The Shamrock Club of Wisconsin is the oldest and largest Irish American membership organization in the State of Wisconsin. It was founded on March 17, 1960, in Milwaukee. Currently there are chapters in Milwaukee, Rock County, (Beloit and Janesville), Northeastern Wisconsin, (Green Bay), South Central, (Baraboo), Dane County (Madison), New Dublin/New London, La Crosse, and Lafayette County, (Darlington).

The Shamrock Club was organized by members of Milwaukee's Irish community who had been a part of the Milwaukee Holiday Folk Fair's annual November festival. Helped by the International Institute of Wisconsin, the Club met to organize on March 17, 1960, St Patrick's Day. A few years later, it would incorporate under Wisconsin corporation laws, and later would receive a federal 501 C (4) as a charitable, social and cultural organization.

Flights to Ireland

The Shamrock Club would gain a foothold in the Irish community by sponsoring and chartering flights to Ireland. These trips were very popular, and there were often multiple trips to Ireland each year. When the chartered flights program started, there was little in the way of direct flights to Ireland, and those that existed were often prohibitively expensive. Changes in the federal laws would take the Shamrock Club out of the charter business, as more commercial airlines saw the growing interest in Ireland to be a viable money making option for them.

Milwaukee St Patrick's Day Parade

The Shamrock Club would hold its first St Patrick's Parade in 1967 along Wisconsin Avenue. The parade was under the auspices of bar and restaurant owner Danny O'Donoghue for many years. O'Donoghue, a native of County Cork, was one of the driving forces of the Irish community in Milwaukee and Wisconsin for decades. The parade continued on Wisconsin Avenue until the Wisconsin Avenue's Bridge 1975 rebuilding forced a move to Mitchell Street, on Milwaukee's South Side. The parade was then headed up by Catherine "Cate" Harris. She was succeeded by Chuck Ward. The North Avenue Business Association wooed it to North Avenue, where it ran from 53 to 74 Streets, in 1986. Michael Boyle headed up the parade for many years, until he passed the reins to Tim O'Brien and Mick McDermott. The parade crossed two cities, Milwaukee and Wauwatosa.

The parade would later move to Bluemound Road for one year, until a move to Downtown Milwaukee took place in 2002, which was the beginning of a partnership with the Westown Association, a downtown business association promoting the neighborhood west of the Milwaukee River. The Westown Association brought on Miller Lite in 2003 as presenting sponsor of the parade. During its run in downtown Milwaukee, the Shamrock Club has had Dan Malloy, Mike O'Leary and Kristine Pluskota all as parade directors. Pluskota and Mike Boyle are now running the parade.

The Shamrock Club of Wisconsin's parade annually draws between 40,000 to 80,000 spectators, who brave all types of weather conditions to watch the parade in either perfect or less than perfect conditions. It is the largest St. Patrick's celebration in the state of Wisconsin. The parade typically features between 120-150 units which include the area's six Irish dance schools, numerous pipe and drum corps, as well as other community leaders and Irish groups. In 2007, the New York City Police Department debuted in the Milwaukee St. Parick's Day Parade, bringing a contingent of 95 officers to march. They returned in 2008, with over 100 of NYPD's finest helping Milwaukee celebrate.

There is an annual Mass on Parade Day at the historic St Patrick's Church, 7 and Washington. Now mainly a Hispanic parish, it is decorated in Celtic knots and has a statue in honor of St Patrick. The combination of pipes, choir and Gaelic liturgy have made it one of the highlights of the Irish community each St Patrick's Day.

A Post Parade Party has been held at various locations for the past 32 years. The most recent home has been the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, 2133 West Wisconsin Avenue, which is also the home of the Shamrock Club.

Milwaukee Public Museum

During the 1960's the Milwaukee Public Museum bullt a new home, across the street from the old building on 7th and Wells. One of the features was the European Village. An Irish cottage was part of the group village. The Shamrock Club was asked to furnish it. Many members came forward with family memorabilia. Clay pipes, dishes, lace and more decorate the interior. The cottage was opened once a year, during the Shamrock Club's St Patrick's Day presentation. Crafts, Irish dancing and music, and an Irish storyteller were all part of the day.

Holiday Folk Fair

The International Institute, which had provided support for the Shamrock Club in its incorporation, has also had a presence of the Club since 1960. Each year for the past half century, the Shamrock Club has provided Irish food, culture and dry goods. There are Irish dancers, from all of the different Milwaukee area schools, and various Irish bands still perform.

The Shamrock was the featured group in 1980, when the Folk Fair still had a Spectacular and Honored Ethnic Group. The Shamrock Club came together to present Puck Faire, a fairy tale like event that had acting, bagpipes, uillean pipes, an Irish cottage that appeared out of nowhere, Irish dancers, and song. IT was one of the high points of the Shamrock Club's history. There was a commemorative stein produce, with a pair of Irish dancers on the face. They were Shamrock Club treasurer and Blarney fiddler John Maher, and Shamrock Club dancer Therese Kinsella.

