St Patrick's Day in Alabama has it all - and then some.
In Huntsville, home to NASA, You can have $5 Irish car bombs to accompany your early-doors 'eggs and kegs' breakfast, if that's your thing, or step out lightly 100 miles down the road in Birmingham at a $100-dollar-a-plate gala — to the thrilling accompaniment of an accomplished uilleann piper who has never been to Ireland.
I did both - minus the 7am car bomb that is, though, for journalistic reasons, I briefly braved the packed downtown tap room with its live music and wall-to-wall greenery.
Celebrating Irish America off the beaten track is not for the faint-hearted. Just because Irish Alabamians are far away from the Irish American heartlands on the patron saint's day doesn't mean they take their responsibilities any less seriously.
That's certainly true of the Irish Society of North Alabama which, in what was surely a clerical error, invited me on Saturday past to be Grand Marshal at the annual St Patrick's Day parade in Huntsville - burgeoning metropolis of 220,000 people and boasting more PhDs per capita than any other city in the USA.
MAKE WAY, WE'RE HAVING A PARADE! ☘️ All you need to know about The Ellen McAnelly Memorial St. Patrick’s Day Parade THIS Saturday, March 11th at 11:00 am is right here! https://t.co/CXwJwiMCVs— VisitHuntsvilleAL (@Go2HuntsvilleAL) March 9, 2023
At the heart of the Huntsville parade is the 20-member-strong division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The green jacketed, sash-bedecked Hibernians who led the parade represent the only AOH division in the state. And when they pause the parade to take the knee for a holy water blessing from the local padre on the chapel steps, you sense that behind all the joviality, St Patrick's Day is a pretty intense occasion for Irish Americans in these parts.
With a population of five million, Alabama can boast around 400,000 citizens who self-identify as Irish. A small proportion of the 31.5 million Irish Americans across 50 states and far off the one-in-four of some parts of Massachusetts, for sure, but a sizeable number all the same for a state in which Ku Klux Klan ire was directed not only at African-Americans but also at the Catholic Irish.
Of course, not everyone who celebrates Ireland and Irish culture can trace their roots to Ireland. That's particularly true of Huntsville where lynchpin of the annual parade is Sonnie Hereford IV. Sonnie's dad was a civil rights battler who took the city to court to smash a century-old bar on black children attending school with whites. As a consequence, the first African American child to enter the public school system in September 1963 was young Sonnie. A graduate of Notre Dame University, home of the Fighting Irish, Sonnie fell in love with Ireland and its people and on his return to Huntsville to work as a rocket scientist for NASA, he threw himself into organising the St Patrick's Day parade.
Sonnie organised the St Patrick's Day parade in Huntsville for a full 16 years (1996-2011) and remains an unabashed fan of all things Irish. He is also a scholar of the civil rights movement in Alabama who lived through years of tumult and change - change enough to see a school in Huntsville named after his father who memorably quipped, “They used to call me names now they name schools after me.”
I had the great honour of visiting the Sonnie Hereford Elementary School during my visit to Huntsville on Friday last and met teachers striving on the educational front lines to provide an education for children who come from often struggling families.
I also got to shake hands with the stalwarts keeping Irish culture booming in Rocket City. Dynamos like Andy Krupse of the Irish Drum Center who has over 30 bodhrán students on his books.
Andy attended the Craiceann summer school on Inis Oírr for ten years before graduating to the role of summer school teacher. Similarly Lisa (parade director) and Michael Bollinger (AOH division president), unrivalled ambassadors for Ireland, boast a pub in their basement, Maggie McGuinness', which makes the walls of Maddens bar in Belfast look positively under-decorated.
Maggie McGuinness’ pub, Huntsville, Alabama. Accomplished uilleann piper David Boling has never been to Ireland. This is the parade after-party in home of my hosts the Bollinger family. pic.twitter.com/VjqcgwBTzy— Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (@newbelfast) March 14, 2023
At the local Straight to Ale craft brewery (home of Monkeynaut beer named in honour of NASA's monkey astronauts, largely fried in space), I got to meet engineer John Samples, president of the parade committee. He's as Irish as the Shannon, can serenade you with 'Ó Ró Sé do Bheatha Abhaile' but he too has never been to Ireland. Ditto uilleann piper Dave Boling, a missile engineer (now you understand the preponderance of PhDs), who led the post-parade séisiún at Maggie's but has also never set foot on the Emerald Isle. This could, of course, be a trad music thing. Leading the charge in the Saturday night St Patrick's Day gala in Birmingham, Alabama, was uilleann piper Trent Bradford who says he'll make it over some day but for now prefers to spend his holiday time skiing.
