When America thinks Christmas, it thinks Christmas trees and Santa. When it thinks Valentine’s Day, it thinks hearts and chocolates. And here in Baton Rouge, when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, those that can still think straight think shamrocks, leprechauns, and everything green.
The holiday, like most holidays, is a reason for locals to celebrate, drink, and have a good time. When the well-known Baton Rouge St. Patrick’s Day Parade comes through, Irish beer, whiskey, and festive spirit are in the air. However, also like other holidays, St. Patrick’s Day has a rich history and culture – and people – that are the reason behind the festivals and parades.
Louisiana is not renowned for its Irish population, but a little asking around can find you a few people with Irish lineage. Most of those people are happy to join in the celebrations for St. Patrick’s Day, but they have a perspective of the holiday that is unique. Immigrants and first-generation Irish especially understand the culture that goes into the parade.
Joe Sullivan, President of the Baton Rouge Irish Club and first-generation Irish, says St. Patrick’s Day was a big part of his life growing up. In his hometown of New York City, St. Patrick’s Day was (and is still) a school holiday, with a large, culturally rich parade. He says that here in Baton Rouge, the day and the parade are wonderful celebrations, but that there’s a lot more to the culture than just that.
“The whole thing of drinking beer and whiskey is kind of a negative connotation to Irish culture,” he said. “It’s so much more deep and so much more multi-layered [than that]. There’s hardly any mention of Irish contributions to literature…theatre, film; none of those artistic, positive contributions are really affiliated with St. Patrick’s Day.”
However, Sullivan does enjoy the parade and thinks that the emphasis on food, drinks, music, and having a good time are perfectly representative of Irish spirit. He says St. Patrick’s Day is more of an invitation to discover the culture, rather than a complete representation of it.
“The way I look at it is, St. Patrick’s Day is the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of Irish culture is the 90 percent of the iceberg that’s under that water,” he said. He says that aspects of the celebrations like bagpipes do have a place in the culture, but are only a small part of it.
Patrick Quigley, both of whose parents are from Ireland, says that he thinks St. Patrick’s Day and the festivities in Baton Rouge do a good job of representing the culture. Quigley says he’s impressed by the parade and the effort put forth to celebrate Ireland.
“[St. Patrick’s Day] recognizes all of [the] Irish and what Ireland represents, which is very often a good time,” he said. “I think [the parade] is an amazing event…and I think the longevity and popularity of it goes back to the fact of, one, the route that it takes through all the neighborhoods, and two, that everybody feels like they’re a part of it. Yes, it’s a celebration of Ireland…but what it’s evolved into here in Baton Rouge to be everybody’s parade.”
Quigley says that in between the floats and festivities, there are Irish bands and other Irish groups that make the parade a good celebration. He says that he thinks the holiday is inclusive and comprehensive, and quipped that the only thing that would make the parade any better would be if Pat Shingleton started passing out Irish stew.
Phillip Spillane, a native of Ireland who has been living in Baton Rouge for about 20 years, agrees with Quigley. He says he’s very proud of the parade here in Baton Rouge and has only positive feelings about it, but did point out some cultural differences in the ways St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated here versus in Ireland.
“Believe it or not, when I was growing up, we didn’t wear green in the parades,” he said. Spillane says that tradition is based mostly in America and Irish American culture. He also noted that having throws for parades is solely a Louisiana tradition, originating from Mardi Gras, and that parades in Ireland don’t involve throwing things like beads and toys. But regardless of those cultural differences, Spillane is happy with the parade.
“There’s nothing negative about it. I’m very proud of it,” he said. “Pat [Shingleton] has taken this thing from nothing, and evolved it into this giant parade.”
Brian Breen, a member of the Baton Rouge Irish club and first-generation Irish, enjoys the celebration but shared similar sentiments with Sullivan, that the holiday can potentially oversimplify the culture.
“For people who are not Irish American or have no real knowledge of the culture, a lot of times it gets boiled down to a big drinking party,” he said. “I’d like to see more celebration of Irish culture…and the story of Irish history. For me personally, it’s all about a celebration of all of the aspects of Irish culture and Irish American culture.”
However, Breen says the parade is a unique combination of Irish and Louisiana culture, and that the “drinking party” aspect of the parade is not necessarily a bad thing. He and many other local Irish people seem to agree that the parade offers at least a good glimpse into Irish culture, and that there is plenty of culture to look into for those that want to understand the true background of St. Patrick’s Day.