Salt Lake City's St. Patrick's Day parade, in its 34th year, began as an act of defiance in a Mormon-dominated state.
But this year's theme "St. Patrick, Bless the American Worker" illustrates how far the Hibernian Society of Utah has come in moving from exclusion to inclusion. After all, Irish leaders say, every historic or contemporary Utah settler whether Irish, British, Greek, German, Chinese, Hispanic, Scandinavian, African or Pacific Islander shared a driving desire to succeed, and worked together to build Utah.
"While there is no denying the traditional Catholic association of Utah's Irish, and while we celebrate that, the Hibernian Society is a non-sectarian cultural organization," said the society's Ted McDonough. "The society welcomes all faiths, and indeed has Mormon members many of Utah's recent Irish immigrants having come here as converts."
"We're always looking for new members," said John Welsh, who helped organize the first parade and is still involved 34 years later.
Of course, as Utahns of Irish descent know, it wasn't always this way.
One of the first unofficial parades that celebrated Irishness was held by Irish-American soldiers at Fort Douglas, established in 1862 to put down any Mormon insurrections, McDonough said. The discovery of ore, silver, gold and lead in the mountain town known as Parley's Park City brought a wave of Irishmen hoping to strike it rich, after they immigrated while their home country was still reeling from the devastating Great Famine.
The Irish community wasn't as tightly bonded as those in the Mormon community. And when Utahns think of the contributions of non-Mormon pioneers, it's often the Greek settlers who come to mind. "The Greeks have better PR," Welsh joked, and then added: "Thirty-four years ago, you couldn't find a green tie here."
So the leaders of the Irish community came together to create the first St. Patrick's Day parade. "The party and parade was unifying to the Irish Utah community," said the Rev. Patrick Carley, of St. Joseph The Worker Parish in West Jordan. "There had never been an effort to bring them together."
At that first parade, Welsh cried at the sight of Irish people walking up Main Street en masse, as thousands of Utahns gathered on sidewalks to watch.
McDonough was a young child when he marched in that first parade. "Growing up here, you have a sense of your Irishness, enhanced by the sense of being a minority," he said. And that first march did seem like "an act of defiance," launched as a reaction to the Days of '47 parades and celebrations. In its early years, the attitude was that the St. Patrick's Day parade was "very much the non-Mormon parade," Carley explained. "They'll be straitlaced, but we'll not be straitlaced. They won't drink, but we'll drink."
Over the years, the parade became less about reinforcing the notion of exclusion and more of an invitation. The Siamsa after-party and the Holy Mass in honor of St. Patrick aren't just open to Irish or Catholics; all are invited to partake in the festivities.
This year, the Hibernian Society is excited to host the visit of Jim "O' the Mill" Ryan. Ryan, who operates his namesake farmhouse pub each Thursday in Upperchurch near where Carley grew up, will lead seven musicians between the ages of 14 and 19 who learned their craft at weekly sessions at his pub.
Ryan and the Irish musicians will be one of 131 entries in Saturday's parade and will perform at the Siamsa afterward. Other entries illustrate that it is not just the O'Hara Clan and McGuire families who will be marching, but a variety of entries including radio stations, politicians (Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and state Sen. Luz Robles), restaurants (including McDonald's, with the original McDonald family being of Scottish descent), the Beehive Statesmen Chorus (which in February performed with Jerold Ottley, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1974 to 1999), Salt Lake Fear Factory, roller-derby girls, the U.S. Navy, Utah Animal Adoption Center, Utah Highway Patrol, the Girl Scouts of America, Rocky Mountain Power, the Salt Lake Elementary Band, El Kalah Shriners, La Comisión Hispana, the Libertarian Party of Utah, Sons of Confederate Veterans and even a float called "Bless the Village People."
The parade will be held on Saturday, St. Patrick's Day itself, which parade co-chairman Greg Neville said makes the parade "a little more jovial" than usual. And there should be plenty of jovial celebrations throughout the city, enjoyed not just by the Irish but all Utahns who enjoy the diversity of the state.
There is one thing to keep in mind, though. "I don't know any Irishman who will drink green beer," Neville said.
St. Patrick's Day Parade
All units will assemble in the area of the intersection of 400 West and 200 North, march south on 400 West and then south, through The Gateway, a distance of just less than a mile. The parade will conclude at the south end of the shopping center.
When • Saturday, March 17, 10 a.m.
Theme • St. Patrick, Bless the American Worker
Siamsa • Immediately after parade, with doors opening at 10:45 a.m. at The Gateway's Grand Hall
Holy Mass in honor of St. Patrick • Sunday, March 18, at 5 p.m. at St. Joseph the Worker, 7405 S. Redwood Road, West Jordan; Irish supper immediately after.
For more information • IrishInUtah.org.