By Dave Fidlin | SDUN Reporter
St. Patrick’s Day comes once a year, but a local organization works year-round to ensure a local festival is enjoyed by spectators willing to immerse themselves in Irish culture.
For the 32nd year, the Irish Congress of Southern California is presenting its St. Patrick’s Day program in San Diego. This year’s program, which kicks off with a parade, will be held at Balboa Park.
There are more than 120 entries in this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Participants include local marching bands; police and fire department units; border patrol units; and a number of civic organizations. Irish-centric organizations, including the Sons of St. Patrick, will once again be taking part in this year’s program, as will an assortment of representatives from Ireland.
This year, the Irish Congress will host a flag-raising ceremony at 10 a.m. on March 17 at Sixth Avenue and Juniper Street, with the parade starting at 10:30 a.m. The parade starts at the flag-raising site and travels north on Fifth Avenue to Upas Street, then east to Sixth Avenue and south on Sixth Avenue to end back at Juniper Street.
While food, fun and fellowship are the overall goals of the Irish Congress’s program, event organizers also stress the importance of putting on an event that will serve as an educational tool. This includes the musical aspect, which has long been a part of the program and the selections reflect the people of Ireland’s historic love of freedom and desire for peace, justice and unity.
Tony Mande is serving as the chairperson of this year’s parade. Mande, who has been part of the volunteer-driven Irish Congress’s efforts for 12 years, said the parade pays homage to Irish history and customs, some of which have been misunderstood in America.
“We’re here to celebrate the spirit of the country and, basically, to educate and honor the history and traditions of the Irish people,” Mande said. “Everyone’s aware of the Irish, but this is a chance to let people know about their rich heritage.”
Mande, who has traveled to Ireland, said Americans have fabricated some of the country’s customs over time. For example, Mande said he has never come across a pint of green beer in his visits to pubs in Ireland, an American practice on St. Patrick’s Day.
Colleen Murphy, who serves as the Irish Congress’s board chairperson, said she has witnessed first-hand the dedication of the organization in her nearly 30 years of involvement.
“This really is a purely volunteer-driven effort,” Murphy said. “We receive no grant money and no funding from the city of San Diego. All of the money [to put the program on] comes from fundraising.”
Murphy and other board members meet at least once a month throughout the year to discuss the specifics of the parade and festival. From January to March, as St. Patrick’s Day draws closer, organizers meet weekly in an effort to present the best possible program to the community.
On the day of the event, Murphy said between 140 and 170 volunteers contribute in a variety of ways, including volunteering as a parade marshal, vendor, judge, announcer or server at the beer garden.
“There’s a small core of dedicated people who really care about this event,” Murphy said. “The great thing is, we all get along and are very passionate about what we do. Everyone loves a good parade, and this one has always been a blast.”
The St. Patrick’s Day parade and festival technically is the only event the Irish Congress of Southern California puts on, but organizers work collaboratively with a number of other related organizations on events throughout the year, including the Smiling Irishman contest, Miss Colleen pageant and Tower After Hours.
“We’re looking to become an organization that makes ourselves available to other organizations [and] to serve as a resource,” Murphy said. “We started small, but we’ve evolved over time. It’s been exciting to see.”