A green silk tie round his neck and a withered green carnation in his button hole, Bernard F. Kelly Sr. stood outside Sands Variety Store Tuesday afternoon. "I wear them the whole week before St. Patrick's Day," Kelly, 49 years a resident of Southie, grinned.
South Boston, like Kelly, is decked out this week, and what the decorations lack in freshness they make up for in green. The Pizzarama at the corner of Dorchester Ave. sports a host of paper leprechauns under a sign that reads pizza, pasta, subs." Across the street in the window of Charlie's Deli, next to the German sausage and Jewish salami, are enough green hats to outfit the entire IRA. The leisure suits in the window the Bayview Men's Store have given way to the spring collection of "I Love Southie" t-shirts, and down the street at Leprechaun Imports kelly green covers everything.
St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and therefore Southie, is credited with driving the snakes out of Ireland. Memories of him succeed in driving the ugliness from South Boston for a week in March every year.
The festivities began last Friday night at the McDonough Gym, where the card for the 39th annual Baby Golden Gloves listed a succession of home-grown pugilists. Saturday, by invitation only, the Gold Star Mothers of South Boston assembled at Armheim's Restaurant, a local favorite, for lunch and memories. The scene moved to the Murphy rink Sunday, where those South Boston boys who model themselves after Terry O'Reilly and not Billy Bulger took over for an afternoon of "puck-shooting contests" and speed skating. Monday Miss South Boston was chosen and last night was the swimming tournament. Tomorrow the serious stuff begins with the 99th annual banquet of the South Boston Citizens Association. And everyone lines the streets of Southie on Sunday for the annual parade.
The program at the Little City Hall ignores St. Paddie; it says the events all commemorate the 203rd anniversary of Evacuation Day. Which brings up an interesting point--only in Boston is St. Patrick's Day a legal holiday. And while making the annual ethnic celebration a city holiday probably wouldn't have been an impossible chore for Boston's Irish pols, there was an easier way. The British, ironically provided the excuse. Redcoats occupied Boston from the start of the revolution until the Americans, head quartered on Cambridge Common, were able to starve them out. The British left under cover of darkness the morning of March 17, 1776. So remember, when you see the cloud of green that envelops Southie as the great day approaches, it's George Washington, not St. Paddy, that the Kellys and Flynns are toasting with stout.
Irish people are used to pretending anyway--at least, that's what some scholars who claim St. Patrick was Welsh or Danish would say. Those same scholars might tell you shamrocks don't grow wild in Eire and that there weren't ever any snakes on the Old Sod. They might as well try to convince Bernard F. Kelly, Sr. that his mother wasn't from Ireland. But if all it takes is a hit or two of green to make anyone Irish this week, who cares? The important thing is that St. Pat did indeed exist, somewhere back in the fifth century, and he did bring Christianity to the Celts who inhabited the Emerald Isle, not an easy task. At the time, the country was divided into many little kingdoms, many of which remain today as counties. The Celts fought incessantly in between drinking their version of mead and worshipping the race of gods from whom they sprung, the Tuatha de Danaan. Truth be told, they didn't exactly worship the gods--it was more of an ongoing working relationship. There is lots of evidence the Celts didn't think in terms of "bad," and had no concept of heaven or hell. Anti-social behavior was not bad, merely an absence of good; loyalty to the tribe was the supreme rule. In St. Patricks time, you didn't travel across the borders of the kingdoms unless you had been invited or were a famous poet or seer. Safe conduct was far from guaranteed, which is why St. Patrick spread the word of Christianity accompanied by 15 armed and armored princes on horseback.
Anyway, or so the story goes, St. Pat plucked a shamrock from a rock crevice to explain the concept of the Christian trinity to three Irish princesses he met one day. Their local deity, it turns out, was a kind of triple-split personality himself, so the ladies went for the idea right away. In fact they became the first Irish runs.
The word spread like wildfire, mostly because Patrick was adept at combining pagan and Christian beliefs. Some credit him with establishing the worship of the Virgin Mary in Ireland and elsewhere, stressing her importance to the Celts who already had a firm belief in the great goddess Danu, the mother of earth and the gods.
St. pat also got rid of the snakes that plagued the farmers in the rocky Irish countryside, and the way he did that also showed some imagination. He brought in pigs--everyone knows snakes are afraid of pigs, or at least every Irishman knows that. And now you'll seldom see a snake in Ireland, except maybe at the bottom of a few glasses.
Just as St. Patrick made his name driving out the snakes, hundreds of South Bostonians have reached prominence by driving out Republicans. For the politicians, March 17 is no holiday--they're hard at work promoting themselves all day long. This St. Patrick's Day will really begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday when Bill Bulger, president of the State Senate, is the guest of honor at the annual corned beef and cabbage "dinner." Most years the parade follows the dinner, winding slowly through the hills of Southie. This year, though, the 15,000 participants, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.); John McCormack, former speaker of the House; Thomas P. 'Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.), current speaker of the House; and Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.), who are jointly sponsoring a float, will have to wait until Sunday to march. The parade, which will also include the Budweiser Clydesdales and 30 marching bands, most of them playing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," steps off from Andrews Square at 12:45 p.m.
There should be plenty of other non-locals at the fair, so visitors don't have to worry too much abou> feeling out-of-place. Leprechaun Imports sells most of its stock of shot glasses decorated with maps of Ireland and kelly green track sneakers to tourists, and the lady behind the counter swore she had just gotten off the phone with an Irishman in Los Angeles who was interested in a South Boston warm-up suit.
Southies has had its share of bad times, especially recently, and it would be a lie to call the neighborhood thriving. By the high school you can still see the word "press" painted on the concrete in white paint, marking off the boundaries behind which cameramen and reporters strained to watch the buses roll in and out. The streets aren't spotless, the houses aren't beautiful, and many buildings are boarded up. But for a week every March, when things would normally be at their grayest and grittiest, Southie changes her clothes. And with the green of the leprechauns and the shamrocks the neighborhood starts to smile, and by St. Patrick's Day, begorra, it's a full-fledged grin.