New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is run like a well-oiled machine. Ireland’s capital has built a whole festival around its annual parade. And Savannah put the South on the map as a legitimate destination for revelers on March 17.
While many of these well-known St. Patrick’s Day parades are steeped in tradition, some lesser-known parades are introducing Irish culture to those who might not know much about it.
In looking at St. Patrick’s Day revelry in some smaller cities and towns, there is always the consolation in knowing that being Irish is reason enough to celebrate.
Hot Springs, Ark.
In a small city, deep in the South and not far from the Ozark Mountains, a parade was born over a few beers among friends.
One of those friends, Steve Arrison, happens to be the executive director of the Hot Springs, Ark., Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and was in the position to create what came to be known as the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Last year, Hot Springs’ inaugural parade made a big splash. But exactly how short is the world’s shortest parade?
“I hate it when people ask me that question,” laughed Arrison, who admitted that it was roughly 99 feet and 11 inches.
The parade route, which is held on St. Patrick’s Day, is along Hot Springs’ Bridge Street, once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Shortest City Street and still listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as “the world’s busiest street for its size.”
Parade organizers expect it to be packed with revelers spilling into nearby streets on Thursday, when the parade kicks off at 6:30 p.m.
Short, maybe, but it’s not a small parade by any means. With more than 50 floats, bands and a hook and ladder fire truck that nearly takes up the entire parade route, the event drew about 5,000 spectators last year, with more expected this time around. Not bad for a city of 54,000.
Actor George Wendt, better known as “Norm” from Cheers, is this year’s celebrity grand marshal, and will join Dick Kelly, better known as former President Clinton’s stepfather, who is the permanent grand marshal.
It takes a while for Arrison to admit his parade is offbeat, though that would be the best word for it.
“It’s a good hook,” Arrison admitted. “It’s not your typical parade.”
The hook is working, and Arrison said he has gotten too many phone calls to count about this year’s parade.
Hot Springs, a growing community built from the popularity of its hot springs mineral water, is about an hour outside of Little Rock. The parade is one way it is becoming known as something other than Clinton’s boyhood home.
Arrison said that because Hot Springs is popular with retirees from the Chicago and Philadelphia area, the city now has a sizable population with Irish roots.
“I didn’t know how many people here were Irish,” he admitted, “but St. Pat’s is a day when everybody says they are a little bit Irish, anyway.”
“We’re a very diverse community,” he continued. “It is a testament to the uniqueness of our parade.”
Speaking of, Arrison is already thinking about next year. “We’re thinking of getting Mr. T for grand marshal,” he said.
New London, Wis.
This small town located about 120 miles northwest of Milwaukee, takes St. Patrick’s Day so seriously it even changes the signposts from New London to New Dublin for a week every year.
As legend has it, truckloads of leprechauns drive around Sunday evening and put up the new placards, and the town is officially Irish for the week.
With a festival leading up to the annual parade, held this year on March 19, the event grew out of conversation at meetings of the New London Shamrock Club.
“We do a week-long thing here,” said Pup Loughrin, the self-proclaimed “head leprechaun” and owner of Pup’s Irish pub in New London, an outpost during the festivities, is the unofficial master of ceremonies.
New London, er, Dublin’s festivities are rooted in family fun and celebrating an Irish heritage that runs along the Wolf River, which snakes through town.
That river has long been the trail that Irish settlers followed during migration. Many people found the soil to be the same as they had left in Ireland, and settled in the area. A St. Patrick’s Catholic church stands not far from the town, a testament to the area’s Irish past.
Though most people share the Teutonic and Nordic roots that many do in this area of the U.S., the Irish are well represented as the second most reported lineage.
“When we started, we figured, ‘Why make it just a day?’ ” Loughrin said. “It’s a nice, family-type atmosphere for the week.”
New Dublin hosts numerous events for the week to keep with the family theme. There is Irish caroling — the same door-to-door tradition that is so popular at Christmas, but with “your basic old-time Irish stuff,” said Loughrin.
Participants go around town with song sheets, so anyone can join in, “we go to old folks’ homes, for the people who cant get out to see us,” he explained.
“We also do a real ‘Finnegans Wake,’ ” said Loughrin, “which is the funeral skit complete with a hearse, someone in a coffin and plenty of Irish humor.”
The parade itself is held in downtown New London, and Loughrin said this year will include 120 units, including “bagpipers from Chicago and Milwaukee, floats, everything.”
New London only has about 7,000 residents, though Loughrin claims he’s seen at least 10,000 come out for the St. Patrick’s events.
“We claim to have the biggest parade in Wisconsin,” he said. “People come from across Wisconsin to attend our parade, and I’ve been to Milwaukee’s. Ours is bigger,” he laughed.
“It is the biggest event New London puts on all year,” he said. “And everybody benefits.”
Residents like to think that the rolling emerald hills of this northern California town could be mistaken for those in Ireland.
Located a short distance outside San Francisco, Dublin’s 38,000 or so residents pride themselves on good weather and nice people, and that for one weekend every March the city’s Irish heritage is celebrated with a festival and parade.
Held last Saturday, about 10,000 attended the 22nd annual parade, which organizer Bill Burnham said grew from 10 entries in its inaugural year to 71 entries this year.
“It gets bigger and better every year,” said Bill Burnham, “but we’re bound to keep it a small-town parade.”
Lorri Polon, who coordinates the festival for the Dublin City’s Parks and Recreation department, echoed Burnham’s statement.
“We capitalize on the community coming out,” she said. “It is a large event with a hometown feel.”
Dublin’s Irish connections run deep, when in 1852 two Irish men, Michael Murray and Jeremiah Fallon, bought 1,000 acres from an early settler and built homes for their families. As the area began to grow, more Irish settled there and the roots were planted. Dublin first became a city in 1982, and started celebrating St. Patrick’s Day two years later.
Dublin even boasts a sister city in Bray, Co. Wicklow, from which eight members of the town council were on hand for Dublin’s parade. Some years, Dublin officials reciprocate by attending Bray’s parade.
The town had held numerous small parades throughout the year before starting the St. Patrick’s Day parade, looking for one that the whole city could get behind. St. Patrick’s Day prevailed.
This year, the mile-long parade route was lined three deep, and local news agencies estimate that 10,000 attended.
“We don’t mind the parade getting bigger, as long as we keep the small-town feel,” Burnham said. “There are a lot of Irish people here, but this weekend especially, people come out of the woodwork,” he laughed.
Burnham begins planning for the parade in September, though he said after 22 years, “it nearly runs itself.”