Last St. Patrick’s Day came just shy of a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and only a day after Tufts required that all students move out of on-campus housing.It was the first holiday we experienced in a pandemic, and many states were just beginning to enter almost total lockdown. So little was known about how the virus spread that wearing face masks was not yet the norm for most people in the United States.
This year, St. Patrick’s Day is the first holiday people are experiencing pandemic-style for a second time. The world has since adapted to the realities of the pandemic, and much more is now known about the virus. People also have had the time to come up with creative ideas for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in a safe way.
Joe Zoccola, manager of The Pub –– an Irish pub and eatery in Somerville –– can speak to the difference between this year and last, as his establishment was closed last St. Patrick’s Day but is now open at limited capacity.
“Last year, they shut everything down the day before,” Zoccola said. “So, we will do our best this week with the restrictions that are in place as far as capacity, which is, in the city of Somerville right now, still 25%. I'll be operating at about 50 people, at most, and I still have to maintain the 6 feet, social distancing and masks on, no standing.”
Zoccola anticipates some people will try to break the rules to celebrate the holiday, but he intends to stick to state safety guidelines, as he has throughout the pandemic.
“[They’re not] my rules to change. All I can do is enforce them, whether people like it or not,” Zoccola said. “I can’t jeopardize all my other customers who are here abiding by the rules just because you don’t want to wear a mask or you want to walk around and dance to the music.”
While grateful that The Pub can be open at all, Zoccola lamented that the bar will not have the same energy it usually does on St. Patrick’s Day.
“[A non-pandemic] St. Patrick’s Day is probably like a thousand other bars in Boston or anywhere in the country,” Zoccola said. “It’s just a fun day … It’s kind of like New Year’s Eve in the middle of the year.”
Bryan Bishop, director of operations for the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, also misses the fun, crowded St. Patrick’s Days of years past. With the exception of this year and last, since 1901, South Boston has hosted a St. Patrick’s Day parade on the Sunday closest to March 17. This date marks both St. Patrick’s Day and Evacuation Day, when British troops evacuated Boston in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. The parade is a celebration of both Boston’s Irish heritage and the city’s veterans.
“On a normal year, South Boston would be packed with about a million people, and we’d have about 120 to 140 parade units, varying from bands to nonprofit organizations, Irish groups, entertainment groups, veterans groups, which is huge because of the Evacuation Day tie-in to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” Bishop said. “It’s like one big party.”
According to Bishop, ever since the 2020 parade was canceled, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, which usually hosts the parade, had been thinking about what to do for the 2021 parade.
“We were pretty much sure in November that we were going to cancel, but we just wanted to wait because, in the event of canceling, we’re like, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’” Bishop said. “We didn’t want to do a virtual parade … but we wanted to make sure that people still realized that there is a Southie parade [and] also know a little bit more about South Boston.”
Bishop and his team made the official call in January to cancel this year’s parade, and in its place, they began working on a television special highlighting South Boston.
“I started working with Brian DiBello at NECN and Comcast to put together a ‘South Boston Revisited’-type 30-minute TV show basically just wetting people’s appetite and also, at the same time, setting us up for 2022,” Bishop said.
The television program can be seen on NECN Boston News on Wednesday, March 17, at 7:30 p.m.
“The whole point was not to do a parade, and not even just to do highlights of the parade, but … a highlight of Southie itself,” Bishop said. “So we had some of our former chief marshals, some historians to talk about Evacuation Day … We also had the [Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums], which is the bagpipe and drum group that always leads the parade.”
As much as he enjoyed working on the television special, Bishop emphasized that this is not a long-term plan and that the South Boston Parade will be back and even better in 2022.
“The parade for 2022 is going to be kind of a beta test of some huge changes that we’re looking to implement to bring the professionalism and also the types of exhibitions to a whole new level,” Bishop said. “[We’re] using a lot more marching bands from around the country and around the world, pipe bands, local organizations, Irish organizations, as well as community organizations.”
Bishop said one of the most significant changes to next year’s parade is that the planning committee wants to bring back floats.
“We’re really encouraging for 2022 to bring back floats that people get together as a community and build,” Bishop said. “We want it to be the most spectacular parade we’ve ever seen.”
Considering the rich local Irish history, it’s no surprise that many residents of Medford and Somerville look forward to traditional St. Patrick’s Day festivities, whether it be going to Irish pubs like The Pub or The Burren, or attending the South Boston Parade.
According to Kevin O’Kelly, the local history librarian at Somerville Public Library, approximately 18.1% of Somerville residents trace their ancestry back to Ireland. O’Kelly delved into the experience of Irish people who immigrated to Somerville in the late 19th century.
“There was a big influx [of Irish immigrants] in the 1870s. A lot of them came to help build the railroad line, and they were looking for places to live that were less crowded than Boston,” O’Kelly said. “In the 1870s, the Boston and Lowell Railroad bought the Arlington and Lexington Railroad and built lines connecting the two, and some of them went through Somerville.”
O’Kelly also touched on how the Irish community changed as time went on.
“They went from being isolated in specific neighborhoods to, by the end of World War I, they have moved into almost every single ward,” O’Kelly said.
According to O’Kelly, Irish immigration in previous centuries can help inform how people view immigration today.
“You hear people of, say, Irish ancestry complain about immigrants coming to this country who don’t speak English or seem foreign, and their ancestors were viewed in the same way when they immigrated,” O’Kelly said.
Regardless of whether they claim Irish heritage, local residents and students alike will be finding new and interesting ways to celebrate this second consecutive St. Patrick’s Day during the pandemic.
Tufts Dining will be celebrating with Irish themed meals all day on Wednesday, including a traditional corned beef and cabbage boiled dinner with potatoes, carrots and Irish soda bread at Carmichael Dining Center, as well as shamrock smoothies at Hotung Cafe, among other options.
Hopefully the third time’s the charm, and there will be some more luck with St. Patrick’s Day next year; but until then, the greater Boston community is certainly making the most of this year despite the circumstances.