The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick

An unmistakable sea of kelly green coats and Irish flags parade down the streets of downtown Mobile every March 17. Now in its seventh decade, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick are just as lively as they have always been, preserving their history while bringing smiles and a little Irish luck to Mobile.

A black and white vintage photo of a Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick member trying on a a hat.
Jim Reynolds trying on a hat in 1974. Photo courtesy Mobile Press Register Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

On March 17, Mobile’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick will host their 70th annual celebration of St Patrick’s Day. 

The Friendly Sons, founded in Philadelphia in 1771, began as a relief organization for Irish immigrants and evolved to perform other charitable acts and provide scholarships. Among its early members were Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson, along with other Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War military commanders. Now primarily an all-male social organization, branches have spread all over the country – including to Mobile – and focus on the preservation of Irish culture and tradition in addition to philanthropy.

Now in its seventh decade, the Mobile chapter boasts more than 350 members who can be spotted by their Kelly-green jackets. Aside from a proven Irish lineage, the jacket is the only other requirement for membership. “I was the first one to wear a green coat,” says John J. Leacy. At 88, he’s the oldest living member of the Friendly Sons and has been active in the organization for 63 years. And that first jacket? It was a yard sale find. “I went over there, and here was this beautiful green coat. I picked it up and tried it on. It fit.”

Vintage photo of Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick members hanging in Callaghan's Irish Social Club
Early Friendly Sons hold court in a photo hanging at Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. Photo courtesy John Thompson

Paying only $15 for the jacket, Leacy wore it to the very next meeting. “The president said to me, ‘What are you doing with that green coat on?’ I say, ‘I like it. We need to wear some green.’ He said, ‘Oh, I think it’s terrible.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you one thing. You watch this. One day everybody in here is going to be wearing a green coat.’” The president swore it would never happen, Leacy recalls with a chuckle. He talked a men’s clothing store on Dauphin Street into carrying the now-signature green jackets, and just as predicted, soon everyone was wearing them. “That’s become a requirement — now you’ve got to have a green coat,” he says. “I thought it was a good idea. Oh, I was young then and didn’t really care what people said because I thought it was a good green coat. But that’s where it started.”

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Those green jackets, as well as top hats and other Irish regalia, will be on full display again this year starting at 9 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day. As it has for decades, the Friendly Sons will begin their observance of the holiday by taking down the American flag in Ryan Park and raising the flag of Ireland for the day, with permission from the city, of course. And, because March 17 is first and foremost a Catholic observance, members and their families will then attend a mass led by Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.  

In the early days of the Friendly Sons, the mass was held at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Beauregard Street, which has long since been torn down. “It was a neighborhood church almost in between De Tonti Square and further north where a lot of Irish families settled when they came into Mobile, particularly in the late 1800s,” says the Reverend Monsignor Michael Farmer, who, as well as the vicar general of the archdiocese, was the rector at the Cathedral for nearly 15 years. “As a matter of fact, Archbishop [Oscar] Lipscomb was its final pastor, and it closed in the mid-1960s. I think it was around that time that they moved their mass to the Cathedral.” But a relic from those early masses still makes an appearance at the cathedral each year.  

Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb walking alongside the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick in the annual St. Patricks Day parade in Mobile, AL.
Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb celebrates with the Friendly Sons after mass on the steps of the Cathedral-Basilica of The Immaculate Conception. Photo courtesy Bob Maceluch

“Archbishop Lipscomb grew up in Saint Patrick’s,” recalls Msgr. Farmer. “He made sure all the sacred things were taken care of properly before they tore down the church. And so, the statue of Saint Patrick that had been in that church was brought to the Cathedral. And part of the tradition that always happens on St. Patrick’s Day is to have that particular statue brought out for the mass.”

The Cathedral itself is a monument to Irish heritage. “When we restored the Cathedral, in the coffered ceilings is the fleur-de-lis showing the heritage of the French who obviously brought the Catholic faith to Mobile,” says Msgr. Farmer. “But then the shamrock was placed there to show the heritage of our Irish Catholics, and also to show the prominence of, and to honor in a special way, the Irish clergy and nuns who came to Mobile.”

Following mass, members will parade through downtown to The Battle House waving to thousands of onlookers and throwing treats. This year’s grand marshall is R. Gary Bailey. “When we paraded in the early days and my grandsons were still young, they all paraded with me,” he says. “It was fun for them because they like the idea of marching and giving away beads and candy and stuff like that. So, it’s a really great thing, and I think they all will eventually be members.”

