Holyoke's Irish Heart
Holyoke's Irish Heart Gallery: Click here
At its heart, Holyoke, Massachusetts, is still Ireland Parish, which is what it was known as back in the 1800s when immigrants, mainly from the Irish-speaking area of Dingle, Co. Kerry, settled there and found employment working on the dam and canal system, in the paper manufacturing plants and textile mills.
It was a tough existence but they survived, and today in this area of Massachusetts on the banks of the Connecticut River, their descendants are more likely to be judges, politicians, teachers and doctors than blue-collar workers. But the struggle of those early immigrants is not forgotten, and the pride that Holyokers hold in their Irish roots is evident, especially on St. Patrick’s Day.
Depending on the weather, and who is doing the talking, the parade status varies between being number one or two worldwide. According to some, the city of 40,000 people draws upwards of 350,000 spectators from Boston, the neighboring townlands of Springfield and Chicopee, and as far away as Chicago.
This year’s parade took place on Sunday, March 22. The weather was crisp and sunny and a sense of fun prevailed. Families held parties on sloping front yards and cheers rang out from porches and sidewalks to the marchers along the 2.6-mile route. The feeling is a little more Mardi Gras than Hibernian with some 40 marching bands and as many floats taking part. This year, for instance, the Grand Colleen float featured giant ice cream cones and a chocolate box, and the Hawthorne Caballeros led off the parade with pulsing music and Latin-inspired costumes – a nod, perhaps, to the large Puerto Rican population that now call Holyoke home.
The parade is nothing if not inclusive. The Philadelphia Mummers with their brilliant costumes and accordion and banjo music liven up the crowd, while the Second Marine Aircraft Wing Band strike a reflective note as they call to mind the tradition of Irish-Americans in the Armed Forces, and today’s young men and women who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Canadians, Poles, and Puerto Ricans all immigrated to Holyoke in large numbers, but none so large as the original Irish settlers who are still prominent in the running of the city and the parade. The celebrations run over several days and keep the 250-strong Parade Committee busy all year planning events such as the Colleen Pageant, 10k Road Race, Bishop’s Mass, J.F.K. Award Dinner (John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie were guests of honor at the 1958 inaugural dinner), and the Mayor’s Breakfast, at which yours truly was presented with this year’s Ambassador Award.
I first heard of Holyoke from the late, great Eoin McKiernan, who penned The Last Word column for Irish America for many years. Eoin was the first Ambassador Award recipient in 1992 and became an ardent fan of Holyoke, promoting the parade whenever he could. But it was at the urging of Ciaran O’Reilly and Charlotte Moore, founders of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre who served as last year’s Ambassadors, that I finally made the trip. I’m glad I did.