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'I, Hugo,' or how the Irish founded Tucson

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St.Patrick's Day

'I, Hugo,' or how the Irish founded Tucson

An overview of Tucson's rich Celtic roots

  • Hugo O'Conor's famous document
    Hugo O'Conor's famous document

In the desert’s heat, red-headed Irishman Hugo O'Conor rode northeast past the San Xavier Mission that Father Eusebio Kino had founded only 75 years before. His job was to rout out Apaches and Comanches, and to scout out areas worthy of establishing military outposts from which to fight them. He thought he’d found a fine replacement for the smaller post at Tubac.

On the 20th of August, 1775, the colonel, along with a priest and lieutenant, signed this document:

I, Hugo Oconor, knight of the order of Calatrava, colonel of infantry in His Majesty's armies and commandant inspector of the frontier posts of New Spain certify that…I selected and marked out…a place known as San Agustin del Tucson as the new site of the Presidio. It is situated at a distance of eighteen leagues from Tubac, fulfills the requirements of water, pasture and wood, and effectively closes the Apache frontier.

In his long career as an outsider Irishman in the service of Spain, Colonel O’Conor traveled over 10,000 miles on horseback and foot, across Mexico and the areas now known as California and Arizona.

He retired from soldiery with the rank of brigadier general, became the governor of Spain's Yucatán province, and there he died at age 49, only four years after founding Tucson.

Hugo (or Hugh) O’Conor, known as “The Red Captain” (El Capitan Colorado) for both his hair color and ferocity in battle, is considered by many to be the Old Pueblo’s founding father. He is especially embraced by members of the large Irish community who dwell in Tucson today.

Most historians recognize Father Kino as the founder. And claims are staked further back, to the Hohokam in 600 A.D. or further still, to Paleo-Indians 12,000 years ago.

"There’s some dispute here," admits L. T. McDaniel, one of the organizers of a local St. Patrick’s Day celebration called the McArdle Clan Shenanigans. 

Tucson’s St. Patrick’s Day parade  is sophisticated and elaborate for a medium-sized city, with floats, musicians, dancers, and a gay pride entry each year.

An entire Irish community has sprung up here, with an unofficial count of 18 Celtic organizations in town. One of Tucson's sister cities is the Irish town of Roscommon, where O’Conor was raised after his birth in Dublin.

The Old Pueblo has Irish house concerts, two schools of dance and many bands, including one – Round the House – with three CDs and multiple Tammies music awards to their name.

Sharon Goldwasser, violinist for Round the House, says they’re launching their fourth CD March 12th at O’Malley’s. She thinks Tucson is a great town for Irish musicians, and she would know, as Round the House plays elsewhere frequently, and has traveled to play for St. Paddy’s Day.

"Once, we played in a boxing-ring type-of-thing, with March Madness basketball on TV and people paying little attention. It’s much better when we play here for family and friends," says Goldwasser. "And St. Patrick’s Day is the time when I, as a musician, feel most connected with the Irish community here."

But back to the McArdles and their “Shenanigans.” What’s that all about? Only a uniquely Tucson St. Patrick’s Day tradition: the "Painting of the Shamrock" in the street at Stone and Pennington, and this year is the 40th anniversary.

It began innocently enough, when John and Ann McArdle moved their family here from Boston in 1969, because of John’s arthritis. Ah, Boston, the east coast bastion of Catholicism.

Comparisons were inevitable. Ann was known to complain often, “There’s nothing here for the Irish.”

So on March 17, 1970, her son painted a small shamrock at the now-famous intersection. Ann passed Pennington and Stone on her way to work at Mountain Bell downtown, and seeing the painting made her happy.

Next year it was larger still, taking up the entire intersection. Each year the paint fades with traffic, sun and footfall and must be renewed by the youngest generation of McArdles. This year, there are 20 great-grandchildren of John and Ann who will be doing the honors, but only in the dead of night on an unspecified day.

L. T. McDaniel is married to a descendant of the first McArdles, and he admits that the origin of the story is slightly different according to which relative you ask. His wife’s version is the one here. It ends:

"While the paint is drying, the history of 'The Shamrock" is told with Irish music playing in the background. There is a prayer and then dancing."

The McArdles have a float in the parade on March 14, too. L.T. will be there and Sharon Goldwasser, and all the “O”s, “Mc”s and “Mac”s and —

Oh, we’re all Irish on St. Paddy’s Day!

If you go

The annual St. Patrick's Day parade will be held at 11 am on Sunday. Check the official website for more information about the day's festivities.

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