Editor’s note: The 2007 parade was canceled due to inclement weather.
The first Wilmington St. Patrick’s Day parade, back in 1975, was little more than a couple of trucks, a few guys on horseback and a fella by the name of Pat Kelly on a green bike. The parade started at 12th and Market streets, up Delaware Avenue, and ended at Kelly’s Logan House.
“It was a catch-as-catch-can parade,” admits Eileen Claffey Sweeney, co-chair of the parade. “The following year we got a little more serious and we marched down King Street. We end at St. Patrick Catholic Church. It’s been there ever since.”
This St. Patrick’s Day will mark the 32th anniversary of the Wilmington parade—we’ll explain the imprecise math in a moment—sponsored by the Irish Culture Club of Delaware. With lots of bands, floats, and prancing herds of dancing children, the parade has come a long, long way from its humble origins. Anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 folks line the street.
Eileen has seen most of it; she’s been on the committee for 30 years. In fact, at least four other members have been around for at least that long, including co-chair Patrick J. Kelly (the green bike-riding guy in the first parade and St. Patrick in most of the parades since); Annamay Claffey, the parade’s mistress of ceremonies; Len Bafundo and Mark Wirt (both he and Len are parade coordinators, responsible for parade marshals); and Ann Marie Corrigan Rizzo (treasurer of the parade committee and assistant to the emcee).
Even though they’ve not been around for quite that long, everyone else on the parade committee is a long-timer. Dignitary chair Alice Seaberg has been on the committee for close to 28 years. (Alice’s husband Harry came on board recently.) Jim Harkin has been around for 20 years; Carol Duffy and Donna Kelly, for 10.
“Once you do it, you’re signed up for life,” say Eileen. “That’s the way it is for a lot of groups, but the Irish especially.”
The parade actually had got its start on the sands of Rehoboth, she says. “It was in the summer of ‘75,” she says. “There were four guys from Wilmington (Pat Kelly among them) who got together on the beach at Rehoboth every summer. One day, one of them asked, hey, why don’t we do something for St. Patrick’s Day? And one of them said, hey, let’s have a parade. So they went in to the city to apply for a permit. They learned that they needed an organization to get a permit, so the Irish Culture Club was born in March of ‘76.”
The weather in March is unpredictable. Last year, for example, it was unseasonably warm. Virtually no one who lives in the Delaware Valley will forget the weekend of March 12-13, 1993. That was the weekend of the so-called “storm of the century.”
“It was a doozy,” recalls Eileen. “Earlier in the week, the forecast was predicting snow. So we had a meeting on the Wednesday before the parade, and we decided to cancel. I was in charge of calling the radio stations.”
And a good thing they decided not to march. “It ended up we had two feet of snow,” Eileen says.
For at least one member of the committee, though, this will be the 32st parade. Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night could keep Patrick J. Kelly from his appointed rounds.
Or, put another way, as Eileen Sweeney explains: “Patrick Kelly is nuts.” Snow or not, Kelly decided to go downtown to 9th and King with his brother Joe in his van. “Patrick was in full St. Patrick regalia,” says Eileen. “He marched from 9th Street up to 11th and King. Our courthouse is right there. A Channel 6 reporter saw him coming down and she ran out and interviewed him.”
That wasn’t enough for Patrick, Eileen recalls. “He told the reporter, ‘If you wait another 10 minutes, there’s gonna be a leprechaun coming down the street.’ With that, Pat ran back to the van, changed into a leprechaun costume, then marched down.”
Other members were impressed—and a little put out. They told Kelly that they would have joined him, nuts or not, if they’d known. “We told him, ‘Pat, we will never forgive you.’ So Patrick has made our parade continuously.”
So if you ever wonder what kind of people would stick with something like a St. Patrick’s Day parade for three decades … well, now you know.
The parade kicks off at noon on Saturday, March 17. The parade starts at Fourth and King Streets, and continues on King to St. Patrick’s Church at 15th Street. An ecumenical service for world peace will follow at St. Patrick’s Church.