Illustration by Christiana Sandoval Woodard
John Francis O’Grady, described in a newspaper article as “a roly-poly Irishman with the deadpan expression and sly chuckle,” made a point of speaking to everyone, especially street cleaners. He became a well-known Richmond nonconformist through his acts of random silliness, such as when he’d plop down a camp stool to sit out the wait at a downtown crosswalk. He walked with elaborate canes, not because he needed their aid, but for the sheer enjoyment of display.
O’Grady built a house in 1911 at 3502 E. Broad St., overlooking Church Hill’s Chimborazo Park, where he and his wife, Marie Herbert O’Grady, raised five boys and five girls. They were active in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church — which since 1985 has been the center of Richmond’s annual Irish Festival in March.
Long before the Irish Festival, though, there was O’Grady’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. He began holding the parades when he moved to Church Hill in 1911. In 1936, he joined forces with retired firefighter Allie Duffy, who’d been leading his own one-man processionals. The parades lasted “until the sun goes down or their feet give out,” a 1957 Richmond Times-Dispatch article noted. They visited banks, department stores, City Hall, the State Capitol and “other likely establishments.” Their menagerie included pigs, ducks, a fox, several snakes, goats and skunks. In 1957, O’Grady and Duffy received permission for a horse named Patrick to pull a shay through the city streets.
Life wasn’t all play, however. O’Grady worked as an industrious executive for construction firms and he was a founding member of the John T. Wilson company that built numerous downtown banks, businesses and offices, including the former Virginia Power building at Seventh and East Franklin streets, now the Edison Apartments. He oversaw the construction of Camp Lee Hospital outside Petersburg during World War I, and returned in the 1940s to manage improvements to the renamed Fort Lee. He joined Doyle & Russell, which built the Pentagon. Although he often walked around under a big 10-gallon cowboy hat, “he works like hell” at the office, a colleague remarked in 1957.
As O’Grady told it, he began life “at the bottom of the hill.” The first-born of three to saloon keeper John F. O’Grady Sr., son of an Irish immigrant, and Josephine Cotton, he came into the world on Sept. 12, 1890, in the rooms above the bar on the southwest corner of Seventh and Louisiana Streets in the Fulton neighborhood. Neighbors tut-tutted that the O’Grady children, growing up around booze, would become drunks. Instead, they almost entirely abstained.
O’Grady’s unpublished reminiscences, which he wrote just prior to his 1961 death, describe Fulton, a village in the valley between Church and Powhatan hills, as “colorful and exciting as a television show.” The residents were the sons and daughters of Irish, Scottish and German immigrants, and African-Americans. Laborers trooped, lunch buckets in hand, to their jobs at the nearby Richmond Cedar Works, a massive woodworking factory (now a section of Rocketts Landing), a fertilizer company, stone quarries, tobacco plants, a manufacturer of spokes and axles for early automobiles, breweries, the Richmond docks and the railroad shops.
The manual labor created a great thirst.
“On every corner there was a barroom,” O’Grady remembered, “some with bar maids, and on the corner that I lived, there were four bars on four corners.” Irish families ran almost all the establishments. The bars operated seven days a week, despite laws against Sunday selling, and opened up after Mass. O’Grady Sr. and his colleagues posted an outside watchman. If the lookout spotted a policeman, a push button signaled to lock all the doors. Sometimes, the man might doze off, leading to discovery and light fines. The Irish bars of Fulton also served as political hustings for office seekers, a function that limited raids and punishment.
At the O’Grady saloon, blacks and whites came to the bar, but a long screen on rollers separated the two. The practice, O’Grady implies, was more a concession to local custom than strict belief. Segregation and integration weren’t words used in Fulton, “as we knew no difference in the races, and considered all Americans and treated all as Americans.” Despite the screened arrangement, black and white children played together.
O’Grady collected a variety of animals besides dogs and cats — groundhogs, a pair of ducks and a couple of crows. One afternoon, O’Grady appeared in the backyards of neighbors, poking his cane in the grass. “Lost my snakes,” he explained to the curious. For several days afterward, trash piled up behind houses and few went outdoors. Meanwhile, his three black snakes coiled in a box at home.
He also exhibited a fondness for hats, having at one point 100 of them. For whatever mood or occasion, O’Grady could produce a brown derby, a beret or a brilliant green high topper. This last, he wore when he and Allie Duffy led their parades. A Richmond News Leader account says he donned a special “song-and-dance-man” straw “that he used to tip at flabbergasted pedestrians when he merrily hauled around his  youngsters on Sunday afternoons in a somber black hearse.”
O’Grady’s irrepressible penchant for shenanigans bubbled from a seam of seriousness that often runs through a jokester. Life, he noted in his memoir, can be difficult, and unless one can remain connected to the family, a form of faith and useful work, it is harder still. Simple conversation was one method that he employed during bus rides to and from his Central National Bank building office (today’s Deco at CNB Apartments).
He remarked in 1957 that the St. Patrick’s Day parades were “a chance to give people a laugh or two. And people sure do need a laugh these days.”
Who would argue with that?
Photo courtesy Jim Mann/Church Hill Irish Festival
Church Hill Irish Festival
While not a direct descendant of John O’Grady’s St. Patrick’s Day parades, this festival at 25th and East Broad streets is imbued by his sense of mirth and community, featuring music, crafts, children’s activities and, of course, Guinness. It benefits programs of St. Patrick’s and St. Peter’s churches, the Church Hill Crime Watch, and the Child Saver’s Clinic. churchhillirishfestival.com