I got to meet another intersection of the green and the black at Huntsville Revisited, where William Hampton brings the city face-to-face with the uncomfortable facts of its past. William, who proudly showed me his Ancestry DNA result with its four per cent Irish heritage confirmiation, is keeping faith with his fellow African Americans who have been through the fire. For while Huntsville moved quicker than some other parts of the South to shed its segregationist past, here too the apartheid-style Jim Crow laws kept blacks and whites separate and unequal. William showed me a brass 'Colored Waiting Room' sign which once hung in a local doctor's clinic. "Some folks say I shouldn't be highlighting these aspects of our past," he said, "But I lived that reality."
Sharing William's shop is Irish American artist Margaret (née Murphy) Dukeman who most certainly has been to Ireland - in fact she shared the plane home with me on Sunday and is now spending five weeks painting on the Beara peninsula. Her people left Ireland over a century ago but she still chokes up when talking about their legacy. "My ancestors suffered a lot to get me where I am today," she said. "I understand their sacrifice and value it. I take them with me in my heart when I enter places in which they would never have been allowed. I get goosebumps thinking of how my great-great-grandparents left Ireland as teenagers and had to make their way in a strange land. I pass their heritage and spirit onto my own children and remind them that while the Irish were chased to the four winds that only ensured that they are now represented around the world."
As if that wasn't enough to endear me to the Irish of Huntsville, they ordered up a 1931 green Willis as my official wheels for the St Patrick's Day parade. With Ed Hanish at the wheel ("I have 50 antique cars at home"), I got to do my best queen impression as we negotiated the tight corners of downtown Huntsville - thronged with shamrock-garlanded, cheering onlookers. Ed did suggest I sit atop the boot in a special seat designed for the Parade Queen but even a shameless self-promoter like this author drew the line there and opted instead for the passenger seat. Fortunately, my green-dyed hair drew the eye sufficiently. Soaking up the attention, I forgot that the rednecks of Alabama took their name from Scots-Irish immigrants whose necks broiled in the searing sun. As a result, I finished the parade lobster-red – quite the contrast with Holyoke, Massachusetts, my last St Patrick's Day parade in the US back in 2014 and officially the coldest day I have ever experienced.
On Saturday night, switching chauffeurs courtesy of Lisa Bollinger, I got to address the annual St Patrick's Day gala in Birmingham, Alabama, hosted by Irish American icon Marty Connors. In the salubrious surrounds of the Inverness Country Club, I met insurance agency owner Jim Murphree (who plausibly reports that his people were Murphys who fled oppression in Ireland and decided to change their name to Murphree when they arrived in the Land of the Free) and met Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield who was keen to find out more about the North Ireland Growth Fund. Birmingham is home to a diminished but still active Irish American community which will hang out its brightest colours this Saturday for the annual St Patrick's Day parade.
But of course, you can't visit the epicentre of the black civil rights struggle without breaking bread with the descendants of the slaves whose backbreaking labour built the great state of Alabama. And so on Sunday morning, I found myself sharing a pew with the congregation of the Movement Fellowship Church on the far side of the tracks in Birmingham where Pastor Kris Erskine always guarantees a warm welcome. I doubt if he has a more doubting Thomas than me cross his church doors in a month of Sundays, but Pastor Kris always gives me a chance to remind the congregation that we wouldn't have our civil rights in Belfast at all but for Birmingham.
Bruce Davidson #photography— stjohnsphoto (@stjohnsphoto) March 11, 2023
A civil rights demonstrator is arrested in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
‘I was up close and I was quick…..I had to be just to stay one step ahead of being arrested.’ pic.twitter.com/8m1Kpqlgn3
I sat beside a lady called Lavender who welcomed me back to what is the most loving place I have visited in America. A long way, indeed, from car bombs, liquid or otherwise, and a pretty uplifting way to end another Alabama odyssey.
Pics by the author, Lisa Bollinger and Jeff White Photography, Huntsville, Alabama. You can see a previous article about the civil rights struggle by the author from January 2022 here.