Patrick (Pat) O’Neill Jr. is what they call a “four-corner Irishman.” With Irish grandparents on both sides of the family, O’Neill practically bleeds green. And when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, he and his family take no shortcuts in celebrating.
For O’Neill, the Saint Paul St. Patrick’s Day Parade is an annual tradition that goes back to the first-ever parade: “[It] started in 1966, I was 2 years old and I was in that parade,” he says. And he’s been in every once since—aside from 1985 when he was in Ireland. He was president of the St. Patrick’s Association for years, and in 2006 he followed the footsteps of his father and uncle and was selected Mr. Pat, an honor given each year, typically to a businessman in St. Paul with Irish heritage.
But the “day of” is the big event and every year, he and his wife, Kelly Malone O'Neill, and kids Allison, 26, and Pat III, 25, start early. “When my kids were at St. Ambrose, I would pull them out of school,” he recalls. “We would get in our green garb and drive to the [St. Paul] Cathedral.” Mass at 9 o’clock on St. Patrick’s Day “is said by the Archbishop, or an Irish designated priest, and all the readings are in Gaelic.”
From there, they head to the parade, picking up the family banner on the way, and assemble to march. "When the parade lands on Fridays and Saturdays, we have 100-plus in our marching group. I have 47 first-cousins,” O’Neill says. “So then we march behind our banner and carry our O’Neill family shield.”
After the parade, which starts at noon every year on St. Patrick’s Day (unless it lands on a Sunday, in which case it reverts back to Saturday), O’Neill and the family jump over to the tent party across from Rice Park, sponsored by his law firm, Larson King. There, Irish food and drink are flowing, and if you’re lucky, you get to take a shot out of Pat O’Neill Jr.’s shoe.
“That green shoe is something that has taken on a life of its own,” he says. Years ago he bought a pair of green shoes in Boston, and they ended up being too small. So, after getting the inspiration from a wedding party, he took the shoe to a shoemaker, “and he hand-sewed in a waterproof rubber liner in this shoe … For 20 years now, I’ve been taking this green and white shoe out to St. Patrick’s Day parties,” he says.
Over the years, very little has changed about his family’s St. Patty’s Day rituals, and that’s what makes it special. “St. Patrick’s Day is a fun way to celebrate where we came from with our whole family . . . and it’s a unique opportunity to celebrate your heritage in a really public way,” says O’Neill’s son, Pat III. “I’m most looking forward to marching in the parade, and doing the O’Neill family chant as we do every year [while marching]. It’s a great way to spend time with family.”
Kelly Malone O'Neill's family marched in the parade each year, too. She estimates this photo was taken in the late 1960s.