St. Patrick's Day Parade --up close and green

Spirit: An unofficial reviewing stand on Charles Street is the annual heart of this holiday custom.

March 15, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

As the years pass and the crowds grow, some things about Baltimore's St. Patrick's Day Parade seem to have become immutable, as if required by city ordinance:

Scottish pipers always outnumber Irish pipers.

Every marching band plays "Danny Boy" at least once.

The weather is usually as gray and blustery as a gale blowing in from the Irish Sea.

Politicians get more cheers when they have Irish names.

And Mike MacIntyre's fluffy dog Seamus, an Irish soft-coated wheaten terrier, is always dyed green, so a lot of people take his picture.

But to uncover one of the more central truths, one must stroll the parade's entire route, from the Washington Monument to the Inner Harbor. It then becomes clear that the unofficial reviewing stand on Charles Street is a lot more fun than the official one on Pratt Street.

You can blame Michael O'Shea for this. He's been manning the microphone on Charles Street for 10 years running, and yesterday he was at it again, mirthfully calling out to the crowd from a tiny plywood podium at the intersection of Pleasant Street, just outside the Irish pub that bears his name.

The parade seems livelier here. It is partly due to the narrowness of the street, which puts the three-person-deep crowd almost on top of the action, unlike the spacious feel on the wider promenade of Pratt. It also doesn't hurt that the pub dispenses plenty of big cups of Guinness and Harp, or that just across the way a sidewalk vendor sells steaming platters of corned beef and cabbage.

"I love doing this," O'Shea, 61, said yesterday between pronouncements, a running patter in which he often calls out to passers-by whom he knows by name. He throws himself into the spirit of things with such zeal that his wife now uses the occasion for a short vacation.

"She leaves town every year," he says with a self-deprecating laugh. "But I miss her."

O'Shea has also worked among the dignitaries and organizers. He was the parade's grand marshal in 1989 (the honors this year went to Mary Fran Swan, another veteran of this event, and president of the Irish Shrine heritage museum on Lemmon Street), and he has long been a fixture of the city's Irish community, so devoted to the old country that he became an Irish citizen several years back, after Ireland began allowing dual citizenship.

At times yesterday, the throng on the upper blocks of Charles seemed more interested in basketball than in the parade. Several people clutched portable televisions or hand-held radios, trying to keep track of the action in the ACC championship game between Maryland and Duke.

Robert Darwin Kelly, 75, kept moving the antenna of a small, lavender television back and forth as the black-and-white picture fuzzed and rolled. "It's not great, but I can keep up with the score," he said.

O'Shea didn't mind the distraction, obliging the spirit of the moment by occasionally offering score updates over his microphone, including the good news that the state's home team had won in overtime. But even devoted sports fans said they wouldn't have missed the parade for a better view of the game.

"We come here every year, same spot," said Kelly, who has brought his family for more than 20 years to the same location on Charles between Franklin and Mulberry streets. They've been coming for so long that there are now several dozen of them, in-laws and all - Kellys, Schramms and Besches.

Such is the power of tradition at the heart of this event, an aspect that is alluring for younger families.

Pete Mulligan, 43, of Parkville brought his three children - twins Nicole and Brittany, 11, and son Peter Jr., 5 - along with a 7-year-old niece, Breanna Casper, and a friend of the twins, Kaitlyn Hamrick, 12. In keeping with the spirit of the day, all six sprayed their hair with green dye. Mulligan's goatee glowed as bright as neon. They've done this for three years straight.

"I come down and get a picture of them in front of the Constellation, then take them to the parade," he said. "You've got to build every family tradition that you can, then stick with it."

As he spoke, the Baltimore Ravens marching band passed. Playing "Danny Boy," of course.

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