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Get your Irish on: 
Previewing The St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Mar 08, 2019 11:53AM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

For one year’s parade with the theme “Green Energy,” the Clark Family envisioned a car powered by three types of power: shamrock power, love, and Guinness beer. (Sean Clark/Clark Family Floats, Utah Hibernian Society)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected] 

For many of us across the valley, St. Patrick’s Day is our chance to get our Irish on.

Or, at least some green.

City Journals wanted to take a deeper dive. What are the possibilities for St. Patrick’s Day in Salt Lake Valley, arguably not a major Irish town along the lines of Boston or Chicago? What does it mean to be Irish in Salt Lake on St. Patrick’s Day?

Consider this our guide to living it up with one of the best holiday celebrations in the state to figuring out how to celebrate around home, and even explore spirituality with an iconic St. Patrick’s Day symbol.

I say ‘Irish,’ you say ‘Hibernian?’

For the past 41 years, St. Patrick’s Day in the valley has been pretty much synonymous with Salt Lake City’s storied St. Patrick’s Day parade. 

This sense of history definitely imbues this year’s parade: The Utah Hibernian Society, hosts of the parade, have chosen a rich aspect of Utah history for its theme, the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike.

By way of definition, “Hibernian” means an Irish native or anything having to do with Ireland or the Irish.

And the Golden Spike? That is also known as “The Last Spike” or the spike that joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States connecting the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869. Irish immigrants made a significant contribution to building the railroad, hence this year’s sub-theme – “Joining of the Rails; 1,776 Miles to Home.”

Parade and Siamsa: family traditions, philanthropy as well as fun

The Salt Lake City St. Patrick’s Day Parade and its after-parade Siamsa (pronounced “Shinsa” meaning celebration) at the Gateway is close to home for this year’s Hibernian President and Parade Chair Meghan Welsh-Gibson.

Welsh-Gibson is a second-generation president of the Utah Hibernian Society, following in her father’s footsteps. Last year she introduced a new route for the parade and also instilled a new tradition, where proceeds of the parade go to benefit a charitable organization. 

Last year, longtime parade supporters the Shriners Children’s Hospital were the beneficiaries. This year, the Fisher House Foundation at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, “much like the Ronald McDonald House, but for veterans and military families,” is the recipient. 

While the parade was early in collecting applications at press time, Welsh-Gibson did indicate that Irish reporter Brónagh Tumulty from Channel 2 will be carrying the Irish flag along the parade route, and dedicated parade fans can expect enduring favorite entries and new participants embodying the sesquicentennial Golden Spike theme.

The parade starts at 10 a.m. at 500 South and 200 East. The Siamsa after-party takes place at the Gallivan Center.

The festival features Irish dancers, musicians, food, drink, and “lots of vendors selling Irish things,” said Welsh-Gibson. “Such a fun, fun afternoon.”

The parade route and float-prep site: one family’s second home

Some people elect to “summer” in a location other than their primary home. 

Salt Lake City’s Clark family doesn’t summer. They “spring.” And their destination location is not a fancy vacation resort, but rather, a junkyard.

It is very much a working spring. Prepping the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade float almost becomes a time-share, during the months leading up to the event. For the past 40 years, the Clark family and friends dedicate anywhere from 60-200 hours, spanning several months, preparing for the parade. Float-making has become second nature, and takes place at their second home — a friend’s junkyard. There they build each year’s float, and then take part in the St. Patrick’s Day practice event, and then finally gear up for actual show time – parade day along the route.

Sean Clark, an Avenues resident living in the house he grew up in, is Vice President of Special Projects at Vista Staffing during his day job. And for his role on the parade committee for the Hibernian Society? He has a 134-slide chronicle of his family’s engagement in the parade over the past 40 years. His grandfather was grand marshal of the parade in 1984. Sean was carried along the parade route as a 2 year old.

To Sean Clark and family, the parade is a way of life, a tradition and happens to be his favorite topic to talk about. Clark even has a FaceBook page, “Clark’s St. Patty’s Float.”

Through rain, snow and even Darth Vader: epic floats of the Clark clan

Over the years, Clark has been part of epic floats.

There were the 1984 and 2017 floats, which made their way down the parade route in tumultuous rain and snow, respectively.

Then there have been first-place entries, floats featuring Gaelic superheroes (Fionn mac Cumhaill, pronounced Finn McCool), religious saints (St. Patrick driving snakes from Ireland), and Irish green-energy cars (powered by kegs of Guinness).

There was even the one year Clark was not able to physically be in Salt Lake City for the parade. That did not stop him. In 2016, he and a friend used Apple iPhones and Facetime technology so that he was able to live-stream his singing of the Irish national anthem (in Gaelic) along the parade route, watching the reactions of delighted spectators as he cooed the lyrics into a mic from sunny San Diego.

The blizzard float of 2018 epitomized the parade theme, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Clark built a faux wooden piano, powered by an electric keyboard. “My 8-year-old played his first piano recital, in a moving vehicle, in a blizzard, in front of a few thousand people,” he recalled.

Episode 3:17: the good side of the dark side

All Clark’s creations are epic. However, 2017 forces its way to the top. It was then Clark realized a lifelong dream: uniting St. Patrick’s Day with “Star Wars.”

