March 17, 2016
The story behind the mysterious annual appearance of a huge shamrock painted in the middle of a busy East Falls intersection traces back to a night when a bunch of teenagers got their hands on some quarts of beer nearly six decades ago.
Because of course it does.
Tom Doyle is now 70 years old, but a youthful sparkle shines from his eyes once he gets to talking about his role in a neighborhood curiosity that’s taken on a life of its own.
To hear Doyle tell it, he and his pal Tommy Grimes, who knew each other from their days at St. Bridget School, had just finished up caddying at Presidential Golf Course so they had a few bucks in their pockets on St. Patrick’s Day Eve 57 years ago. They headed up to Grimes’ brother Skip’s place on Conrad Street.
“Back then, you’d get three quarts of Ortlieb’s for $1.05 and we’d just made six bucks caddying a double all day, so we got someone to get the beer for us and we were sitting around with the older brothers, talking,” he recalled at his new Andorra home on Monday afternoon. “Skip was very into Irish history.
“We just started talking about our heritage and everything, and we said we should make a statement about this. You know, when you’re drinking, you get really Irish. 'We ought to put a shamrock down at the corner!' After all, the neighborhood was all Irish and Italian back then. 'Yeah, we’ll do it tonight!'”
“It got to the point when we were in our early 20s, there would be crowds of 20, 30, 40 people there drinking on the corner while it was being painted. It was a good, fun time. The police were cool about it. Back then, there were a lot of Irish cops, so they appreciated it.” – Tommy Doyle
Do it, they would.
He ticks off the names of people who were there for that first shamrock painting. Skip Grimes. Danny Grimes. Tommy Grimes. Himself. And a fella named Bernie Winters who guarded the beer when the others took some “junk paint” out into the middle of the street and created a noticeable neighborhood tradition in their nook of Northwest Philadelphia.
Today, people tend to recognize the huge red pepper that serves as the restaurant Johnny Manana’s beacon.
Back then, though, the intersection consisted of a hardware store, 5 & 10 shop, a drug store with a deli counter inside, a supermarket a few doors in and taprooms as far as the eye could see.
“So we got half a load on, and we’re out in the middle of the street painting it with little paint brushes. There was no spray [paint] cans back then. It wasn’t even a good Kelly Green paint,” Doyle wistfully recalled. “That’s when it all started. It became a routine. It was pretty much the same guys for the next five, six years and then other people started to join in.
“It got to the point when we were in our early 20s, there would be crowds of 20, 30, 40 people there drinking on the corner while it was being painted. It was a good, fun time. The police were cool about it. Back then, there were a lot of Irish cops, so they appreciated it.”
Despite some people being in the know, Doyle recalled the general East Falls reaction was “where the heck did it come from since we were doing it under the radar.”
Subsequent years saw friends move out of the neighborhood or on from that whimsical aspect of life. But not for Doyle or Danny Grimes.
“It became a part of me from the jump. I always wanted to be involved in it,” he said. “A lot of people would take credit for it, saying, ‘Oh yeah, I painted the shamrock,’ but nobody ever painted it except me and Danny Grimes.”
The lone exception was the time some 15 years ago when Grimes died and his brother-in-law took over, but Doyle added his mark to a landmark that was often mentioned in radio and TV traffic reports through the years.
In the years since, it’s all fallen to Doyle to keep the tradition alive, with the sometimes-help of his four kids, his brother Mike and nephew Richie Ennis.
“I say a little prayer to Danny when I get done painting it,” he said, eyes welling up with tears. “It stayed a secret up until a couple years ago. Word just started getting out in the neighborhood. I tell people I’ve been doing it for 57 years and they’re going, ‘Get the hell out of here’ because so many people have claimed to do it.”
The painting happens – as it did at 3 a.m. last Wednesday – in the middle of the night to avoid issues with traffic.
Doyle will have a co-conspirator on hand to hold a flashlight to ensure the job, which takes about 20 minutes (and not even a full gallon of paint) to complete, goes smoothly. He tries to time it to his son’s March 5th birthday, but it doesn’t always fall on that day.
The lone issues arising through the years – besides the heart attack he suffered in 2015 and brining related to heavy winter snows – happened when somebody launched an anti-shamrock social-media campaign or when someone from Manana’s tried to add a Mexican flag atop the shamrock for the Cinco de Mayo celebration a couple years back. That didn’t happen twice.
Looking toward a future when he won’t be able to paint like he can today, Doyle hopes neighborhood businesses and residents support a campaign that leaves a brick shamrock embedded in the street itself as opposed to paint atop it.
Short of that, he hopes someone picks up where he leaves it. (Full disclosure: As an East Falls resident, I told him I'd meet him out there next year to help with sustaining the effort.)
“It should be done in bricks so it’s there. I wanted to get a movement to put it where it belongs, get a nice job done, like they’ve done with the streets in Manayunk. I’m a carpenter by trade for 45 years now, union carpenter, but I’d love to work on it,” he said. “It’d draw people to the neighborhood. That’s more important than anything, even mentioning me in the story.”