Welcome to the week of green, when Savannah rivals Oz for the title of Emerald City.
With St. Patrick's Day preparations and pre-partying in full effect, the enthusiasm is as contagious as the bubonic plague, without the fleas. The line around here goes that everyone's a wee bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day in Savannah, leprechaun DNA or not.
But how does a person go about feeling authentically Irish in order to join the fun? The soused gentleman observed dancing a jig in front of Congress Street Social Club Saturday night may disagree, but I'm positive it takes more than a vat of Jameson and a shamrock-shaped loincloth.
History is always an excellent place to begin. The city's storied Irish heritage hearkens back to the city's Revolutionary War days, when Sergeant William Jasper laid down his life during the Siege of Savannah. In the decades before the Civil War, Irish immigrants were imported for the work deemed too body-wrecking for slaves, including laying tracks for the Central of Georgia Railroad and digging out the Ogeechee Canal by hand.
The descendants of those maligned laborers found their way into all strata of civic life, preserving their traditions while assimilating as true-blooded Americans. One of those recognizable traditions is Irish dancing, performed throughout the year at various events but especially at February's Irish Festival and last weekend's Tara Feis.
In my quest to deepen my genetically-nonexistent Irish roots, I asked for tutorial from my daughter, who spent a year with the Irish Dancers of Savannah.
My little lady of the dance patiently demonstrated the fast footwork and stock-still upper body, her chin high and elbows pointed, skipping around the room like a bonnie lass. She doesn't get it from me. I proved to be an impossible student, as I am incapable of dancing without waving my arms like the cast of Hair performing "Age of Aquarius."
So I moved on to last Friday's greening of the Forsyth Park Fountain, hoping to absorb a dose of Celtic pedigree by osmosis. Turns out swimming in the fountain is not allowed. Little girls in smocked dresses and boys in seersucker suits held their grandparents' hands as members of the St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee filed by in their natty green jackets and embroidered sashes, lending a sense of solemnity to the proceedings at first. Soon, however, cheers and squeals erupted as the children poured bucket after bucket of dye into the shallow pool.
As we oohed over the spectacle of the fountain's regal swans and muscled mermen suddenly gushing green, I began to feel a little more part of the family.
(Park and Tree employee and 20-year greening veteran Baby Boy Pinckney assured me that the product he was surreptitiously adding at the fountain's pump to speed things along was not Soylent Green but a food-grade dye manufactured by Pylam Products. He added that it takes about a day to flush the fountain clear again with chlorine bleach. All perfectly non-toxic, but swimming is still not recommended as it comes with a $1,000 fine.)
Maybe one can convert to Irishness. To find out, I headed over to Ground Zero for Savannah's Irish community, the Parade Committee Headquarters on Liberty Street. There I found General Chairman Brendan Sheehan dodging a PR bullet for the parade's rejection of a group of New York firefighters. He and local fireman Mike Dodd were explaining to a TV crew that while this particular group's past bad behavior earned them personae non gratae status this year, there will be plenty of Savannah's, New York's and other cities' finest marching in the parade.
Sheehan seemed relieved that all I wanted to know is how to become more involved in the Irish community. Though he gently explained that no matter how good my organizational skills I would not be wearing one of the Parade Committee's snazzy green jackets anytime soon. Or ever.
First of all, you have to be nominated basically at birth by another committee member, and then someone has to pass on to the verdant fields of eternity. Sheehan himself says he waited almost 26 years for his name to come up before he could join the ranks of this most respected organization, a group that works all year long to engineer the country's second largest St. Patrick's Day parade.
Also, you have to be a man.
Now, it is true that it is a tremendous amount of work to host a half million people and make sure the streets run smoothly, but 800 dudes to plan a parade? If the women were in charge, there would only need to be 50 of them and a big ol' pot of coffee. Just sayin'.
If I couldn't join the parade committee, maybe one of the other Irish organizations would have me. I called my good buddy Chuck Loncon, a member of the Hibernian Society, the country's oldest Irish cultural society. Established in 1812 on St. Patrick's Day, the Hibernian Society has always been devoid of religious strife. Chuck told me one of the society's founding members, Isaac Minis, was actually Jewish. So there ya go, I'm a legacy.
Chuck cleared his throat and clarified that while the Hibernian Society is indeed inclusive, apolitical and without religious preference, it is also composed only of men.
OK, fine, I get it. To get official around here, you've got to swing a shillelagh.
At last on Sunday, I found myself at the Celtic Cross Ceremony at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, its spires still breathtaking under its scaffolding cloak. Everyone — even a Jewish girl who can't cook a decent corned beef to save her life — is welcome at this glorious mass that ends with a procession to Emmett Park.
Many say this is the true St. Patrick's Day Parade. A far cry from our famous drunken ruckus, it's a sobering testament to how far the Irish community has come and what a triumphant heritage it has to bequeath to future generations.
That's when I realized the true meaning of being Irish in Savannah is to honor faith and family, no matter where you worship or from where your ancestors hail. Hold both close and you're as green as it gets.
Of course, there's still an epic party to get started. But remember that this is not Mardi Gras and Savannah is not New Orleans.
Keep your shirt on (and your pants, for Pete's sake) and be grateful you were born with the luck of the Irish.
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