an old yarn about  one hell of a guy in Reno’s heritage. His name was Harry O’Brien, the Smilin’ Irishman who probably did as much for our town as any man alive did in the mid-20th Century
I’d hoped to have more photographs available but frankly I can’t find any other than a headshot and caption in my old standby-1960s “Men who Match Our Mountains” edition of Sierra Magazine. So, what follows is a bit of blarney about the hi-jinks that Harry organized around St. Patrick’s Day each year from 1960 through 1967, and once again in 1971

While yakking with a bunch of guys preparatory to going up to the Nevada Historical Society and digging up some stuff about Harry, one among us postulated that there are few of the Harry O’Briens around Reno, or Sparks, anymore…men who moved and shook, most of whom owned businesses and used a genuinely town-enhancing effort to promote their businesses. Sure, Harry wanted the world to know that he owned O’Brien’s Moving & Storage, but he put an incredible amount of himself – and of his own coin – into setting the bar for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that would follow

The parade started almost innocuously in 1960 – well-organized but thinly-attended, and not a terribly long parade. It snaked up Virginia Street, as I recall but not reliably, from the Sewell’s Market parking lot between Fourth and Fifth, southward to maybe Buddy Traynor’s Shell and Walker & Melarkey’s Flying A service stations on Liberty Street. It was a Thursday evening. And it didn’t take long for a few mounted groups, maybe the Nevada White Hats (I recall horses), a few bands, maybe the University ROTC band and I think a bagpipe band up from San Francisco that Harry had lassoed to help, a grand marshall who’s name I’d hoped to find but didn’t

It was vastly successful. The next year, the parade grew, and on a Friday night that year, more attended on the Virginia Street sidelines. And more participants showed up, seems like somewhere in here E Clampus Vitus showed up, emblematic of the Irish contribution to the Comstock (Julia Bulette Chapter was two years away from its inception). More bands, more horses, more pipers, a few more floats this year (several on Harry’s moving company flatbeds!) – a pleasant mix of legitimate Irish heritage and capricious fun. Some sang. A few had one, or even two, Irish Coffees, which SF Chron columnist Stanton Delaplane had introduced in America at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco only a few years before. The crowd sang. Some did the jig. Harry was underway

The slim news accounts of the occasion noted that the following year – 1962 – 28,000 souls, all Irish, not all from our valley, attended the parade. It was this year that Harry began another tradition: On the theory that it’s always easier to seek forgiveness than permission, Harry and his merry band of men journeyed downtown in the wee hours of March 17th and painted the usually-white stripe bisecting Virginia Street, Harrah’s and Harolds to the east, the Primadonna and Southworth’s Cigar Store to the west – a bright Kelly green. Hell was raised by the City Fathers on a tongue-in-cheek basis, as in “if you do that again in 1963, we’re going to be, well, really upset” (Harry would do it again every year ’til he died. Or see that it was done…)

Kudos arrived from many, not the least of which was, or were, from Eamon de Valera, president of the Republic of Ireland, and you don’t do much better than that in a St. Patrick’s Day celebration
The celebration continued through 1967; why it was terminated then I couldn’t say. In 1971, Harry once again resurrected the downtown parade, for that year only. I can find no record of parades in that interim or following 1971. I can write with authority that painting the stripe down the middle of Virginia Street continued on an apparent haphazard basis for many years until people quit going downtown, and my incredible research also reminds us that Harry did on numerous St. Patrick’s days also instigate the dyeing of our Truckee River’s silvery rills a bright Kelly green, and on a few sunny days the river indeed appeared to be a bright green from the Shore Room of the Holiday Hotel. As I recall this met with disdain of whoever operates rivers locally similar to the City Fathers’ objection to painting Virginia Street’s stripe. No fish were injured in this production

Those were the O’Brien years, and good ones they were. We salute Harry; actually I remember him fondly as a good man and a friend of my dad’s. Hell, he was everybody’s friend; he was a Mason and Shriner, I.O.O.F., Lions, Elks, the Coast Guard Auxilliary at Lake Tahoe, and chairman of the United Fund in 1966 and 1967
Now, the tough part of the story, and as it is with most Irish tales and ditties, the ending must be sad: On February 22 of the year 1974 Harry was eastbound toward his office on East Second Street when a forklift on a flatbed truck, traveling beside his car with the forks raised (unbeknownst to the machine’s operator), and the fork rail struck the new I-580 freeway overpass and fell into Harry’s car. The next morning’s Nevada State Journal would carry the headline in 120-point type, “O’Brien dies in forklift accident.” He was 59. By the way, should you encounter Brian Clary this weekend, tell him you read about his grandpa Harry…

Reno’s loss was immense – to paraphrase Irish poet William Butler Yeats, he changed us, changed endlessly; a terrible beauty was born. Harry, we’ll lift a glass to you on Tuesday, all over town – in spirit at the Raps and Corrigan’s and Ryan’s on Wells Avenue, at the Stein on Center, the Siamese Room on West First, (like those last two?!) wishfully at Noal Foley’s on South Virginia – and wherever else green is worn and Irishmen gather to speak of hale men and good days gone by