A Long Tradition in Utica
St. Patrick's Day and winter hibernation ends with music and marching in the streets, and dancing, and clowns passing out treats to children and various other friends. Everyone's Irish and wearing green, eating and drinking, having a fling as the year shifts from winter to spring. A happier crowd is seldom seen.
St. Patrick's Day is March 17. Many people wear some green, shirts, vests, and hats, while some wear green hair. Irish tunes are popular on the radio, and people may be heard whistling an Irish tune.
March is widely observed as Irish Heritage Month. Many communities have special concerts of Irish music and dancing at this time of year. There is also the tradition of corned beef and cabbage offered at many restaurants. However, the largest event for many people is the tradition of a St. Patrick's Parade.
New York has one of the largest and best known of these parades. But there are other cities and towns across New York State such as Syracuse, Rochester, and Old Forge with parades celebrating the Patron Saint of Ireland which coincides with the beginning of spring.
One of the largest parades with a long tradition of over 30 years is in Utica. Most years this is on the Saturday before the March 17th. In Utica, Varick Street has traditionally been the focus of the local festivities. It is the busiest weekend of the year for the bars and restaurants in the Brewery district. Many offer corned beef and cabbage, washed down with green beer.
The modern tradition of a St. Patrick's Parade in Utica began in the late 1970s with the Emerald Society including Vincent Courrou Jr., and John Oakes. Many of the plans for these parades were discussed at the Shoe Two Bar on Varick Street near Lafayette Street. This bar was destroyed by fire many years ago. By 1984, over 10,000 spectators crowded West Utica when the parade still was on Varick, Court, and Columbia Streets. That year there were 60 marching units, six bands, and 25 floats. John Oakes said the parade had grown since the first year when there were only four units.
In the early 1990s, Dolly Parton was in town for a March performance, and the parade had by then been moved to Genesee Street for crowd control and safety issues. It started to snow early in the day, and her concert was postponed a night. On late night television the next week she mentioned watching from her hotel window the parade that went on despite the snow and biting cold.
On March 15, 2008, the streets of Utica came alive with about 40,000 people for the parade. It was reported as the third largest parade in the state. This has become an annual festival for the city celebrating the Irish and the return of spring. The weather was overcast, but mild, near 40 degrees. Many musical groups including bag pipes, fife and dru corps and marching bands added to the excitement with a wide variety of parade music. There were also Irish dancers, clowns, numerous fire departments, and a state of the art electric hybrid bus manufactured by local Orion Bus Industries. Numerous radio stations and other commercial enterprises also participated.
As the parade came down Genessee Street from Oneida Square to Columbia Street, traditional Irish bagpipes and marching bands filled the air with music, providing over an hour of celebration of the end of winter.
The Great American Irish Festival continued to be a major organizer of the 31st annual parade held on March 14, 2009. (They also sponsor an Irish festival at nearby Frankfort Fair Grounds in July). This parade included Sixteen floats, eight bag pipe bands from as far away as Syracuse and Binghamton, and eight other bands. There were a total of over 130 units, according to Director Kevin Dowling in the Observer Dispatch. It also attracted the largest crowd in ten years, and Utica's parade remains one of the largest in the state to celebrate the Irish.
This is usually the first large outdoor event of the year, the warmer weather and parade providing a great opportunity to meet old friends not seen about during the winter. What a wonderful way for the community to come together in anticipation of spring after our cold, snowy winter.
This Week in History by Frank Tomaino, Utica Observer Dispatch, March 15, 2009
Utica Observer Dispatch, March 15, 2009 and March 16, 2008
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