By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
For the past four decades, thousands of people have crammed onto King Street’s sidewalks to watch the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade on the first Saturday in March. Billed as the earliest St. Paddy’s parade in the country, the annual event has long been an attraction for people throughout the DMV, a day of celebration for Irish and non-Irish alike that draws thousands of onlookers – and prospective customers – to Old Town.
Although many had hoped the parade would make a return this year after two years off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ballyshaners, the Irish heritage organization that puts on the parade, announced last month it would be delaying the parade to sometime in September.
No one is more disappointed than the Ballyshaners, as the parade has been its biggest event each year since 1982.
“It was definitely disappointing that it was cancelled, but Omicron was spiking and there was no way to know what the situation was going to be,” Catherine Moran, the Ballyshaners’ current treasurer, said. “It needed a certain lead time that the present circumstances just didn’t allow us.”
With the parade delayed six months and the organization’s chair and vice chair stepping down in recent months, the Ballyshaners are looking to the future as they chart the next steps in what has been a successful and surprising 40 years.
Although the Ballyshaners are based in Old Town and aim to honor the history of the Irish in Alexandria, they are rooted in Irish soil. Pat and Bernadette Troy, the organization’s founders, were born in Ireland – Pat in County Offaly and Bernadette in County Kerry.
While Pat was working as a butler in Ireland, he connected with an American tourist who offered to sponsor him, allowing him to live and work in the United States. In 1962, Pat moved across the Atlantic, where he continued working as a butler for families in Detroit and eventually in D.C.
Pat and Bernadette, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1959, met in the D.C. area, where Bernadette was working for Riggs Bank. The two settled in Alexandria and lived there for 40 years, raising their two children, Patrick and Kathleen, and growing two local businesses, the souvenir and Irish goods store Irish Walk and Ireland’s Own pub.
In 1981, they also kickstarted the Ballyshaners, a word coined in the early days of the organization that means “Old Towners” in Gaelic. From the very beginning, the mission of both the Ballyshaners and the parade was to celebrate the history and legacy of the city’s Irish residents, past and present.
“We [are] primarily an organization to put the parade on, but we also did events to try to make sure people were aware of the Irish heritage of Old Town and to be a meeting place for those of Irish heritage and disseminate the history and culture of Ireland in Alexandria,” Mike Pablo, who served as vice president and then chair of the Ballyshaners between 2011 and 2017, said.
“We are one cultural aspect of Old Town, but the history of the Irish in Old Town goes back a long way,” Pablo added. “One of the founding individuals of [Alexandria] was Colonel John Fitzgerald, who was aide to General [George] Washington.”
A year later, in 1982, the Ballyshaners organized the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade, which was much more modest than its modern incarnations. According to Kim Moore, who served as chair between 2017 and 2021, the first parade spanned about three blocks of King Street. Over time, the event has stretched further and further along King Street and has grown to encompass about 10,000 individual participants and 100 vehicles, according to Pablo.
For local businesses and the city, the parade is also a major economic driver.
“From my understanding, it’s one of the biggest sales tax revenue days in the city of Alexandria now,” Moran said.
Recently, the parade has included members of the military, local Boy and Girl Scout troops, marching bands, Irish dance groups, nonprofits and other cultural groups, including a significant increase in Bolivian dance groups. According to Moore, the parade has become more inclusive over the last 10 years in an attempt to celebrate the entirety of Alexandria.
“When I first started in the Ballyshaners, it was a pretty isolated group,” Moore said. “Over the last 10 years or so we have really wanted to highlight members of the community and we’ve made efforts to be more community focused.”
“Everybody’s Irish on the parade day,” Pablo said.
Beyond the parade, there is now also a dog show put on in collaboration with the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and a car show that awards winners who would drive dignitaries – including the Irish ambassador, parade grand marshal and local politicians – along the parade route.
However, the St. Patrick’s Day parade is not the Ballyshaners’ only annual event. The organization also holds the Irish Festival in late summer and a series of fundraisers at well known local pubs, like Murphy’s and Daniel O’Connell’s. For the Ballyshaners’ members and volunteers, the organization has long provided an opportunity to socialize and bond with fellow Irish Alexandrians.
“We’re also basically a social club as well. We’d meet monthly just to gather together and celebrate our heritage,” Pablo said. “Obviously, the pub life is a big part of Irish heritage, and we are fortunate to have many great Irish pubs in Old Town.”
The pub, specifically Pat Troy’s pub which closed in 1999, was often the gateway for new Ballyshaners. Pablo, Moore and Moran were all regulars at Ireland’s Own and recalled hearing word of Ballyshaners’ meetings in the back of the pub, meetings they eventually joined.
For Pablo, his time with the Ballyshaners has also helped educate him about the history of the Irish in Alexandria and grounded his Irish identity in a new way.
“It made me aware of my family background and it brought an aspect that I was aware of more to the forefront of my life,” Pablo said. “It made me more knowledgeable and made me more curious about my own background.”
With the recent death of Bernadette Troy on Feb. 21, 2022, following Pat Troy’s passing on March 22, 2018, the Ballyshaners have been reflecting on the legacy of their founders and pondering the organization’s future.
Although Bernadette was involved in some Ballyshaners’ work, she took more of a behind-the-scenes role while her husband served as the face of the organization. Friends described Bernadette as smart, business savvy and devoted to her family, faith and home country.
“Bernie was always the silent leader – not of the Ballyshaners but of Pat,” Moore said. “She was an extremely intelligent person. She would have the ability to tell Pat when he needed to calm down a little bit.”
Pat and Bernadette Troy were described as active, vocal community members who helped energize Alexandria through their businesses and abundant pride in their identities as both Irish and American. Bernadette took annual trips back to Ireland.
“They were happy of their split loyalties, and I think having someone as outspoken and as vibrant as the two of them, I think that’s going to be the biggest loss going forward: not having them around to be such outspoken, vocal, prominent proponents of Irish heritage in Alexandria,” Pablo said.
In recent years, Moran said the Ballyshaners have experienced a drop in new members joining the organization, due in part to the pandemic but also the changing nature of Alexandria. Whether delaying the parade will have an impact on recruitment is still up in the air, but the Ballyshaners remain hopeful about the future of the parade and their organization.
For Moore, who remains active in the Ballyshaners, the parade is about more than just a single holiday: It’s about celebrating the city as a whole. During the pandemic, that’s more important than ever.
“We’re not just an Irish parade – we’re an Alexandria parade,” Moore said.