Annual St. Patrick’s parade gives Downtown taste of ‘Celtic heritage’

Written By Richelle Szypulski

After catching a green, beaded necklace, a young boy declared to his parents, “I’m a leprechaun! Watch my dance!” as he burst into his rendition of an Irish jig.Another set of tossed beads overshot the crowd and slid into a storm drain, causing a potentially intoxicated young woman to scream, “No!”  like she had just watched her new puppy run into traffic.A gray-haired Pittsburgh policeman, donning his own pair of the coveted beads, eyed her suspiciously as he walked by.These people were among the green sea of spectators last Saturday as the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an event infamous throughout Pittsburgh for its ability to attract rowdy crowds to the sidewalks of Downtown, brought just as much life to the streets.”It’s a diverse event for all ages,” said Tim O’Brien, a public relations representative for the Parade Committee, in a phone interview on Sunday. “It’s one of the few events where you can have a child in a stroller, your teenager, your college student, your young parent, all the way down to your senior citizens. Everybody has a good time.”People bustled along the sidewalks, leaned against the bicycle racks lining the street and hung over the sides of parking garages to watch what is considered to be the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the United States, next to New York City’s. According to event officials, Pittsburgh’s parade is normally attended by anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 people, depending on the weather.The parade dates back as early as 1869 and occurred sporadically over the years until 1950, and since then it has taken place each year, according to www.pittsburghirish.org. The parade committee prides itself on bringing the event to Pittsburghers whether it is “rain or shine.” This year, the Pittsburgh Police succeeded in tightening control of the sidewalks to ensure that the traditionally alcohol-laden event remained “family-friendly” by enforcing an “open container” statute and keeping a commanding presence on the corners of each street.On Saturday, cool morning temperatures and brisk city breezes gave the Irish and the “Irish-for-the-day” a reason to layer on more green attire. However, around 11 a.m., worries of potential rain and flooding were washed aside as the sun emerged, a fortunate coincidence that Parade Chairman and announcer Jim Green attributed to “the luck of the Irish.”Over 23,000 participants lined up at the Greyhound bus station at the intersection of Liberty Avenue and 11th Street and begin marching at 10 a.m. This marked the second year of the new parade route, which continued down Grant Street, turned when it met the Boulevard of the Allies and continued on until the Post-Gazette building.Spectators watched and cheered with merriment for traditional marching bands, troops of bagpipers, several floats and people on horseback. The crowd was especially intrigued by the complex, lively movements of the many Irish step dancers’ shoes.One of those pairs belonged to Melissa Adams, a senior at Hampton High School, who was inspired by her Irish heritage and a few of her friends to learn the “intricate” skill of Irish step dance. Adams, 18, enrolled at the Bell School of Irish Dance at the age of 10, and this is the eighth St. Patrick’s Day Parade she has performed in.”It’s really difficult to do because of all of the technique,” Adams said Saturday as she re-fastened her spiral-curled hairpiece after the parade. “You need to have your feet crossed at all times. You need to have your toes pointed. You have to keep your back straight. It’s a lot harder than we make it look, but when you can see it all come together, it’s really neat and so much fun.”John Walsh, 50, has marched in the parade with the kilt-clad Pittsburgh Firefighters Memorial Pipe Band for three years. After nine years of teaching himself to play the bagpipe, Walsh believes he is “still learning.”Describing the many facets of what it takes to play the complicated instrument, Walsh explained, “I begin by filling the bag with air by using what’s called the blow piece and to play the pipes, there needs to be a constant pressure on the bag with my arm … As I alternate between blowing into bag and squeezing it, air produces sound out of the three drones coming out of the top of the bagpipe. They give the constant, even humming sound.  At the same time, air is forced through the chanter, which I hold in my left and right hands and use to play the melody of the tune.”Along with having to focus on all of the various keys to make the instrument function, Walsh believes that another reason the art of playing the bagpipe is complicated is because they simply do not use sheet music during a parade, so all of the tunes and movements are memorized. “But after all of that work, it really is fun to play once you get the hang of it,” Walsh said on Saturday after he had finished marching. “I really look forward to the parade every year. No matter what the weather decides to do, we can all come out, Irish or not, and just have a great time as we get a taste of Celtic heritage and the [beverages] that go with it!”