On Sunday at 1:30 p.m., on the corner of College and Chapel, before New Haven’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade arrived, a small crowd of people were banging on the outside of a port-a-john and screaming while someone else was in there.
A couple blocks away, near the corner of Chapel and York, two small kids — one South Asian and one white — chased each other across the pavement of the street, thrilled at the novelty that it was closed, while an audience made up of people from all over the world lined the sides of the street two or three rows deep, smiling, chatting, expectant.
In only a half hour, the event managed to show me, as an Irish-American, both what I hate and what I love about St. Patrick’s Day.
At the parade, as one overheard spectator put it, “everyone gets to be Irish for a day.” To get the hate part out of the way — what that seems to mean for a lot of people is to get plastered.
“Thanks for the stereotype,” I think to myself.
I’m not dry by any means. Especially when it’s still cold out, my go-to drink is a whiskey and ginger, in honor of my grandmother, whose drink that was. But the idea that being so drunk you can’t stand up is a prerequisite for being Irish is toxic and destructive. A couple people on the Irish side of my own huge, beautiful extended family have been wrecked by alcoholism. I’ve seen what it can do. Getting super-wasted isn’t something I think is funny, at all.
But I’m also all in favor of people having fun. And Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade was, above all, a lot of fun for a lot of people.
At Park and Chapel, a recording of a penny whistle blended in the air with the calls of vuvuzelas and rising voices.
At Dwight and Chapel, kids playing in the street first danced in front, then scurried out of the way of the line of police motorcycles that marked the front of the parade. The biker club members who’d parked in front of Barracuda were all smiling and having a good time. One of them had painted his beard a bright green while another of them hoisted his little daughter onto his shoulder so she could get a better look.
“Yeah, Hillhouse!” said an elderly gentleman in a cap as Hillhouse High’s marching band passed.
Members of he Joseph A. Ferko String Band — a troupe of mummers from Philadelphia — delighted the crowd with their music and their costumes. Several people stopped them to ask if they could have their pictures taken with them, and they obliged.
Near Chapel and High, as band after band played, a young musician in training played back.
At the bottom of the Green, the Funky Dawgs Brass Band gave the crowd a taste of something from farther south.
The Fusion Steppers Drill Team and Drum Line rocked the block.
The Nation Drill Team brought the energy to City Hall.
Back at Chapel and College, Anh (AJ) Nguyen, dressed as a green-tinted Flava Flav, added his own percussion to the bands passing by. “I love supporting,” he said, and had come to the parade more times than he could remember.
“Every year it has to be different,” he said of his costume.
The clock was “a new add-on,” he said. “Anything to make a scene.”
Also, “the wig matches my natural hair,” he joked. And “I need more people with cowbells next year! I shouldn’t be the only one.”
A man in the parade, part of a drum and fife corps, agreed. “Give me that cowbell!” he said to Nguyen as he passed.
Across the street, labor organizer Danny Ravizza and Michael Lee-Murphy, a staff writer for Connecticut Magazine, unfurled a banner that read “No Borders In Ireland.” They were there to call attention to the newly fractious border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, as Ireland remains in the European Union and Northern Ireland is slated to leave it with the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The British government is stumbling backward in the repartitioning of Ireland,” Lee-Murphy said. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which formally ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. Brexit “risks militarizing that border and damaging 20 years of hard-won peace.”
Both agreed that, on a day that celebrates the legacy of the Irish in America, it was important to remind people of the high-stakes politics being played out in Ireland itself.
“We’re railing against the invisible lines that divide us,” Ravizza said.
Bicycles — many of them from Bike New Haven — made a strong appearance at the parade, as riders delivered cascading rows of high-fives to people standing at the curbs.
At the south end of the Green, Brandon J. (at right in photo) and friends had likewise decked themselves out in green. (“I’m 8,000 percent Irish today,” one of them said.) Born and raised in New Haven, Brandon J. came to the parade every year — “all my life.”
“I wanted to show my Irish roots,” he said.
What kept him coming back, year after year? “The festivities,” he said, were “still fun.”
It all reminded me of what I love about St. Patrick’s Day — and what’s important about it. Irish-Americans come in all political stripes, and that’s as it should be. What’s a family gathering without a little talk about politics?
But regardless, I think of being pro-immigration — unlike being drunk — as actually being a prerequisite for being Irish-American, to the point that I think Mick Mulvaney and the other Irish-Americans currently working for and with the Trump administration need to turn in their I-A cards yesterday. They’re free to believe whatever they want, but they have forgotten where they came from. They have forgotten who they are.
The story of Irish immigration to America makes us Irish-Americans the pace car for other immigrants who arrive in America with nothing and find their way into American society without ever fully losing their sense of their roots. It’s a big part of why I don’t just support, but am proud of, New Haven’s status as a sanctuary city. It’s why I love seeing people from all over come out for the parade, and make parts of Irish-American identity their own. My Irish-American family taught me to define family as broadly as possible, to let everyone in, to never shut the door behind you. We have a country to build.
It was beautiful and fitting to me to see marching bands, brass bands, Irish bands, DJs, and people on bikes with vuvuzelas pass by the sign near City Hall enjoining everyone to “play Irish tunes” by continuing to play whatever it was they were playing when they rounded the corner of Chapel and Church and started heading north. It was just as that spectator had said: Everyone gets to be Irish today.
As the parade wound down, College and Crown streets lit up. The bars filled with parade-goers, and when they were full, the streets, porches, and verandahs filled also, whether under heaters or not.
A small dance party started on the sidewalk outside Olives and Oil, which I loved.
Toward the end of the afternoon, though, sure enough, some people started stumbling around, clearly not in control of themselves. Someone lay down on the concrete steps off College Street heading up to Brother Jimmy’s, and two friends sat with him. A couple people started arguing, talking slower and louder than anyone sober does, and just like that, there were those old mixed feelings again.