Top Photo courtesy Bob Maceluch Top The 1975 Friendly Sons of St. Patrick parade makes its way down Government Street in front of the William H. Ketchum Mansion, the home of the Archbishop. Photo courtesy Mobile Press Register Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama. Bottom left Three Leprechauns, unknown date. Photo courtesy John Thompson. Left Warren Reilly with sons Russell Reilly, Sr. and Chris Reilly at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the 1970s. Photo courtesy Warren Reilly

For John Robb, it was actually the parade that first turned him on to the group. “About a year after I got here, which was 1982, I saw the parade. Before that, I had no idea that there was an Irish organization in Mobile,” he says. “Up in New York, not only do they have the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan, but they have these huge parades in each of the five boroughs. I wasn’t really expecting here in the Deep South that there would be that kind of celebration. But boy, was I surprised when I moved to Mobile and saw the size of the parade that we had on St. Patrick’s Day!”

Now Robb has been a member for 32 years, and in his official capacity as Leprechaun chair, he leads a band of merrymakers who dress in full Irish regalia to bring the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations to retirement homes and hospitals across Mobile. They sing Irish songs, perform traditional dances, tell some tall tales and hand out green beads. “The Army has the Green Berets, the Navy has the SEALs and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick have the Leprechauns,” he says with an impish laugh. “The idea is we want to bring the parade to the folks who can’t be down for the parade and try to put a smile on a few faces. And they always raise our spirits as well, because their love for all things Irish is equal to ours.”

At the end of the parade, the Friendly Sons gather for the Drowning of the Shamrock. “For the first hour after the parade, it’s an open bar where everybody can have a drink and talk… and boy, do they talk!” says Robert W. Maceluch, president of the Friendly Sons. “This year we’re going to add six traditional toasts.” By lifting a glass of Irish whiskey, beer or wine, members will honor St. Patrick, Ireland, and the governments of the United States, the State of Alabama, and the City of Mobile, as well as Archbishop Rodi.

After talking and toasting, the Friendly Sons will gather for a traditional midday banquet and then retire for part of the afternoon before continuing the celebration at – where else? – Callaghan’s Irish Social Club.  

“This has been the Friendly Son’s post-St. Patrick’s Day headquarters, gosh, since they started. Callaghan’s opened in ’46, and the Friendly Sons started in ’54,” says John Thompson, Callaghan’s owner who is also a Friendly Son himself. “My uncle, Paul Thompson, was a charter member, and my father, Hays Thompson, joined the following year. Myself and my four brothers all joined too,” he says. “It was very steeped in Irish history and tradition, and it became a great way for me and my brothers to bond with my dad.”

Another notable charter member? Woodrow Callaghan himself! “I grew up down on Church Street,” Leacy remembers. “They call it the Garden District now. Well, it wasn’t so fancy in those days, but I lived right around the corner from Callaghan’s place. In fact, I remember when Woody Callaghan moved in there. So, we knew Callaghan’s from way back, before it got famous. Most cities have an Irish pub somewhere, and that’s ours in Mobile.”

And Callaghan’s is home to another very special tradition among the Friendly Sons – the Irish wake, a time they come together to honor a brother who has died. “We have lifetime members, and when finally we’re called to our reward, we have an Irish wake the night of the burial,” says Robb. But these gatherings are often more joyful than sad.

“It’s definitely a unique and special tradition,” says Thompson, who has been hosting these gatherings at Callaghan’s for 20 years now. 

Left The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick parade down the streets on St. Patrick’s Day in 1975. Photo courtesy Mobile Press Register Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama Right Judge Jim Patterson, right, a longtime Friendly Son, shown here during a recent parade, passed away in January 2023 and was honored with a traditional Irish wake at Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. Photo courtesy Bob Maceluch

“We do an Irish toast to the man while everybody in the place is holding an ounce of Jameson,” says Maceluch. “And then at the end of the toast, we drink up, and we start to tell the stories, the remembrances of the man. The families are most often there, and they want to tell some stories, and they want to hear some stories that they’ve never heard. We have a wonderful time.”

And the toast? It’s a beautiful Irish sentiment for both the dearly departed and for those who are still with us to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

May the road rise up to meet you. 

May the wind be always at your back. 

May the sun shine warm upon your face; 

the rains fall soft upon your fields 

and until we meet again, 

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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