Josh Shaffer

Luck of the Irish runs dry for Raleigh’s St. Patrick’s Parade

Cyril Sagan of the Little German Band shows his Irish side while marching during the 32nd annual Raleigh St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 15, 2014, in downtown Raleigh.
Cyril Sagan of the Little German Band shows his Irish side while marching during the 32nd annual Raleigh St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 15, 2014, in downtown Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Raleigh may well witness its last St. Patrick’s Day parade Saturday – the final procession of bodhrans and bagpipes, brass bands warbling “Danny Boy” and public homage to the Irish patron saint.

What’s needed is a pot of gold.

Until last year, the city had provided police officers for free. This year, their work for the 33rd parade and festival costs just shy of $10,000. Parade organizers must also pay a $100 application fee, a $100 permitting fee, a $250 fee for using City Plaza and a $500 security fee – too hefty for a group of six volunteers.

Raleigh’s Shanahan Law Group is the parade’s only financial sponsor, meaning donation buckets will be out Saturday, seeking extra green.

“What saddens me,” organizer Meg Lavoie said, “is if this goes away, it will be nothing but a beer-drinking holiday for the bars. We do everything we can to avoid that stereotype.”

Raleigh’s tradition dates to 1983, when a handful of compatriots marched down Wilmington Street in the rain, carrying a tricolored Friends of Blarney banner. In its peak years, the parade drew more than 50,000 people downtown, boasting 125 entries and an economic impact estimated in the millions.

As it grew, the nine-block parade and festival drew hordes of celebrants turned Irish for a day: the Triangle Lebanese Association and the Friends of Scandinavia, “Viking cousins of the Irish.”

But it’s most important to organizers because, despite the beer sales, it’s a chance to present the holiday in a purer light, or at least provide some imagery aside from drunken leprechauns and four-leaf clovers mistakenly called shamrocks, which are actually three-leafed symbols of the Trinity.

St. Patrick counts as a religious figure, and for years Irish who marched in Raleigh’s parade noted that in their home country their neighbors would be attending Mass, not a green beer in sight.

But the city isn’t spiting the Irish.

Anyone living in the blocks around downtown knows that some festival or foot race blocks off the streets practically every weekend. That explosive growth in popularity takes its toll on city budgets as well as on businesses and residents who are kept in or out of their own neighborhoods. The city is trying to find some balance, said Derrick Ramer with Raleigh’s special events office.

“We simply just cannot give away city services anymore,” he said.

With a few exceptions, Ramer said, all parties must pay for police downtown. The Fourth of July celebration gets a pass, being a city-run event. But the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon and its ilk have to pony up the same fees.

The city gave parade organizers warning last year – time enough to scrape together funds for this year’s parade.

But they’ll need more money for the tradition to continue.

Also, in the past, organizers held their St. Pat’s festival in Moore Square, running the parade up Blount Street. But the city decided that revelry took too high a toll on the park’s trees, so it moved in recent years to Fayetteville Street. With all the competition from bars selling Jell-O shots for $3, the parade and festival lost much of its beer-sales lifeblood, Lavoie said.

I will confess a bias in this matter. I’m marching with the Oakwood Second Line in Saturday’s procession for the second time. We play a mean “Danny Boy.” I consider St. Patrick’s to be Raleigh’s finest and most spirited parade. Not to knock Christmas, but it goes on a tad ... ahem ... long.

So I’m hoping some kind soul, real or mythical, drops a coin in the bucket Saturday, or else the pipes stop calling.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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