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South Boston, MA: St. Patrick's Day Parade

South Boston, MA: St. Patrick’s Day Parade
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At the turn of the 20th century, despite resistance from the city’s Brahmins, South Boston’s official tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades began. (The first unofficial Boston parade was in 1737.)

That same year, 1901, ground was broken for the Dorchester Heights Monument–on the neighborhood’s highest point–commemorating Evacuation Day. “And now the Mayflower is joined with the shamrock,” intoned one speaker during the dedication ceremony.

Yes, there’s a close historic tie between the monument and the parade. On March 17, 1776, the Continental army forced the British to flee occupied Boston. It was George Washington’s first victory in the War of Independence, and it alerted the world that colonial Americans were not to be trifled with. Not so incidentally, that month’s countersign at the sally port to the fortifications on Dorchester Heights was “St. Patrick.” As a result, the people of South Boston call March 17 either St. Patrick’s Day or Evacuation Day, interchangeably–or usually by both names. Tradition and history in this sea-girt urban peninsula have always been the twin glues binding Southie folk together.

The parade isn’t religious, but without St. Patrick’s name, it wouldn’t be the same. Obviously, Patrick never trod the same South Boston ground walked by Washington, the Adamses, Hancock, and Revere. He never marched alongside President John Kennedy; Senator Ted Kennedy; governors Michael Dukakis, William Weld, and Paul Cellucci, among many others; and countless ambassadors, state officials, mayors, city councilors, and officials of other states and nations. But somehow Patrick’s spirit is always summoned for his parade, even though it’s now held on the Sunday preceding March 17.

The supposed Irish majority in South Boston is mostly an urban legend. Yes, Boston’s redolent Irish stew of politicians was in charge for many years. Influential Irish American politicians, including James Michael Curley, even managed to get the state legislature to recognize Evacuation Day (read “St. Patrick’s Day”) as a holiday in Suffolk County in 1941 (made official in 1962). But Germans, Italians, Latinos, Albanians, Lithuanians, Brazilians, Cape Verdeans, African Americans, and Chinese all mix it up here, watching the parade with cheers and joy. It’s not just about being Irish: It’s an annual celebration of life in South Boston.

Most important, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has evolved into one of the largest family events for miles around. Grandparents smile and wave flags; Southie guys hold kids perched on their shoulders; Southie gals don green accessories over Aran sweaters, as do their children and their dogs. Spring is nigh at last. The parade is a memorable event for South Boston’s kids and grandkids, who gaze in delight as the marchers pass before them. Twenty-five years ago, their parents were just as awestruck; they then returned to carry on the tradition as adults, and their kids will do the same. And those little ones know their stuff–just try to give a youngster something that misses the deep, rich color of the Irish flag or the particularly Kelly hue of shamrocks, and you’ll hear, “That’s the wrong green!” shouted in your ear.

The parade is the climax of South Boston’s “season,” which begins 15 days earlier with the traditional Jimmy Flaherty Kickoff Breakfast at the Cornerstone Pub. A fancier, and locally televised, breakfast follows on the morning of the parade at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. That’s when Massachusetts politicians are fair game for roasting. And for at least 25 years, the president of the United States has invariably phoned in to cheer them on with a resounding “Erin go bragh!”

During this two-week period, essay contests, athletics, plays, banquets, concerts, and parties roll on continually. There’s good reason for these events, referred to as “Southie times”: They’re fundraisers to support the parade. Residents are fiercely proud of the fact that South Boston’s Allied War Veterans Council, local merchants, and residents privately raise 90 percent of the money for each year’s parade–keeping it a huge but completely local event.

The parade passes parks, monuments, side streets, and more than 500,000 spectators standing 20 deep. The smell of corned beef and cabbage–really good corned beef and cabbage–lingers. The marchers laugh, wave, and interact with the crowd. They love being here. ‘Tis a grand time, so ’tis, so ’tis!

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