The Clark family won the best family float for the float depicting “Episode 3:17, The Irish Immigrate to a Galaxy, Far, Far Away.” Clark himself portrayed Han Solo, to his friend’s Darth Vader, who had been cracking down on illegal immigration. Han Solo convinced Vader that Irish were good, worthy people and converted Vader to the dark side – the dark beer side, that is.

As the parade advanced along the parade route, Darth Vader emerged from behind a curtain, “The Zion Curtain,” and the group presented their skit, right in front of the judge’s stand, securing the best family float honors.

‘Our Holiest Day’

Irishwoman Connie Smith lives in Sugar House with a Scottish spouse and three dogs. To her and her household, St. Patrick’s Day is “our holiest day.” Smith’s day job is being an associate broker and realtor at Constance Smith Realtor, but she is also a chaplain.

Smith explained the spiritual side of St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. One of the main emblems of the day, the shamrock, is an elegant symbol of the Christian Trinity. The three-leafed shamrock, then, represents, to Irish, God the Father, Jesus Christ the son, and the Holy Ghost.

Being Irish in Utah, according to Smith, means to “usually be Catholic” and to be part of “a tight community.”

It also, perhaps stereotypically, means being lucky, very lucky.

“To be Irish in Utah is to be very lucky! Irish can laugh and cry at the same time. We wear hearts on our sleeve. All of us, whether fourth-generation or second-generation like me, we long for our Irish roots.”

“All of us consider ourselves Irish American, not American Irish, and we all have a very deep tie to the Old Country,” she explained.

The parade and beyond

For Smith, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is all about family and friends. For Smith and husband Alan Cunningham they attend the parade, go to the after-party and then go for a pint. “We always go to one of the bars – Sugar House’s Fiddler’s Elbow, Central City’s Piper’s Down, or downtown’s Green Pig.”

“I always go to the parade,” said Smith, who is a proud product of the Catholic school system. Smith, who grew up in Holladay, attended St. Ann’s for K-8th, and then Judge Memorial for high school. “I run into all my friends from high school, even from grade school in the parade. If we don’t see each other any other time, we will see each other at the parade.”

Like the “master float-building” Clark family, Smith views St. Patrick’s Day as a family day. “We always toast my father and my grandmother, who are no longer with us.”

How to celebrate at home: DIY St. Patrick’s Day from Utah pros

Love the parade but are not able to make it to downtown? Or to one of the other venues?
The Hibernians interviewed here have some DIY tips. 

For most (except Irish Protestants or “Orange Men” who wear orange), celebrating St. Patrick’s Day starts with the color green.

The look

Utah’s family-owned Zurchers, with six stores in the Salt Lake Valley and online shopping, offer relatively inexpensive and zany St. Patrick’s Day attire and decorations. 

Millcreek’s venerable Costume Closet takes elegance up a notch and also has zany aplenty. 

The nine Deseret Industries thrift stores across the valley already organize clothing items by color, making St. Patrick’s Day scouting a snap.

Nail salons all across the valley do custom-nail creations, or bottled polish and face paint from a grocery store can even one-up the pro stylists for the creative DIY’er.

The goodies

Food is always a big element for any St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Smith always makes traditional Irish dishes, including Irish soda bread, paired with corned beef and cabbage.

Locally, downtown’s longstanding Mrs. Backer’s Pastry Shop prides itself in its Irish soda bread, which it offers only during the “green” season.

On the infinitely less authentic, but easy side? Salt Lake’s Banbury Cross offers green donuts, and even McDonald’s offers shamrock shakes.

Irish eyes are watching

Film is also a celebratory that helps commemorate the day.

“There are 1,001 amazing Irish movies,” exclaimed Hibernian President Welsh-Gibson.

And all the ones recommended are available through the Salt Lake City Library and Salt Lake County Library systems, for checkout. Reserve your St. Patty CDs early. Some of the recommends include:

“The Quiet Man,” a 1952 film with John Wayne as an Irishman returning to his native country.

“In the Name of the Father” is a drama-thriller with political overtones starring Daniel-Day Lewis.

Welsh-Gibson recommends “Michael Collins,” another politically-themed film with Liam Neeson in the title role.  

For chaplain-realtor Smith, watching the film “Waking Ned Devine” on St. Patrick’s Day is akin to the tradition many have of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas. “We watch it every St. Patrick’s Day,” she said of the 1998 Indie film which looks at twisted luck.

But, if you can, get out and enjoy the parade — in person or virtually.

Parade-professional Clark encourages those not able to go to the parade to try to “be there” virtually by having a family member or friend broadcast it live to them via “Facetime,” the way he joined the parade from San Diego.

However, he is convinced once you feel the contagious energy of the parade’s “wild atmosphere,” you are going to insist on heading downtown. “You are going to look at that, and say, ‘Oh my gosh! Why aren’t I down there?’”

Clark says Irish music is “a great way to feel connected to Irish culture.”

His favorite way to celebrate? “Smile at people, say hello, and wish them a happy St. Patrick’s Day,” he said. “Irish people like to live up to the stereotype of being a friendly, family people. It’s the biggest day for bars, but… it is so fun for families!”

Join the parade – Either by spectating or by participating!