March 2007

Tom Reilley & "The Wearin' O' The Green"

Author: Paul deVere

The guy credited with starting the tradition of the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Hilton Head Island did it for two reasons. “Well, first, because we didn’t have one. And second, because the owner of Casey’s Crustaceans (They used to be where the old Remy’s was.) said I should start a parade. ‘You won’t believe how big it will get.’ I guess it was just the challenge.” And maybe it was because his last name is Reilley. It was 1983, and he had just opened a restaurant. It happened this way.

“I didn’t want the business. My wife [Diane] wanted it. She talked me into doing it. Of course, she was right. She always is,” said Reilley with a good Irish laugh.

Reilley has a good laugh. He would have to. A submariner in the late ’60s and early ’70s (USS Lafayette SSBN-616, submerged for 62 days at a time), he is a father of seven, grandfather of five—with two more on the way—and the oldest sibling of a Reilley clan that numbers eight brothers and sisters (all but one living on Hilton Head). Under any of those circumstances, a good laugh would come in handy.

The “business” of course, was Reilley’s, an incredibly popular restaurant and pub on the south end of the island, now celebrating its 25th year. Reilley’s has been a local favorite, almost since the moment it opened on December 6, 1982. Back then, the restaurant was across Greenwood Drive in The Gallery. “We actually had no idea what we were going to do with it,” Reilley explained. “But it was a matter of survival. I had four kids and a mortgage.” A trip to Epcot Center at Disney World provided the answer.

“We took the kids to that English restaurant, the Rose & Crown. All of a sudden I said, ‘This is Reilley’s. We’re an English pub!’ Of course, we call it an Irish pub, but that’s when I got really enthusiastic. We were able to modify the memorabilia and atmosphere inside to really make it work,” Reilley said.

What also “made it work,” Reilly thinks, was the restaurant’s first big promotion. “It was February 28, 1983. The last episode of MASH was on television that night. We did a ‘Mash Bash.’ We turned Reilley’s into the 4077th. We had the martinis; we had someone playing “Hot Lips” Houlihan; we had everything.” Young, hip islanders loved it. About two weeks later, the rest of the island started falling in love with Reilley’s too—the sponsors of the first Hilton Head Island St. Patrick’s Day parade. The “Mash Bash” and the parade were like a quick one-two marketing punch for the new restaurant.

The stage for this seminal event must be set. This was Hilton Head, 1983. It was the year the island would officially become a town. The permanent population was about 12,500. The four-lane bridge that had replaced the old two-lane swing bridge wasn’t quite a year old. Palmetto Bay Road was still a narrow two lanes, dead-ending at Palmetto Bay Marina.

Compared to today’s standards, the parade was tiny. The route was to start at Casey’s Crustaceans and end up at Reilley’s. The day was cold and rainy, but spirits where high. The participants were about to begin the march when a couple Beaufort County deputies showed up.

Reilley remembers the episode like it was yesterday. “They told us we needed a permit. A permit? The deputies actually didn’t know what to do. It was scary for a bout 20 minutes. Then the chief came and said ‘No harm, let ‘em go. Let’s regroup for next year and make sure they get a permit.’ It’s funny now, but …” Reilly said.

That little parade Reilley and his cohorts started 24 years ago now draws 20,000 fans and 3,000 participants. “It’s very user-friendly,” Reilley said.

Actually, the Reilley family has been very “user-friendly” to Hilton Head Island since they arrived back in the1970s:

When St. Francis by the Sea parish was forming and needed a place to hold Sunday mass, the Reilleys offered the use of the Crazy Crab restaurant on the north end. For Catholics in Hilton Head Plantation, Port Royal Plantation and Moss Creek Plantation, it became known as the “Church of the Crazy Crab.”

The Reilley’s annual golf tournament, the “home course” is Golden Bear at Indigo Run, attracts 288 golfers from every state in the Union, plus Canada, England and Scotland and has been written up in Golf World and Golf Digest. Tom Reilley’s niece, LPGA touring pro Reilley Rankin, grew up on Hilton Head and is a local and national tour favorite.

When Tom Reilley’s dad, Tom Reilley, Sr., a popular islander, passed away in the early 1980s, the newly formed St. Francis by the Sea chapter of the Knights of Columbus took the official title of the “Thomas D. Reilley, Sr. Council 10668.”

The impact Tom Reilley and his family have made on Hilton Head Island is difficult to calibrate. The Reilleys own or are partners in five island restaurants. Along with Reilley’s on the south end, there is Reilley’s restaurant on the north end in Port Royal Plaza, two Crazy Crabs, and Aunt Chilada’s Easy Street Café, owned by Tom’s brother, David.

Then, of course, there is the parade. For that, Tom Reilley deserves a toast—an old Irish toast: “May your home always be too small to hold all your friends.”

Reilley’s Grill & Bar
Hilton Head Plaza

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