Smiling eyes: Coast celebrates its Irish heritage with five paradesSocieties announce their Grand Marshals and Colleens

        The Mississippi Coast will have five Irish parades, tying the most staged in one year. These March processions — they’ll roll March 12, 13 and 14 — salute a significant Irish-American history and influence in the Gulf region.

The three oldest parades are also the largest and are often compared to Mardi Gras. At least one city, Biloxi, paints a green road stripe on the parade route.

For throws, expect real potatoes, cabbage and carrots, along with lots of green beads and leprechaun pipes. If you’re good at catching you might get enough for an Irish stew, and in Waveland they even throw wrapped corn bread to go with it.

Doubters of Coast Celtic roots need only open a phone book to find O’Keefe, Murphy, Dennis, Murray, McHugh and Keating, to name but a few. Those in the Catholic community are familiar Irish priests’ and nuns’ influence here for more than a century.

Each parade is led by a grand marshal and colleen, many of whom can trace heritage to Ireland — although that’s not required.

“It is estimated that more than 50 million Americans are of Irish descent, but of course on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is a little Irish,” said state Sen. Billy Hewes, Hibernia Marching Society’s grand marshal this year.

“We are all either touched genetically or culturally by the Irish and their influence on American’s founding and development. Hallmark values associated with the Irish, such as a strong work ethic, dedication to family, provision of hospitality, enjoying a good laugh and appreciation of the Lord’s blessings are also recognized traits of Mississippians everywhere.”

Politicians, mayors, laborers, domestics, attorneys, teachers, community leaders, just about any calling can trace roots to the Emerald Isle. Irish Hill Drive in Biloxi is named for 19th-century railroad workers who went there for a weekly social gathering around a keg of beer delivered by train.

One of the Coast’s favorite Irish stories concerns the famous Irish fighters, John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan, who came to what is now Gulfport to duke it out for the world heavyweight championship. A fight promoter reportedly coined the term “knockout” for what Sullivan did to Ryan in 1882.

When the Irish fled the potato famine, many ended up here as domestics and laborers, but succeeding generations improved their stations in life. Social pages of early Coast newspapers, including this one, always mentioned St. Patrick’s Day.

The day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland is March 17. But unlike Ireland where it is a legal holiday, Americans must work, so they parade on nearby weekends.

New this year is an actual St. Paddy’s Day Pub Crawl in Ocean Springs on March 17, when a dozen restaurants and pubs create what they are calling a Shamrock Trail.

  • Gallery:Smiling eyes Coast celebrates its Irish heritage with five parades Societies announce their Grand Marshals and Colleens
  • By KAT BERGERON – kbergeron@sunherald.com

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