Blarney Beyond the Beer

To most Americans, St. Patrick’s Day is nothing more than another drinking holiday à la Super Bowl Sunday. But to many Irish-Americans, it is more than just a day to drink green beer. It is a time to celebrate Irish heritage, to pass along family history to a younger generation and to participate in tradition.

Corktown’s Gaelic League serves as the meeting place for Metro Detroit’s Irish community, so it is fitting that it is central HQ for the many events associated with St. Patrick’s Day and the annual parade held the Sunday prior.

Parade day, Sunday, March 11 this year, is truly one of Detroit’s most fun annual events. The Corktown event is nothing like the big Thanksgiving Day parade downtown: It is rag-tag, humble and often silly — not to say that it isn’t also proud and dignified sometimes, too. Floats are often nothing more than the unadorned bed of a pick-up truck and a few scattered marchers, or just an extended family walking down Michigan Avenue together. Nevertheless, everyone in the parade is laughing, waving to family and friends and tossing beads and candy to the crowd.

Music ranges from local high schools showing their stripes to the more traditional Irish sounds of bagpipers.

Fun for kids of all ages

The parade starts at 2 p.m. and runs along Michigan Avenue between Sixth and 14th streets. The crowd is thickest on the north side of the street (because, um, that’s where most of the bars are), so if you have young-uns, it might be best to set up camp on the south side. Feel free to bring chairs, snacks, beverages, or whatever will make your afternoon more pleasant and comfortable.

For Joan O’Halloran’s family, parade Sunday starts earlier in the day, with 10:30 a.m. mass at St. Patrick’s Church (at 58 Parsons in Midtown, behind Orchestra Hall). "We try to make it a family day," she says. "We dress ‘in Irish,’ learn a little bit about our heritage and have mass at St. Pat's." She says her grandchildren love the candy and beads and walking in the parade. "They really enjoy the day."

Another way to participate in the festivities is to lace up your running shoes for the annual Corktown Races, held before the parade at noon. The four-miler — run by the seriously fit and the “just-making-it-across-the-line” alike — starts and finishes at Michigan Central Station on Michigan Avenue and loops Campus Martius and Comerica Park.

Those not up for that length of run have the option of a 1.5 mile walk, and kids can run too — their ¼-mile starts at 11:30 am.

For a member of metro Detroit’s Irish community, there is no higher honor than being named grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Parade. The parade is put on by the United Irish Societies, an umbrella organization of the many area Irish organizations. Each October, they select the following year’s grand marshal. "It is somebody that has really worked in putting on the parade and has worked in the Irish community, has promoted what we believe in," says O’Halloran, whose husband has been so recognized. "It's a very, very high honor. You have to really pay your dues."

This year’s honoree is Curtis Anderson, a local Realtor who has long served as the vice-president of the UIS and has overseen the construction of the shamrocks that line the parade route for many years.

The painting of those shamrocks is another annual event held the Friday prior to the parade, this year March 9. All day, volunteers take turns painting the wooden shamrocks that are then hung from Michigan Avenue streetlights.

One more parade tradition is the Maid of Erin float. The Maid is selected from a court of young women of Irish heritage who are judged on poise and appearance, knowledge of Irish heritage, talent and their accomplishments and participation in extra-curricular activities and organizations.

Sue Rennie, one of the Maid of Erin’s organizers, explains the UIS’s motivation for the pageant: "So many of our young people are proud of their Irish heritage. It's good to keep things alive, to let them know what has gone on in days past. With any heritage, not just Irish, it's so important to pass it on to kids, so they know where they came from."

Food, drink and music

If you get cold or wet—this is Michigan in March, after all—you can pop into one of the many bars that line the route—from Lager House to the east to Slow's to the west. Three of the most popular places to hang out and warm up (and maybe, get a Guinness) are Nemo's, Baile Corcaigh and of course, the Gaelic League. They all have heated tents, music and food.

Another perennial favorite is Nancy Whiskey's. Located in North Corktown, Nancy’s hosts a full-on party that takes over both floors of the building and the outside. People walking back and forth to Nancy’s from the parade give the I-75 pedestrian overpass the most traffic it sees all year.

Off the parade route

Other ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Detroit:

• The DSO presents seven performances of Celtic Celebration March 15-18 at the Max. M Fisher Music Center. The shows feature the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and special guest Natalie MacMaster. MacMaster is a renowned Canadian fiddler who specializes in traditional Celtic music.

• Most Holy Trinity Church marks St. Patrick’s Day with the Sharin’ o’ the Green charity luncheon held from 1:30-5:30 p.m. at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall on Porter between 8th and Trumbull in Corktown. The $30 donation, which benefits Most Holy Trinity Elementary School, includes an Irish buffet, entertainment and beer and wine. The event honors the parish’s “Good Samaritans”—this year, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and two exceptional volunteers, lawyer Larry Johnson and doctor Marianna Manion.

• Also on St. Patrick’s Day, Detroit’s newest Irish pub and restaurant, McNarney's Public House, opens its doors to the world.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is development news editor for Model D and writes about sustainability for Model D and metromode.

All Photographs of the 2006 Saint Patrick's Parade
Copyright Walter Wasacz

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