Skip the big-city extravaganzas this year and raise your pint of Guinness at one of these rollicking, family-friendly events instead.
Every year on March 17, green dye saturates the Chicago River in the Windy City, and over a million spectators turn out to watch an exuberant parade overtake the streets of Manhattan. St. Patrick’s Day may be an Irish holiday, but marking the occasion with elaborate celebrations is more an American tradition than an Irish one. While grandiose events often steal the spotlight, some of the best revelry actually takes place outside the country’s metropolises. These six St. Patrick’s Day events may be comparatively modest in scale, but their festive spirits and quirky attractions—like the world’s largest shamrock in O’Neill, Nebraska—are as boisterous and fun as those of their big-city rivals.
The St. Patrick’s Day parade in Jackson has a particularly quirky origin story. In 1983, local restaurant owner Malcolm White gathered a few hundred friends and marched through downtown dressed as characters from the plays of Mississippi-native Tennessee Williams. (As White says, there will always be a few Tennessee Williams characters at any costume occasion in the South.)
The inspiration behind the original march is lost to time, but the day-long event now draws a crowd of roughly 75,000 people, and raises money for the Baton Children’s Hospital at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In addition to the big parade, there is a 5K race, a pet parade, live music, and a children’s festival with a costume contest and amusement rides. The 2019 celebration will be held the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day on Saturday, March 23.
Saturday, March 16, is touted as the “greenest and grandest day of the year” in Dublin, Ohio, a city with the tagline “Irish is an attitude.” The party starts early with a 7 a.m., all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast topped with green syrup at Sells Middle School. Before the parade, stop by the “inflation celebration” at Graeter’s Ice Cream shop to watch the giant balloons and floats come to life. At 11 a.m., head to the parade route to watch the Grand Leprechaun—a different member of the community is chosen each year—lead the procession.
Finish the day by visiting the town’s many Irish pubs and participating businesses for themed events and entertainment. Dublin’s newest Irish pub, Fadó Pub & Kitchen, is hosting a two-day block party over the weekend.
Founded by Irish-born Civil War general John O’Neill, this small Nebraska town might be one of the most proudly Irish places in the country. In 1969, then-governor Norbert Tiemann proclaimed O’Neill the “Irish Capital of Nebraska” to honor its citizens’ efforts to preserve the town’s Irish heritage.
O’Neill is also home to the world’s largest shamrock. Painted in the middle of an intersection, the image is so large it appears on Google Maps. The shamrock gets a fresh coat of paint every year before the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which is slated for Saturday, March 16, this year. The event draws so many visitors that the town’s population of roughly 3,700 doubles in size. Bring the kids to the Green Eggs and Ham Literature Festival or join the Shamrock Fun Run before the afternoon parade. Afterward, catch live music or partake in a Irish whiskey tasting at venues around town.
Wilmington, North Carolina
For a lively St. Patrick’s Day celebration near the beach, head to the 20th-annual Guinness St. Patrick’s Day Festival & Parade in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Saturday, March 16. The parade starts at 11 a.m. and loops through downtown, ending a few blocks from Riverfront Park, where the festival takes place. The free and family-friendly event features live Irish music and traditional dance performances by members of the local Walsh Kelley School of Irish Dancing. Attendees are asked to bring donations for the event’s charity partner; this year’s funds will support Nourish NC, a nonprofit dedicated to feeding hungry children. Several local pubs and restaurants offer traditional Irish meals and “kegs & eggs” themed–brunch events the day of the parade, and you can walk off your meal across town along the shores of the Atlantic.
New London, Wisconsin
In the late 1800s, a group of Irish immigrants settled in the New London area because the landscape reminded them of Ireland. Many others followed, and today the city hosts Wisconsin’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade.
But the holiday is more than an excuse for a parade here—it’s a week-long celebration. The festivities start when members of the Shamrock Club—a group of Irish descendants and locals who “wish they were Irish”—dress as leprechauns and change the name of the town to “New Dublin” on road signs.
Other weekday events include Irish caroling and dinners of corned beef and cabbage at local pubs. The extravaganza culminates in the Grand Parade, complete with both bagpipe and marching bands, on Saturday, March 23. Irish Fest, an annual music festival, kicks off right after the parade and features two Celtic band performances under a heated tent.
Montauk, New York
The second-largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York State is only 119 miles from New York City, on the east end of Long Island in Montauk. The 57th-annual Friends of Erin St. Patrick’s Day Parade will take place on March 24, the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, to avoid conflict with the event in Manhattan.
The parade starts at noon, but be sure to arrive early for a local tradition: a mug of soup from the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. The soups are donated by 10 local restaurants and served in souvenir mugs. Proceeds from the sales support the parade, which is organized by a civic group, Montauk Friends of Erin. The event can draw a crowd of up to 25,000 people, so plan ahead if you’re traveling from New York City via public transit. (There will be special LIRR trains running that day.) After the parade, stop by one of the local pubs for an Irish-themed meal to allow time for the train queues to shrink.
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