On Saturday, The Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club will parade on its traditional Uptown route, following Mass at St. Mary’s Assumption Church.
The parade is one of the many events taking place during St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and it always attracts a substantial crowd.
Men in kilts will stroll down the street playing bagpipes, while others in tuxedos hand paper flowers to ladies along the route. Costumed revelers on floats will toss crisp cabbages to paradegoers as children clamor for doubloons and beads.
But according to Laura Kelley, author of “The Irish in New Orleans” (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2014), this event is more than a parade.
In her book, which is full of historical photos and fascinating tidbits of information, she explores the St. Patrick’s Day traditions that have become familiar to New Orleanians of both Irish and non-Irish descent.
“It’s about coming together and giving back to the community,” she said.
The Irish Channel parade was launched by Richard F. Burke in 1947, a time when the Channel was undergoing changes and slipping into decline. “There was this sense of ‘let’s hold on to this historic tradition now,’ ” Kelley said. “It’s been the glue — this Uptown Irish Channel parade — because everybody comes back to it.”
The organization is famous for tossing cabbage and other vegetables to spectators — a custom with unclear origins, Kelley said.
But she noted that the cabbages, along with carrots, onions and potatoes that fly from the floats on St. Paddy’s Day, are the produce needed for an Irish stew.
“The vast majority of Irish immigrants that came to this city and built these communities came because of the Great Famine,” Kelley said. “And the Great Famine was caused by the failure of the potato crop, which was the food for a substantial part of the community.”
Jenna Burke, queen of the 2001 parade and the granddaughter of Richard F. Burke Sr., noted that even after wealthier krewes could afford beads, the “Channel Rats” who rode in the parade stuck with the less expensive, and much appreciated, groceries.
Although the parade represents a day of fun and camaraderie, Kelley said the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club and similar organizations host events throughout the year and perform numerous charitable works. She hopes that the parade highlights the involvement of the Irish in New Orleans — both past and present day.
Other organizations around New Orleans also are promoting Irish culture with similar celebrations.
On Friday evening, the Molly’s at the Market Irish parade will ramble through the French Quarter, complete with horse-drawn carriages and marching groups. Stop by Molly’s at the Market afterward for a frozen Irish coffee and more shenanigans.
The popular Metairie Road St. Patrick’s Day parade takes place on Sunday afternoon and features floats, marching groups and festive throws, including cabbage.
On Tuesday evening — St. Patrick’s Day — the Downtown Irish Club Parade will weave through areas of the Bywater and the French Quarter.
Also on St. Patrick’s Day, Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in Mid-City will host a party and a “WEE” parade about 7 p.m. that weaves around the block and features tiny, hand-made floats.
Finally, on the following Sunday, March 23, the Irish will share the spotlight with the Italians during the Louisiana Irish-Italian Parade, which rolls at noon down Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie.
Kelley said there are approximately 36 million Americans who are descendants of Irish immigrants, but on St. Patrick’s Day, it is seems like 100 million.
“A lot of people have Irish heritage and there are ways to learn about it here in the city,” she said. “Take St. Patrick’s Day as that opportunity to learn, but then take it further than just St. Patrick’s Day.”