Shamrock Club Dancers

In 1966, Nina Nash Robertson helped establish the Shamrock Club Dancers, one of the first Irish dance schools in Wisconsin. The Dancers performed across the Midwest, and were a presence in the rise of Irish Dance in the United States.

In the 1970's, Mary Eileen Geary took the school to new heights, and the school was one of the largest in the United States. Parents were discovering the joy of traveling to Oireachtas and Feiseanna, as the dancers competed for individual and team trophies.

The Dancers separated from the Shamrock Club in 1982, with two schools forming from the one. One group went with nineteen year old Chicago area dancer Mark Howard, who had started a dance school after leaving the Dennehy School of Chicago. This was the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance. . The Shamrock Club dancers gave him an infusion of dozens of students. The adult dancers, and some youth dancers, broke off to form the Cashel School of Irish Dance. This later would be the Cashel Dennehy School of Irish Dance.

Milwaukee Irish Fest

In 1979, Ed Ward, past president of the Shamrock Club, and founder of the band, Blarney, asked the Shamrock Club to set up a committee and provide funding for an Irish Fest in Milwaukee. After more than a year, the first Milwaukee Irish Fest debuted on the Summerfest grounds on Milwaukee's lakefront. There was certainly crossever between the two groups, as many of the first officers of Irish Fest were also members of the Shamrock Club board. The first president of the festival, John Maher, was also the treasurer of the Shamrock Club. The first two years, the festival used the Shamrock Club's raffle license for its raffle. Many of the volunteers for the first festivals were drawn from the Shamrock Club's roles.

A memorandum of understanding was drawn up in 1982, offical separating the two organizations.

The Milwaukee Irish Festival has grown into the world's largest Irish music and cultural festival, with an annual attendance of over 120,000 people attending each year. There is a still a special relationship between the two organizations.

Organizations that grew from the Shamrock Club

Organizations that grew directly or indirectly from the Shamrock Club are Milwaukee Irish Fest, founded in 1981 by Ed Ward, past president of the Shamrock Club;Cashel Dennehy School of Irish Dance. and Trinity Academy of Irish Dance. . , formed when the Shamrock Club gave up control of the Shamrock Club Dancers; the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin, founded by Shamrock Club members as a home for Milwaukee's Irish; and Celtic Women International, and the Conference of Celtic Women, both founded by Jean Bills, who was treasurer of the Shamrock Club at the time of the founding of CWI.

Dance schools that received funding from the Shamrock Club were Glencastle Irish Dancers and Kinsella Academy of Irish Dance.

The Milwaukee School of Piping was started with a grant from the Shamrock Club. It was held each June at Alverno College, until it was renamed the Midwest School of Piping and moved to St John’s Northwestern Military Academy.

State Chapters

As interest in the Irish in Wisconsin grew, various chapters came to life across Wisconsin. The current chapters include the Shamrock Club of La Crosse, in Western Wisconsin; Darlington's LaFayette County chapter; New London's Shamrock Club of New Dublin; Dane County, based in Madison; The Shamrock Club of Green Bay and NE Wisconsin in Green Bay; and the South Central Chapter, based in Baraboo and Portage. Some chapters have disappeared, including Twin Lakes, Fox Cities and Fond du Lac. The Rock County chapter disbanded in 2007, due to lack of new members.

Statewide chapters hold monthly meetings, organize Saint Patrick's Day parades, hold various festivities, raise the flag over the State Capitol, as well as other Irish related activities. In New London club leprechauns change the towns name to New Dublin for St. Patrick's Day week. All of the chapters are involved in fund-raising and have donated thousands of dollars to numerous causes in the past four decades. Membership includes the printed version of the monthly publication
New London - St. Patrick's Day Parade and Irish Fest
Each year the Shamrock Club of New Dublin hosts Wisconsin's largest St. Patrick's Day parade with an Irish Fest in New London. The parade typically features multiple bagpipe and marching bands, clown performers, specialty, clan, and business floats. Irish Fest is held in a heated big top tent with several Celtic style bands, food, beverage, and market booths.

A whole week of St. Patrick's Day events starts when club leprechauns rename the town to New Dublin. The events include; an evening of Irish entertainment, an Irish Ceili with a band and caller/teacher, Irish caroling, and an Irish wake parody. Corned beef and cabbage is served in the area in restaurants that week too. The parade and Irish Fest top off the week on Saturday.

Finnegan's wake is a yearly tradition in 'New Dublin'. It started years ago as a 'lark' when locals in mourning paraded down the main street with a manaquin (Finnegan) in a wicker casket. The parade has grown each year since with Finnegan now riding in a green hearse with faulty door locks that allow him with casket to fly out when the hearse pulls away.

Beloit St. Patricks Day Parade
The Rock County Chapter of the Shamrock Club is no longer in existence. The Shamrock Club does not have a connection to the Beloit St. Patrick's Day parade any longer. The Beloit St. Patricks Day Parade took place every year in downtown Beloit. The parade began at the Kerry Group headquarters, (a prominent food producer having originated in Ireland), and finished in Beloit's Central Park (Horace White). The parade was held annually on the Friday before St. Patricks Day.


Copyright @2001-2011 - Brian G Witt

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