Irish culture comes to the fore on St. Patrick’s Day

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

For many Metro Detroiters, St. Patrick’s Day is a fun occasion to wear green and drink a beer. But for the metro area’s robust Irish-American community, the holiday is the premier opportunity to celebrate cultural traditions that run deep.

Livonia resident Michael Kelly is chairman of the Detroit St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Corktown and president of the United Irish Societies, which sponsors that event. Kelly notes that Detroit’s Irish community was instrumental in building the city, but it tends to be overlooked today.

“I think the overall look at the Irish community is that they’re established, they don’t need help, they don’t need any support, and they don’t need much recognition,” Kelly says. “This is a time for us to again share with people what we do, what we have contributed in the past and what we continue to do now.”

As with many Irish cultural celebrations held around the metro area for the holiday, the Corktown parade showcases Irish traditions with deep historical connotations. Livonia resident Kitty Heinzman, the grand marshal of this year’s Corktown parade, teaches Irish ceili dancing at several metro-area venues including Corktown’s Gaelic League Irish-American Club. Heinzman, who immigrated to Detroit from Ireland at age 17 in 1958, was raised to understand the greater significance behind seemingly simple dances.

“We practiced religion by dancing,” Heinzman says. “One dance is called ‘The Sweets of May,’ and we’re honoring the Blessed Mother. That dance starts in a circle, and that was to remind us that we were united in our faith. Tapping of knees and tapping of hands brought to mind the ringing of church bells, and the arches (formed by joining hands) would bring to mind going and coming from church.”

Other events feature more light-hearted celebrations of family. The Oakland County St. Patrick’s Day Parade, held in Royal Oak, features a competitive procession named the “Calling of the Clans,” attracting traditional Irish clans from as far as New York.

“Every year there’s a new clan and they try to outdo each other,” says Stephen Zannetti, president of the Oakland County Ancient Order of Hibernians, which organizes the Royal Oak parade. “We have awards for the most historic, the loudest, the largest and the smallest clan.”

Passions for heritage

Local Irish-Americans are drawn to explore and express their heritage for a variety of reasons. Some are old enough to remember a time when the local Irish-American community banded together as a relatively new group in the area — and a frequent target of discrimination. Dennis Hayes, past president of the UIS and a commentator at this year’s Corktown parade, was only 9 years old when John Kennedy was nominated for president in 1960. But he still recalls his family’s sense of pride at having an Irish Catholic presidential candidate.

“When my parents were young, it wasn’t all that popular to express your Irishness,” Hayes says. “In more recent years things have gotten better. We can express our pride much more openly than we were able to at one time.”

Other local Irish-Americans are driven to get in touch with their heritage out of a fascination with Irish artistic forms. Bloomfield Hills resident Cynthia Canty, master of ceremonies at this year’s Corktown parade, became engrossed with Irish music while in high school.

“It’s the melodies, especially the plaintive ones, the ones in the minor keys, that really struck my heart,” Canty says. “I realized that Irish music was not ‘McNamara’s Band’ and all the stuff that you hear in America on St. Patrick’s Day — ‘Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and things like that. When I realized the richness of the Irish folk music tradition ... that hooked me.”

Although Hayes suggests that the local Irish-American community’s strength may have peaked in the days “when people really had to band together for their own survival,” it’s still thriving and attracting new participants. Redford musician and Irish immigrant Mick Gavin, who has organized an annual St. Patrick’s Day festival at Westland’s Hellenic Cultural Center for 30 years, says he’s noticed a recent “revival” of interest in Irish culture among young people. And Royal Oak parade organizer Carol Hennessey says more new local Irish families have participated in that procession every year since she became involved 15 years ago.

“Even this year, again, we’ve got two new families involved,” Hennessey says. “I think in a sense they’re coming together again.”

“Not a Mardi Gras”

Drinking is one St. Patrick’s Day tradition that some local Irish-Americans are loath to embrace. Guinness, Jameson and green beer flow freely at many bars on St. Patrick’s Day, and the Corktown parade in particular is well-known for the associated debauchery that starts early in the morning and spills onto the parade route along Michigan Avenue. But Canty says her husband, an Irish native, was “gobsmacked” when he first discovered the “drink culture” that Americans associate with what is still essentially a religious holiday in Ireland.

“If you’re a small, Irish-themed pub in Metro Detroit, I get that it’s a big part of the business,” Canty says. “But my personal preference would be to see a little less of that. I’d like to think there are ways to celebrate it without having to be pounding beers at 7 a.m.”

Kelly says the Corktown parade is “not a Mardi Gras,” noting that organizers moved the parade start time to noon from 2 p.m. a few years ago to try to cut down on some of the drinking activity. Organizers of Royal Oak’s parade, too, emphasize that theirs is a family-oriented event where drinking is strictly prohibited.

Still, organizers of local Irish cultural celebrations say most of the drinking activity is responsible, and most attendees come with enthusiasm for the ethnic traditions on display.

“It can be 65 (degrees) and sunny, or it can be freezing cold, but people want to come out and celebrate the Irish culture,” Canty says. “I love seeing all of Metro Detroit’s Irish community really pull together to say to the rest of the state, ‘Here’s who we are.’ ”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Area parades and parties

Oakland County St. Patrick’s Day Parade

11:10 a.m., Sat.

Along Washington from Royal Oak Middle School to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Royal Oak

(586) 822-6713

St. Patrick’s/St. Joseph’s Party

6-11 p.m., Sat.

Polish Century Club

33204 Maple, Sterling Heights

Tickets: $25

(586) 264-7990

Detroit St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Noon, Sun.

Michigan and Sixth to Michigan and 14th, Detroit

(313) 475-4675

St. Patrick’s Day Festival

3 p.m.-midnight, March 17

Hellenic Cultural Center

36375 Joy, Westland

Tickets: $10

(734) 525-3550

Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Annual St. Patrick’s Day Party

Noon- 6 p.m., March 17

Fr. Solanus Casey Knights of Columbus Hall

16831 E. 12 Mile, Roseville

Tickets: $5