St. Patrick's Day in Florida
St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Florida
It was eighty degrees and sunny out, on a clear and beautiful morning in Naples Florida. We were standing on the corner of Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade to begin. As always, we were struck with the anomaly of celebrating St. Paddy’s Day in warm temperatures, with palm trees waving around us. We had spent a life-time standing on the chilly corners of Main St. or Delaware avenue, watching the parade on a cold March Day in Buffalo, New York. Even a Genesee beer welded to your right hand only helped a little. It was the warm camaraderie of friends, in the steamy saloons afterward, that made the cold tolerable. There, amidst much laughter and celebration, the proprietors served up huge amounts of Irish Turkey (Corned Beef) and barley sandwiches (beer) to an appreciative audience.
We were standing in the shade, just across the street from Paddy Murphy’s Irish Pub. We wanted to see if the legends were true and that a crowd of ten deep stood at the bar during and after the parade. I am not sure they were ten deep yet, but a crowd of green-shirted, emerald- hatted and red-faced merry makers, all with fair, Irish skin milled around the place like bees near a hive.
The crowd was smiling and expectant. The young children crowded to the front of the rows of lawn chairs. They knew that the floats and buses would toss colored beads, candy and other goodies into the air as they passed. It would resemble a very green Mardi Gras in progress. Every imaginable shade of green clothed every imaginable shape of parade goer. It was a gathering of the Clan na Gael, Florida style.
The early color guard was a detachment from the United States Marine Corp. The crowd applauded them lustily, mindful of the proud tradition of service that these people had given to their country. Then, squads of retired NYC Police and Firemen received a standing ovation, in recognition of their heroism during the 9/11 attack. Enthusiasm filled the expectant crowd like air pumped into a balloon. One truck float featured a musical group playing “McNamara’s Band" to loud clapping from the watchers. Unexpectedly, the float stopped in front of Paddy Murphy’s. A mezzo-soprano voice belted out a clear and inspiring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, to an appreciative and cheering audience. They all stood and clapped heartily, singing the national anthem along with that wonderful, soulful voice.
The large marching bands were interspersed with groups of school children, Irish Dance studios and Pipe and Drum bands. They were loud and wonderful. The skirl of the pipes stirred the blood. You could understand how the Irish and Scots Guards had been inspired to rush into the jaws of battle, with thundering pipes urging them on. A few musical groups belted out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” The crowd laughed and sang along with them, pumping their fists into the air at the appropriate places. It was becoming fun watching this parade pass by. Marchers threw the colored beads and candy into the waiting hands of thousands. Even the older folks were reaching out to snag the baubles. It looked like a scene from a happy and boisterous feeding time at the zoo.
Fordham, Villanova and a dozen Massachusetts colleges paraded by with old trolley buses festooned with their college banners. Boston College even had their own musical group, playing “Danny Boy.” It must be that half the population of Massachusetts is of Celtic heritage. And most of them had retired to the Southwest Florida area.
It was warm in the noon day sun. You could almost hear the Irish skin around us frying in the pan. The weary marchers were sweat soaked and beginning to wilt in the heat. Bless them for their youth and energy. A gaggle of local politicians, the Knights of Columbus, in their colorful uniforms, and all manner of other community groups flowed by us, loudly displaying Celtic enthusiasm. It was colorful and loud and fun to watch.
Like many of the assembled Gaels, we were thinking of suitable venues for an “after the parade” experience. One of the more prominent taverns, “Fitzgerald’s,” on Bonita Beach Rd. had been shut down by Hurricane Irma. Not to be deterred, the resourceful owners were holding their massive annual shindig in the parking lot of the Tavern. Pipers, and Irish bands would mix with green beer, corned beef and cabbage and good fellowship, until the wee hours of this very long day. Bless them for their endurance. We had planned a much quieter celebration. Peter and Mary Kelly, of Portland Maine, were coming over for dinner. Mary is a first-generation immigrant from County Mayo, where her family’s farm was still operated by her brother. Peter is Boston Irish. The corned beef was already in the pot. The potatoes and carrots ready, to be simmered and served up. And, I think we might scare up a draught or two of Killian’s in the process. The emerald green bottle of Jameson’s stood on the kitchen counter. Its contents would be used to toast one more time the Celtic heritage that we shared.
We exited the parade venue, amidst a stream of thousands of others returning to their respective homes from a fifty-mile radius of Naples. It had been another fun-filled event, swathed in emerald and proudly reflective of the heritage of those hardy people who had come before us. They had crossed an ocean and prospered on the far shores of America. May the heavenly Roads rise up to meet them all and the celestial winds be always at their back.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, y’all.
Joseph Xavier Martin