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Feature Story

The history behind Des Moines’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade

3/6/2024

Who was St. Patrick? Why does he get a parade? And why is his parade so much fun?

At the core of St. Patrick’s Day, those with Irish heritage recognize St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and celebrate their Irish heritage. St. Patrick is heralded on March 17, which is thought to be the day he died.

While Des Moines doesn’t go as far as dying its rivers green, the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick have been putting together an evolving parade since 1979 that is steeped in a deep lore of its own.

The 1986 parade going through downtown Des Moines. Photo courtesy of the Friendly Sons

The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick

The society of the Friendly Sons dates back to 1771, with the first chapter being formed in Philadelphia and eventually spreading throughout the rest of the country, including Hawaii.

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Bob Conley, alongside his brother, Raymond, formed the chapter for Central Iowa with six friends: Tom Mahedy, Phil Maloney, Jimmy Murphy, Rod Ryan, Jimmy Piazza and Kevin Sullivan. The chapter organization started in 1974 and was formalized in 1976. Since then, the Central Iowa chapter has grown to more than 240 members and hosts events such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade, car shows, bike rides, and more. 

Interested in becoming a member? The application fee is $50. You must be at least 21 years of age and be able to trace your lineage back to Ireland, and you must submit the application at one of their monthly meetings. Those meetings are every second Monday of the month at the Mickel Center, 1620 Pleasant St., Des Moines. Dues are required to be turned in at the first meeting of the new year for existing and new members. For more information, you can visit their website at www.friendlysonsiowa.com, or contact the current president, Josh Soliday, via email at President@friendlysonsiowa.com. 

The two major Irish communities in Iowa, Georgetown and Melrose, make sure they’re represented at the parade. Photo courtesy of the Friendly Sons

The parade’s history

To learn about some of the parade’s best moments in its nearly 50 years of existence, we talked with Colton O’Connor, a younger member of the Friendly Sons and this year’s parade organizer, as well as two older members, Dick McGinn and George Heddinger, who are former presidents of the group. We met at Sully’s Irish Pub in West Des Moines, a fitting location for such a conversation.

Once the drinks started flowing, the stories did, too. 

With the club starting in 1976 and the parade beginning in 1979, organizers wanted to celebrate beforehand. Heddinger and McGinn described a bus tour that took them around the city and hit most of the Irish pubs. 

While the club didn’t have a float during the early years of the parade, and instead simply carried a banner, the first float for the Friendly Sons was certainly one to remember.

“It was a pub we built on a flatbed trailer, and we had swinging doors to get in,” Heddinger said. “You could walk along the front of the float and behind the float. We had a keg inside, and you just stepped up and walked in and grabbed a beer.”

The pub was built on a trailer owned by Red Dooley, a farmer from the Irish settlement in Cumming.

This pub on wheels created a plumbing problem, but that had a quick and easy solution.

Melrose, “Iowa’s Little Ireland,” has their individual banner, reminding us all of their 1937 championship basketball campaign.

“Then we said, ‘Well, if we’re going to have a keg in here, we’re going to have to go to the bathroom at some point.’ Dooley got out his cutting torch and cut a hole in the middle of the trailer and put a funnel in it,” Heddinger said. “It worked fine.”

Heddinger mentioned Frank Donovan, an iconic figure on the Des Moines golf scene. Donovan was a golf teacher, owned the Ponderosa golf course, and was known for his wacky golf tournament where golf etiquette was thrown out the window. It was no surprise that he had a similarly outlandish idea for a float in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Donovan joined the Friendly Sons in the late 1970s or early 1980s, according to Heddinger. 

Golf balls

“I don’t remember what year it was, but he said we should have a float with him on it, hitting plastic balls into the crowd,” Heddinger said. 

“I got a mat from one of the driving ranges, then we put a pole on there and mounted a tubular pipe up in the middle of the trailer, put some hooks in there and strapped him in.”

After acquiring a hoard of plastic golf balls painted green, Heddinger teed them up for Donovan, and off they went into the crowd. When Heddinger asked what they should do for people on the other side of the parade who were left out of the green plastic barrage, Donovan simply turned the club around and hit the balls in the other direction.

The 2007 parade marched down Grand Avenue. Photo courtesy of Amy Blair

For parade attendees’ safety, O’Connor advises those participating in the parade this year to not throw or hit anything into the crowd but to hand them out instead. 

Cabbage toss 

“I know a guy personally, the guy might have been me, or might not have been me. But we had a party bus, and we threw cabbages out to people, just something we did as the years went by. A young lady was wanting a cabbage. She had her hands out, and she had her daughter in front of her, and she got hit in the head,” said O’Connor.

A photo of O’Connor tossing cabbage heads into the crowd made the front page of The Des Moines Register before the practice was retired. Other objects sent into the crowd over the years included green bagels supplied by Bruegger’s Bagels.

At the conclusion of the parade, a reception is held for all to attend. The reception location has changed through the years. It’s been at Fort Des Moines, the old Hotel Kirkwood, and the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel. The reception was also held at the Embassy Suites from 2001 to 2011 but has been at the downtown Marriott ever since. 

O’Connor remembered a potentially dangerous moment in the parade when the reception was still at the Embassy Suites, which is sandwiched between the Locust and Walnut Street bridges.

“I was probably 12 or 13. I rode a horse in the parade,” he said. “I remember riding across that river bridge and I thought, ‘He better not spook.’ I wasn’t scared one bit until we went across that bridge.”

Safety first

As much fun as the parade is, the founders, board members and organizers still emphasize safety. In recent years, the city of Des Moines has required a fence to be installed around the parade route. Despite the general public’s thoughts about St. Patrick’s Day being a “drinking holiday,” that isn’t necessarily the case for the Friendly Sons.

“It’s still a cultural event, and people associate it with a drinking event. But, at the end of the day, we’re celebrating our heritage, and we’re celebrating our holiday,” O’Connor said. “Drinking may be a part of it, but that’s not necessarily what we’re advertising.”

Evidence from the 1983 St. Patrick’s Day Parade of the claim made by the Friendly Sons that Mother Nature won’t stop their parade. Photo courtesy of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick

“And people do keep their drinking under control. They don’t get out of hand,” added McGinn.

“It’s also early enough in the day for them not to,” joked Heddinger.

Weather impact

With March being a time of year when Iowa can’t decide if it’s done with winter and ready to head into spring, Mother Nature sometimes interferes with the parade, but not enough to stop it. Last year, Des Moines experienced bitter cold the day of the parade. O’Connor recalled the temperature being 4 below zero when he arrived at the setup of the beer garden at 5 a.m.

“The news called us, and they said, ‘Hey, we’re here. Where are you at?’ I said, ‘I’m in my car. I ain’t coming out there,’ ” O’Connor said.

Other times, the weather has been much kinder. The year the parade route took them down from the capitol building in 2012, the temperature was 80. 

New route

The parade is taking a new route in 2024, starting on Robert D. Ray Drive and heading west down Grand Avenue. See the map on the next page. The parade will continue with longstanding traditions such as the flag-raising and the breakfast beforehand with members of the Friendly Sons.

O’Connor stresses to be safe and respectful to everyone during the parade. 

“I want as many people to be there as possible,” he said. “I want everybody to be safe, respectful and to have a good time. So respect everybody. Respect the people next to you, or, if you’re in the parade, respect the people that are participating in the parade. Most importantly, I want everybody to have as much fun as they possibly can and to just support the club. Buy as many raffle tickets as you can and have as much fun as you can safely on that day.” ♦

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