June 06, 2020

AN IRISH STEW Popular Donegal writer gave city a boost in 1907

What would you have been doing on St. Patrick’s Day, a century ago, had you been an Irish resident of Bangor? Chances are you might have been complaining there was very little to do. St. Paddy’s Day had lost much of its spark. The parades and banquets and bombastic oratory were things of the past in the Queen City. As for an honest drink, there was none to be had thanks to Maine’s prohibition law.

To make up for this sorry state, however, you could have looked forward to hearing the lecture next month by the popular Irish novelist and folklorist Seumas MacManus, brought here by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. MacManus’ appearance would be a belated St. Patrick’s Day celebration of sorts. It would show the rest of Bangor that the Irish did more than fight and drink.

Plenty of authentic Irish still lived in Bangor then. In the 1910 Census, 664 individuals claimed to have been born in Ireland, while another 1,554 said both of their parents had been born there. Nevertheless, the St. Pat’s celebration had lost some luster.

In 1871, 600 celebrants, including 20 “young Irish lasses on a horse-drawn chariot,” marched from Hampden Road to St. John’s Church for Mass. Then they turned about and marched to City Hall where a public dinner for 225 was held complete with toasts and a talk by Father O’Callaghan. In the next few years, there were more parades with chariots and pretty girls accompanied by bands and choruses and lively speeches.

Still, despite the decline of enthusiasm, homage would be paid today, March 17, 1907, to the patron saint. The Bangor Daily News published its usual tribute to St. Patrick while the Bangor Daily Commercial printed a sentimental ditty called “My Shamrock.” It began: “‘Tis a withered sprig of shamrock from the land of my birth,/The land that I love, the dearest on earth,/And I kiss you with pleasure, for I’m happy today/To have you my shamrock, for St. Patrick’s Day.”

Green beer to my knowledge had not been invented yet, but many Irish would be wearing the green.

Benoit Clothing Co. was giving a souvenir shamrock to any man who entered the store on Saturday, March 16, even if he didn’t buy anything. And for 25 cents, J. Martin Jr., the florist, would order you a little pot of shamrocks by mail right from Ireland.

The festivities, though, seemed mainly for children and old people. On Saturday night, the pupils of St. John parochial school sang tunes such as “All Praise to St. Patrick” and “Farewell to Thee Erin,” accompanied by Miss Ella Connor. The next morning, on the fabled day itself, the venerable members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians walked from their hall at 107 Union St. at 7 a.m. to Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. That afternoon a concert of Irish airs was scheduled at 2:30 p.m. at the hall, with members of the Ladies Auxiliary assisting.

And that was it, except, of course, for the informal conviviality conducted at places like Peter Flaherty’s Penobscot Club in Pickering Square, where you had to identify yourself through a wicket in the door before being allowed to enter. The sentinel had let in one policeman too many recently, and poor Peter, who described the purpose of his club as “social and literary,” had been slapped with a fine and a jail sentence. Whether the Penobscot Club was actually open on that St. Patrick’s Day long ago is hard to tell. But it didn’t matter. Dozens of other illegal saloons operated by Irish entrepreneurs (and not a few of other ethnic backgrounds) were ready to satisfy Bangor’s raging thirst.

Seumas MacManus was scheduled to speak on Irish fairy and folklore on April 29. “The lecture will be public and the hall will surely be filled to its capacity for is there anyone living, irrespective of nationality, who hasn’t heard of Seumas MacManus,” asked the Bangor Daily News. By then, MacManus was the author of such works as “Through the Turf Smoke” and “Donegal Fairy Stories.” He was on his third American tour. Tickets were on sale for 25 cents at such Irish-American businesses as J.P. Frawley’s pharmacy and Gallagher Bros. market.

On the night of MacManus’ appearance, hundreds packed the hall. Gaelic pride was inspiring the Irish everywhere. The Rev. Edward McSweeney, the local AOH chaplain, spoke of the debt all writers owed to Ireland. The Irish Renaissance was in bloom, making literary heroes of William Butler Yeats and J.M. Synge as well as many minor figures like MacManus.

MacManus was a talented speaker. “One moment [he] had the audience laughing until they cried; the next minute they were hanging spellbound,” reported the Bangor Daily News. He read from some of his books and lectured on the Irish spirit world, but it was his store of witty proverbs and stories that provoked the greatest merriment.

“It’s better to be bald than to have no head at all,” he said. “A kind word never broke a tooth, but many a man’s tongue broke his nose.”

Then there was the story about the Irishman who had just visited the morgue. Outside in the street, he was seized with a violent fit of coughing that sounded like consumption. “A passer-by expressed his sympathy, but the Irishman cheerily responded as he indicated the morgue, ‘There’s many a man in there would be glad to have it.'”

MacManus told another tale about a hungry Irishman who was given a beefsteak to eat. He laid it on the doorstep to say grace. Just as he was finishing his prayers, he caught sight of a dog with the steak in his mouth disappearing around a corner. Instead of flying into a rage, the Irishman asserted blandly, “Thank God, I’ve still got my appetite.”

If you laughed out loud at any of those lines, it’s plain you would have been a proud Irishman in Bangor on St. Patrick’s Day a century ago.

Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at wreilly@bangordailynews.net. He relied on Donald J. King’s University of Maine thesis on leisure time activities in Bangor for details of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations before 1900.

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