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Column: In Irish America, there’s far more to the celebration of St Patrick’s Day than parades

Boston native Larry Donnelly takes a look at the most prominent elements of 2014’s weekend-long celebrations in America’s most Irish city, and how they compare with what’s happening here.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

MUCH ATTENTION HAS been paid in recent months to the exclusion of the LGBT community from the St Patrick’s Day parades in Manhattan and in Boston. The decision of newly elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio not to march in his city’s parade is noteworthy in that it represents a departure from the practice of his predecessors.

Yet the reticence of Boston’s new Irish American mayor, Martin Walsh, to march, is nothing new. Because of the parade organisers’ move to ban openly gay and lesbian participants, bolstered by a unanimous 1995 US Supreme Court decision confirming that they have a right to do so, it’s been two decades since Boston’s first citizen did march.

There is far more, however, to the celebration of Ireland’s national day in Irish America than parades. As someone born and raised in the Boston area, it’s important to clarify that our city’s parade doesn’t even take place in the city centre, but in the historically heavily Irish neighbourhood of South Boston.

The parade

In the past, the parade was largely a local event for the people of South Boston. Although it might understandably seem strange to outsiders, it is an event at least as dedicated to honouring US military veterans as to celebrating all things Irish. That parade organisers are now under severe pressure to include the LGBT community is as much a testimony to the dramatic changes in the neighbourhood – many long-time residents have left and scores of newcomers have moved in – as to anything else.

Not being from the neighbourhood, I’ve only been to the parade a handful of times, when friends who either had moved there or who were Southie natives invited me. Accordingly, it was not ordinarily a focal point of St Patrick’s Day for me and lots of other Boston Irish.

What are likely to be the most prominent elements of 2014’s weekend-long celebrations in America’s most Irish city then? And how do these compare with what will be happening here?

The religious aspect of a day that, after all, commemorates the life of a saint is infinitely more pronounced and visible in Irish America than in Ireland. In Boston, especially, the notion of being Irish is inextricably intertwined with being Catholic. As a student in a Catholic primary school, Mass in our adjacent parish church was always the first order of business on March 17th, which was typically followed by a programme of Irish entertainment from our school’s numerous accomplished Irish dancers and musicians, most of whom were the daughters and sons of emigrants from the west of Ireland. The churches of the Boston archdiocese will surely be packed again this Monday with people for whom St Patrick’s is a holy day, as well as a time for revelling in their Irish heritage.

Ancestral pride in a relatively young country of immigrants

The vigour with which Irishness will be trumpeted, as being distinct from other nationalities and ethnicities in a heterogeneous US, is an example of clear transatlantic difference that will similarly be in evidence this weekend. There is no question that some of the images of St Patrick’s Day in America broadcast around the world are over the top, twee and, frankly, embarrassing. Claims of Irishness, whether legitimate or not, advanced by many Americans on this day above any other equally provoke disdain from some people on this island.

By way of explanation, the images are, to an extent, manifestations of pride in their ancestry from people who inhabit a relatively young country of immigrants. Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that exceedingly tenuous claims of Irishness may be made, Irish visitors to Boston invariably meet genuine Irish Americans with close ties to here and a comprehensive understanding of Irish history, geography, politics or sport. But yes, tweed caps, Aran sweaters, green everything and unverifiable declarations of county connections will be hard to escape in Boston this weekend. And what harm?

Perhaps unusually, politics is another big element of the celebrations in Boston. The annual StPatrick’s Day political breakfast in South Boston draws a substantial number of elected officials from throughout Massachusetts and at least one Government Minister from Ireland. It sometimes features national politicians and is closely monitored by political observers. Traditionally, the state senator representing South Boston has served as host of the breakfast. And the state senators – Powers, Bulger, Lynch and Hart among them – were all Irish Americans, until now.

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The changing face of Irish America

In 2013, Linda Dorcena Forry, a Haitian American whose husband’s family publishes the Boston Irish Reporter, was elected state senator and will host the breakfast. She has been to Ireland several times and proudly asserts her “Irishness by marriage.” Senator Dorcena Forry, who has reportedly been working for weeks on her hosting and joke telling skills, is an embodiment of the continuing changes in her city and her multi-racial children are a welcome part of the ever-expanding fabric of Irish America.

Lastly, just as in Ireland, alcohol will be a dominant presence in Irish America on March 17th. In Boston, at least one Irish pub will open its doors at 6 AM. The others will have massive lines outside and will collect exorbitant cover charges (up to $100) from customers all day and night long just to walk in the door. It’s a pity that so many see the day exclusively as an excuse to get absolutely inebriated. I’m no prude and will certainly be having a few pints myself; I just hope people there and here stay safe and remember that it’s not just about alcohol.

St Patrick’s Day is about celebrating Irishness – and it’s a party that innumerable millions around the globe want to come to. All things considered, it’s an extraordinary occasion every year.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and political columnist with IrishCentral.com.

Read: The all-important weather report for the bank holiday weekend

Read: The Irish show Berlin how to celebrate St Paddy’s Day

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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