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Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

If Halloween is the most-celebrated holiday in Aspen, St. Patrick’s Day can’t be far behind. The “green” philosophy at Aspen Skiing Co. is new potatoes compared to the Irish feast of corned beef and cabbage accompanied by three-leafed shamrocks.

“Erin go braugh! Caed, mitle failthe!” Or: “Ireland forever. A hundred thousand welcomes!” So said the Aspen Daily Times back in 1885 as it announced the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. “Even though it be ancient history,” said the paper, “buy your green ribbons for St. Patrick’s Day at H. Miller’s, courthouse dry goods store.”

The Knights of the Order of Wolfe Tone were hosts for the evening at the Rink Opera House. After the fact, it was reported that 150 dancers (then the largest turnout for a dance in the history of Aspen) enjoyed the hospitality, filling the 26 dances on the program. From 9:30 p.m. until 4 a.m. did they swirl and curtsy until, at last, another great party went down.



The Irish were big in early Aspen and still are today, if the truth be known. The Order of the Knights of Wolfe Tone was likely the largest fraternal organization in Aspen during her mining days. Theobald Wolfe Tone, the man, was a leading Irish revolutionary and one of the founding fathers of the United Irishmen, a group hellbent on independence from Britain. Having escaped the wrath of the British for subversive activities, he ended up living in Philadelphia but soon found himself disenchanted with the aristocracy of money in America and realized that he much preferred the European aristocracy of birth. With a vague promise of help from Napoleon, Wolf Tone returned to Ireland only to be killed by the British, who attempted to make the assassination look like a suicide.

Aspen’s Ladies of St. Mary Catholic Church began their annual (and still going strong), St. Patrick’s Day feast back in 1892, in conjunction with the Knights of Wolfe Tone celebrations. The church dinner usually was served first, before the later celebration, although on several occasions, supper was served by the Catholic church ladies during dance intermission at the Wolfe Tone hall.




Who was this man, St. Patrick, and why do we give a whit about a celebration in his name? For those who like to make things up, he was the man who “rid the Emerald Isle of snakes,” although it is fairly certain that snakes never have lived in nor occupied Ireland. Basically, it started as a church celebration in honor of the man who came to Ireland to spread the word. First a priest, later a bishop, the “Apostle of Ireland” was quite successful in converting a secular country into a mostly God-fearing nation. Part of his appeal was his use of the shamrock to explain the Christian Trinity. Never canonized by the Catholic Church, he’s still undeniably a saint, although in these times, the holiday may be said to be more irreligious than religious.

My mother was a full-blooded Irishwoman, long black hair and beautiful features, with a singing voice that could stop the universe with its soulful timbre. But I never fully appreciated that heritage until I stopped by a party hosted by Larry Maloy, Sean Cridland and a bunch of other local outlaws on the deck of a 1970s Dale Mars rental. Larry knew the right mix of good food and booze, and forever after, I have been proud to call myself an Irishman – at least when I’m not being an Italian. I appreciate the forethought of my Irish great-grandfathers for coming to this valley in 1880.

Just for the record, one of my great-uncles was named James Wolftone Stapleton, in honor of the Irish upstart mentioned above, and another great-uncle was named Thomas Nappertandy Stapleton, Nappertandy being a well-known Irish insurgent. My family has a heritage of questioning authority, it seems.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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