A quiz: Which North American city has the longest tradition of hosting a St. Patrick's Day parade? Nope, it's not Boston, not New York, not even Chicago. It's Montral ?"top">51; on March 17 the city will celebrate its 178th consecutive St. Paddy's Day parade! "This is just another example of how much that city likes to party," my husband notes. Montréal isn't particularly known for its bloc of Irish residents, he adds, "but it involves a saint, and I guess that's all it takes."
Montr"al does have an illustrious Irish heritage, though: The francophone province of Quebec is home to the largest Irish descendant population in North America outside of Boston and New York. The greatest numbers arrived in two waves of immigration. The first followed the War of 1812, when the colonial government of Great Britain brought in Irish laborers to build the Lachine Canal. This allowed ships to safely pass rapids in the St. Lawrence near Montréal and press closer to the border with the U.S. The city honored the early contributions of the Irish in its flag, adopted in 1833, which includes the Irish shamrock along with the fleur-de-lis of France, the red England rose and the thistle of Scotland.
The potato famines in the late 1840s brought a second influx of Irish immigrants to Montréal; their typhus-ridden ships were diverted from the United States and quarantined at stations north of the city. The "ship fever," as typhus was known, killed more than 20,000 Irish immigrants at sea or in quarantine in the summer of 1847 alone. The Irish community sought help from the Catholic diocese in finding homes for the droves of orphans who survived the ship fever, and the Quebec French responded with great generosity perhaps finding common ground with a people who had turned away from the British crown to find refuge in the New World.
As a result, there are plenty of francophones in Quebec with names such as Murphy and Shaughnessy, and they love a parade. As the sponsoring organization of the event, the United Irish Societies of Montréal, proclaims: "When we march in the St. Patrick's Parade, we pay homage not only to those immigrants who make the long, arduous journey to a new land, but also to those citizens who open their arms to their brethren in need."
But having a parade on March 17 this far north also requires complete disregard for the blustery end of winter. My first St. Paddy's parade in Montréal was an accident, by which I mean I happened upon it one very cold Sunday in March. Platoons of Mounties in full dress were there. Black Watch wannabe pipers, in their full regalia, red knees showing under the kilts. Local French politicians kissing babies. Everyone was jaunty, full of good cheer, throwing baubles to the crowd. Floats some sponsored by the half-dozen Irish pubs in town carried musicians and beauty queens. It was all there. Who cared that it was barely above 32 degrees Farenheit with intermittent freezing rain? This is Montréal party on!
The parade route is St. Catherine Street, from west to east, Fort Street to Place des Arts. The roll-out on March 17 is noon, and the parade is expected to last until 3 p.m. In the grand tradition of St. Paddy's parades around the globe, everyone regardless of race, creed or nationality gets to be Irish. And in Montréal, the separatist Parti Quebecois politicians march alongside the federalist Liberals, if only for a day.
Plenty of other events will round out the weekend. At Concordia's Oscar Peterson Concert Hall at 141 Sherbrooke St. West, a musical exchange between Dublin and Montréal will showcase electroacoustic and chamber music featuring the CRASH Ensemble and VOX 21, from Dublin.
St. Patrick's Basilica, which opened in 1847 to serve the suffering immigrant Irish, offers a mass of celebration, known as the Green Mass, for the 154th consecutive year on March 17 at 10 a.m. at 460 Rene-Levesque West.
Irish pubs, of course, will be in the spirit, er, spirits. All are within one block of the parade route, and within six blocks of each other. Check out O'Donnell's at 1224 Bishop, Murphy's at 1197 University or McLean's at 1210 Peel. Hurley's, at 1225 Crescent Street, is probably the best known. McKibben's, at 1426 Bishop, boasts the biggest party scene, including an outdoor stage on the closed-off street. Just follow the gigantic inflatable glass of Guinness.
As the Irish Societies Web site boasts, "Montréal's annual paradeÉ is symbolized by three pillars freedom, forgiveness and love and whether in sunshine or snow, local parishioners have turned out year after year since 1824 to celebrate that special Sunday in March, which has come to symbolize freedom and the enduring optimism of the human spirit."
By which they mean: Pray for sunshine!