by Jim Boyle
—My initiation to Detroit’s rich, and at times rabid St. Patrick’s Day energy came on a cold, desolate February night not long after moving to the city. My brother and I were recent transplants and, although my parents grew up here, we didn’t possess any hands-on knowledge of what made Detroit tick. I don’t recall the exact occasion but were doing some serious boy bonding with my Dad, who was zipping us around on his own walk-down-memory-lane. The moment came, as it sometimes does, for us to choose a watering hole where we would go quietly to a corner booth and solve the world’s problems. We were somewhere near Corktown and my Dad suggested the Gaelic League, Detroit’s long-standing Irish American Club on Michigan Avenue, which is more like a bar disguised as a club.
We opened the doors and were, miraculously, ushered to a skirted table near the front, and seated with some rosy-cheeked folks who could have been my own aunts and uncles. As it turns out we stumbled into a major Detroit happening – what I now know as the infamous Maid of Erin contest. It was warm and the beer was cold so we decided to hunker down as people kept pouring in. Over the next several hours we were front-and-center for a part talent show, part family reunion that culminated in the boisterous, standing-room-only crowning of the young Maid of Erin. Weird? Cultish? Well, I’m not done.
You see, this was the mere kick off. Over the next month I had similar, surprising experiences. On the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day my parents called again, this time to invite me to mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, right across from the DSO. I arrived at a church bursting at the seams with seemingly every Irish and Irish-for-the-day person within 200 miles, all for the lively, once-a-year St. Patrick’s Day mass. Bag pipes, Irish dancers and a sea of green – my head was swimming. I’ve been told that the church sponsors a post-mass ½ barrel of beer but was swept away before I could confirm. Why? It was parade day and we needed to move on.
Yes, that very same day, every year, the bricked-paved Michigan Avenue jumps to life with tail-gate-like parties stretching over a mile on either side. Tents, local Irish music and dance, and green everything – hats, hair, beads – all in anticipation of the spectacle that is the actual parade. I ended up at Nemos – but could have been anywhere on the route – and wondered out loud “where did all these people come from?” And there, with the sun’s hi-beam bursting through the clouds like a spot light right on her, was a hand-waving Maid of Erin. Yes, the very same girl who won the pageant that started this surreal madness in the first place. We had come fill circle, and I was now a believer!
But wait, there was more! A cousin or aunt or someone purporting to be either tucked me under their arm and guided me over another Detroit institution – Nancy Whiskey’s. This hole-in-the-wall, hidden bar pulls you into the darkness and makes you forget time – not always a good thing. More of the same ensued until I went home very tired, yet amazed at my day. And St. Patrick’s Day was still 4 days away.
The actual day found me skipping the WJR St. Patrick’s radio morning show (which I would later find out is yet, another long-standing tradition) only to be invited later by my uncle for a celebratory pint somewhere along…you guessed it…Michigan Avenue. The tents were still up from Parade Day and the mob must have remained too. Whew!
Did I mention this happens every year, with this year’s version starting to amp up right now? And this year, I’m happy to say, there’s an added bonus. You can take in all the local fun and cap it off with “one of the foremost Irish traditional music groups in the world,” according to the The New York Daily News – Ireland’s own Cherish the Ladies (at the DSO on the weekend of March 18th). After that rush of activity you just might be ready for some more relaxing environs.