By Irish America Staff
April / May 2003
Howard “Bill” O’Brien, a living legend among Irish cowboys, will lead the Phoenix St. Patrick’s Day parade in Arizona as the Grand Marshal. The 80-year-old replica of John Wayne has been so busy raising funds for the Irish Cultural and Learning Foundation in Phoenix that he has almost neglected the Irish Cowboys Association, an organization that he founded in 1997. Said O’Brien, “We like to get all the cowboys together. We’ve got no meetings to go to, and there aren’t any membership dues.” Of course, these kind of formalities would be too restrictive for the cowboys, who spend one week per year riding along the Mexican border. For O’Brien, this trek has been a tradition for over 35 years.
His love for Mexican culture has led him to become an expert on Irish-Mexican history. He founded the Los Patricios de Arizona group, which recognizes the deep friendships established in 1846 when the San Patricios, a band of 250 immigrant Irish soldiers, deserted from the U.S. army and fought for Mexico.
O’Brien was born and raised in Los Angeles before he decided to flee the nest and hitchhike out to Arizona at the age of 16 in 1938. His plans to start ranching and follow his dream of being a cowboy were soon foiled by his mother. “She was a real Irish mother. She followed me out to Arizona and made me go back to high school. I had no choice,” he admitted. He went on to study at University of Arizona’s college of agriculture before he was shipped off to serve in World War II. After returning from the war he finished his degree and finally got the chance to start his life as a full-time cowboy and cattle rancher.
O’Brien’s family originally hails from County Clare. He and his wife Sada traveled over to Ireland in 1998 to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. That was quite a celebration, he assured Irish America, but perhaps not as large a party as Arizona’s St. Patrick’s Day. Just three days after his 80th birthday, O’Brien sighed, “You always think you’re a great cowboy, and then you meet a better one.” ♦