All Hail the Shillelagh!
My Irish family does funerals like most people do Taco Tuesdays.
Except without the discount. The world’s funeral directors have not yet embraced BOGO death Groupons to drive business.
We ensure they don’t have to.
But if they did, my family would be stocking up. In recent months, we’ve lost two dear aunts. In November my Aunt Adrian, an IHM nun, passed. In March, her sister and constant companion, Marie, jumped on the party bandwagon.
And while it’s no surprise that my extended family skews leftish on the strange-normal spectrum, when I flew up to Scranton for the latest funeral in March, I promise you this:
I did not pack my carry-on thinking I would be marching in Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
That was sprung on me during my Aunt Marie’s wake.
The conversation with my cousin Matt went something like this:
Matt: “I’m so sorry for your loss, Chris.”
Me: “I’m so sorry for your loss, Matt.”
Matt: “You’re walking with me in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday, right?”
Me: “Wait. What?”
Matt: “The parade is dedicated to Marie and Adrian. We need family members to represent them. Thanks for your participation.”
Matt rushed away to find his next victim.
So my upcoming days of deep mourning were shaping up thus:
Saturday: Family Parade
But my carry-on contained a pair of running shoes, two dark suits, two pairs of jeans, two casual shirts, a blue sweatshirt and my unmentionables.
No emerald. No olive. No mint. No chartreuse.
Nary a speck o’ green.
Marie and Adrian would be planning a good Irish haunting.
Scranton is a smallish city (population: 75,000) with a singular point of pride. No city’s Irish-Americans take their heritage more seriously. Scranton hosts one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the nation. While traveling just 12 city blocks, the parade, in which 12,000 people participate, is ten times longer. Lasting over three hours, it is attended by 150,000 people.
Leaving all Scranton’s bowling alleys completely empty.
According to the Official Line of March, the Parade’s Dedications (my family) were tucked right after the Parade Marshalls and the Parade President and right before the Parade Committee.
My family clearly held an esteemed position. We would be appearing before the floats of over 180 groups and local businesses. Among these were the Shriners, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Amazing Franko & Carl, the Victorian Highwheelers of Tamaqua and Shamokin, The Quiet Man Society, the Crossmolina School of Irish Dance, the Pipefitters and Plumbers Local 524, Pawsatively for the Animals, 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given (featuring a fake-bearded Jesus and more blood splatter than a CSI season finale), EJ the DJ (a former member of the Scranton School Board), the Crufeli Gypsy Freak Show, The Society for Creative Anachronism and Young’s Funny Farm.
Oh, and The Dutch Hollow Neighborhood Ass., but I completely missed the abbreviation period when first reading the parade program. (You can imagine my disappointment when I later discovered it wasn’t just one guy.)
Since the Parade President got the last convertible in Scranton, we would be walking behind him carrying my aunts’ dedication banner.
“We” being my very respectable cousins, their children, my nephew Drew (who wears printed Ts with slogans like “Dedicated to transforming par-TEES into a par-TAYS since 2006.”), my brother Brian (a somewhat high-strung Manhattan attorney whom I had guilted into participating) and me.
“What’s the dress code?” I pressed Matt.
“I’m thinking something green,” he responded.
“I was actually wondering if this is a coat and tie event?”
Matt remained stubbornly non-committal.
“I’m going down to the Sally,” announced Drew. “To get something green.”
The Salvation Army being Drew’s haberdashery for all his fine parade wear.
Desperate, I tagged along. We walked the entire second-hand warehouse, where I passed on some gorgeous lime green dress shirts, a polyester green leisure suit and several hundred Mutant Ninja Turtle shirts before scoring an actually handsome forest green Lands End barn jacket for $9.75.
After additional prodding the morning of the parade, Matt finally detailed his attire. “I’m wearing jeans,” he texted.
So there it was.
I threw on jeans, a collared shirt and my new Salvation-Army green barn jacket. I rummaged through my Aunt Adrian’s box of past parade wear (including dozens of enormous green bow ties and hats) before carefully selecting a green beret whose brim was emblazoned with IRELAND.
“What do you think?” I asked my mother.
“I think you look like an IRA pub bomber.”
Arriving at the parade, I discovered my cousins wearing jeans. Along with dress shoes and very nice sweaters.
Behind us in the staging area, dozens of Irish Scrantonians from the Parade Committee were all meticulously attired in khakis, blue blazers, white dress shirts and various green ties.
The parade dress code.
We were woefully underdressed.
My brother Brian was wearing blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt. Last minute, he had seized an oversized, poofy white felt hat plastered in shamrocks from Adrian’s box.
As a further condition of his participation, Brian demanded to carry Adrian’s shillelagh, which she had swung in Scranton’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for decades.
A family heirloom, the heavy Irish walking stick has a carving of St. Patrick casting the serpents out of Ireland. Family lore holds that it was carved by an Irish inmate in prison.
Because Irish prisons let all of their inmates use knives to carve large wooden clubs.
Then there was Drew.
Drew was adorned in a battered T-shirt featuring a Bob Marley Lion with dreads, American flag Chubbies shorts and an ill-fitting, Kelly green, women’s dress coat from the 80s. He was carrying a heavy circle of cork painted with the parade logo and my aunts’ names. Presented to us by the parade committee, it may or may not have been a commemorative dart board.
As the parade kicked off, Drew began dancing with it suggestively.
The crowd cheered.
My cousins laughed nervously.
Three blocks in, Drew and my brother, the somewhat uptight Manhattan attorney, began moon-walking past each other.
The crowd cheered some more.
Matt’s wife, Lori, leaned over. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen your brother have this much fun.”
I tried to shrink behind the commemorative banner.
One block before the parade’s completion, another contingent of 10 cousins finally located us and jumped behind the banner. I hid among them as we approached the judge’s reviewing stage.
Drew and Brian went crazy.
Jiving, jigging, moon-walking.
“All hail the shillelagh!” Brian shouted, waving the walking stick at the judges.
Drew rushed the local television cameraman like a rabid NFL fan, shaking, pointing and gyrating with the dartboard.
He returned to everyone breathless. “I got on TV!”
Finally, we crossed the finish line.
Officially ending the most surreal 30 minutes of my life.
Twenty minutes later, Brian, Drew and I were back at our childhood home. We found my mom sitting in her chair watching the live broadcast of the parade, still going strong.
“Did you see us?” Brian asked. “I was in front with Drew!”
“Did you see me dancing, Nana?” Drew laughed. “The crowd just loved it!”
Drew was shell-shocked. “You’re kidding me! I was right in front of the camera!”
“They must have panned away!” Brian cried.
My mom pointed at me. “I only saw Mr. IRA pub bomber here walking behind the commemorative banner with your cousins, who,” she added with emphasis, “were dressed very nicely.”
“Matt said he was wearing jeans!” I protested.
Brian was outraged. “Drew, your dancing ruined everything!” He looked around. “I even had the shillelagh!”
“What a stinking rip-off!” Drew cried.
My mom tsked disapprovingly. We all turned to the TV. A blood-splattered float was just arriving at the judges’ reviewing stand.
“Would you look at that,” my mother said. “That Jesus isn’t wearing any green.”
By Chris Barrett, Publisher