There were no green beers or gaudy T-shirts when Savannah first celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, just a solemn procession of immigrants seeking to honor their Irish roots more than 3,800 miles from their homeland across the Atlantic.
Many things have changed in the nearly two centuries since Georgia’s oldest city held its inaugural St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1824. Now thousands of tourists from across the U.S. flock to Savannah every March 17 for a sprawling street party that may be the South’s largest celebration between Mardi Gras and Spring Break.
Still, many of Savannah’s Irish descendants maintain St. Patrick’s Day traditions that have nothing to do with beer-swilling revelry. Here are some of the (mostly) sober ways Savannah celebrates the Irish holiday that arrives Friday.
MASS BEFORE MARCHING
Before they join the masses lining the sidewalks and filling the oak-shaded squares to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade, roughly 1,000 of the Savannah’s Catholic faithful fill the pews for Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Parishioners are typically waiting outside for the doors to open an hour before the 8 a.m. church service honoring St. Patrick, who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. After Mass, they scramble to spots along the parade route — which passes in front of the church steps — before the procession begins.
For those who don’t want to face the crowds, the St. Patrick’s Mass also gets broadcast on TV in Savannah and is streamed live on the internet. More than 23,000 tuned in to watch last year, said Barbara King, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Savannah.
St. Patrick’s Day may be a secular beer-fest for many. But in Savannah, King said, “the religious roots are important.”
PROCESSION OF GENERATIONS
Among shamrock-decorated floats, marching pipe bands and Army units in formation, Savannah’s parade also features the Rossiters … and the Hogans, Halligans, Staffords, Reardons and many other families with deep Irish roots on the Georgia coast.
Irish families marching in green jackets and dresses make up a big part of the 2.6-mile parade route through Savannah’s downtown historic district.
Dr. Frank Rossiter, a retired pediatrician, estimates more than 40 extended family members will take part in Friday’s parade. Because Rossiter is a past grand marshal of the Savannah parade (as his father was 36 years before him), he no longer has to walk and rides in a convertible. His family — siblings, cousins, children and grandchildren — will fall in behind him.
“In Savannah, at least with the Irish families, St. Patrick’s Day is almost like Christmas,” Rossiter said. “For your children and their children, a visit home on St. Patrick’s Day is almost a must.”
“NO LEPRECHAUNS, NO RAINBOWS”
Occupying a mid-19th century building on Savannah’s cobblestone riverfront, Kevin Barry’s is one Irish pub that takes its heritage seriously.
It’s dark inside, with no TVs and no Wi-Fi for customers’ phones. There’s no jukebox playing U2 or Van Morrison tunes. Instead, live troubadours perform Irish folk songs every night of the week. The shepherd’s pie and beef stew on the menu are based on recipes handed down by the owner’s Irish ancestors.
And on St. Patrick’s Day, the rule at Kevin Barry’s is “no leprechauns, no rainbows,” said Tara Reese, a manager at the pub.
“You will never find a shamrock on top of your Guinness,” Reese said.
Still need convincing? Last fall, the Irish Pubs Global Federation named Kevin Barry’s the world’s “Most Authentic Irish Pub” outside of Ireland.
REFLECTION BEFORE THE REVELRY
Each year on the Sunday before March 17, Savannahians of Irish stock gather for a smaller, more somber procession that echoes the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1824.
The march from the cathedral to the Celtic cross standing in Emmet Park, near the downtown riverfront, honors the initial Irish immigrants who arrived in Savannah in the 1800s and labored on the waterfront and railroads after being turned away from Boston and New York.
At Sunday’s annual Celtic cross ceremony, Dennis Counihan, grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade this year, recalled how the early Irish immigrants to Savannah were “fleeing religious, political and social persecution.”
“Today in many ways symbolizes the planting of the Irish seed in American,” Counihan said during the ceremony, held five days before the parade.