A brilliant marketing executive once said, “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Although anyone can “be” Irish on St. Patty’s Day — and use it as an excuse to drink green beer and indulge in pub-crawl — for anyone who actually happens to truly be Irish, the holiday is simply a day to celebrate with others the heritage and culture that the Irish celebrate all year long. After all, what is the story of St. Patrick’s Day but a story of redemption for the Irish people?
Think about it: an entire day (and in this city, an entire weekend) when everyone wants to be Irish. This celebration comes after centuries when Irish heritage was not exactly considered a celebratory quality. Oppressed by the English, starved with the potato famine, many Irish left the homeland to seek opportunity in America and wound up in places like New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and, yes, New Orleans. Here in America, the Irish were put to work digging canals and building railroads, working in jobs deemed too dangerous for even slaves. Known as drunkards and disposable laborers, the Irish in America endured and passed down traditions and pride for a heritage that has manifested itself in the celebrations of the most holy Feast of Patrick, Bishop of Ireland on March 17 each year.
Although I can only claim 50 percent Irish blood, my 100-percent full-blooded Irish Catholic father made sure during my childhood that my siblings and I were well-versed in the family history, knew which counties in Ireland we came from (Mayo and Galway), and what our name had been before those evil Brits changed it to “Smith” (McGowan). And for six years during my youth, I was terrified twice a week by an elderly Irish woman named Veronica who spoke in a brogue and must have come over on the first boat after the Great Famine of 1840, as she strapped rulers to my arms to keep them straight and taught (or tried to teach) me to Irish dance.
My own father is a member of the Irish Society of Wilmington, Delaware, where he and his buddies (and every politician in town) partake in similar events the entire week long leading up to that most holy of days for Irishmen everywhere.
With this background, I was not surprised, startled, or otherwise upset by a crowd of green-clad Irishmen strolling throughout downtown New Orleans as they “practiced” for St. Patrick’s Day. Running into the Downtown Irish Club’s practice parade would be foreign to most, but to me it felt like a piece of home here in New Orleans. I was able to sing along to “Danny Boy” and, my favorite, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”
Although it will take more than a few green beers to get me to ever Irish dance again, there are ample opportunities this weekend to make my ancestors proud, if only from the sidelines of the parade:
Friday March 14:
Molly’s at the Market Irish Parade 6:30 PM
Saturday March 15:
Irish Channel Parade 1 PM — at the corner of Felicity and Magazine (route)
Italian-American St. Joseph’s Parade 6 PM — at Convention Center Blvd. and Girod (route)
Sunday March 16:
St Patrick’s Day Parade on Metairie Road Noon — in front of Rummel High School on Severn Avenue (route)
Monday March 17:
Downtown Irish Club Parade 6 PM — at Burgundy and Piety (route)
The Irish as a people have come a long way — from digging canals and building railroads to trading kisses with beautiful girls in exchange for paper flowers or beads in the annual New Orleans St. Patrick’s Day parade. But one thing has remained fairly constant: a dedication to the preservation and promotion of Irish heritage and pride and the sharing of the joy (and Guinness) that goes along with that.
Erin Go Bragh!