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Marylanders who keep our state's Irish heritage alive

St. Patrick's Day in Baltimore is brought to you by the proud inheritors of the city's Irish heritage

Maybe we should call ourselves O’Baltimore for the day.

It happens every year, right around March 17. People start wearing green, peppering their storytelling with tales of leprechauns and uttering phrases in a language they otherwise don’t understand (“Erin go bragh” is especially popular).

Baltimore may not be as Irish as, say, Boston or Chicago (happily, we don’t pour green dye into the Inner Harbor), but St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated no-less-furiously. And that’s in large part because a handful of nth-generation Irish have taken it upon themselves to preserve and promote Charm City’s Irish heritage.

“Maryland in and of itself has always had a huge Irish community,” says Rich Hoffmann, manager of Ryan’s Daughter Irish Pub in Belvedere Square and himself a second-generation Irish-American, on his mother’s side. “The whole D.C.-Boston metro (corridor) has been a landing spot, going back to the 17th century. This is where the jobs were, so this is where the immigrants came.”

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner (and the celebration beginning in earnest this weekend), here are some of Baltimore’s self-appointed keepers of its Irish heritage.

Lauren Merrill, St. Patrick's Day Parade organizer

For 60 years, Baltimore's Irish have been parading strong and proud every St. Patrick's Day. Other parades have come and gone — oh, how some of us miss the Thanksgiving and Preakness gatherings — but Charm City's annual salute to all things Ireland is still going strong.

Why? That's simple, says Lauren Merrill, who has spent the last four years on the parade's planning committee and has, in her own words, been a "lifelong attendee."

The secret? "Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day," she says, as though it should be obvious.

Well, yes. But it's really not that simple. The real reason the parade perseveres is that it's put on by a dedicated group of supporters, for whom planning and preparing is a 365-days-a-year proposition.

"Many of the members on the committee have been working on this for decades," says Merrill, 32, who grew up and lives in the Cockeysville area. "After the parade in March, we meet in April for a debrief."

This year's parade kicks off at 2 p.m. Sunday at Charles and Monument streets, then winds its way south and east before ending on Market Street, at Power Plant Live. Merrill expects some 90 marching units to participate, and she sees no reason the crowd along the route shouldn't exceed last year's estimate of 80,000 to 90,000.

"It's preserving the rich Irish tradition in history," Merrill says. "The Irish community has always been a part of Baltimore, since it's been a functional city. It's important to honor that."

It also doesn't hurt that the parade is run in conjunction with the annual Shamrock 5K, a race that in many ways signals the start of the area's warm-weather running season. And it never hurts for runners; as usual, the 5,000 available spots in the race were filled well in advance.

"We definitely have all ages watching the parade," Merrill says. "We have the runners who are doing the 5K, we have people who are stopping by, they may be hanging out at Mick O'Shea's, and they're coming out on the street to watch the parade go by."

And like any good parade organizer, Merrill says, she can't wait to get the marching started. "My fingernails are already painted green. I'm all ready."

Casey O'Connor, Founder, O'Connor School of Irish Dance

As a young girl, Casey O'Connor had no idea what Irish dancing was, had never even heard of it. But then her mother found a flier about an Irish dance class, and young Casey was on her way to a career.

"I went, and it was kind of history from there," says O'Connor, 28, who opened O'Connor School of Irish Dance in Towson three years ago. "I've been Irish dancing since I was 9."

So, what is Irish dance? Think "Riverdance," O'Connor suggests – lots of foot stomping and intricate timing, with arms steadfastly held at the dancers' sides. (The motionless arms are said to be a vestige of harsh British rule, when dancing was banned and, to try and keep from being noticed, the Irish kept their arms at their sides. O'Connor won't swear the story's true, but it certainly sounds good.)

O'Connor, a Dulaney High School grad who attended the State University of New York at Fredonia, says the idea of starting a school came after she finished college. Although she hadn't done much dancing at school, she decided to start again.

"When I started taking classes again, I was 26 and everybody else was, like, 11," she recalls with a laugh. "I figured if I'm doing dance once a week, I should be teaching it."

O'Connor says she tries to keep things as old school as possible. "I definitely like the traditional stuff," she says. "Irish dancing has changed a lot, even since I stopped competing. A lot of the kids who compete don't even have the Celtic designs on their costumes anymore. Which kind of frustrates me."

This, of course, is her busy season. Her students will be dancing in both the Baltimore and Dundalk St. Patrick's Day parades, O'Connor says.

And happily, she notes, while it's called "Irish dance," the style is steadfastly inclusive.

"We have pretty diverse students," she says. "A lot of them are interested because of their Irish heritage, but we have kids who are Asian, we have Jewish kids, we have kids who aren't even sure what they are."

Luke McCusker, managing director, Irish Railroad Workers Museum

In the middle of the 19th century, thousands of Irish streamed into Baltimore and other U.S. cities, fleeing famine in their home country and desperate to begin anew.

Thousands settled here in Baltimore, and many went to work as laborers on the B&O Railroad. In 2002, in a restored 1848 rowhouse just across from the B&O Railroad Museum, a museum dedicated to that Irish legacy opened.

"The B&O needed a ton of unskilled labor, and that was right up the alley of the Irish from the west of Ireland," says Luke McCusker, the museum's managing director. "These poor folks, they came and simply rented these homes and built a new life here in America."

Located at 918 and 920 Lemmon St., the museum is set up in one of those homes — a small six-room townhouse, 101/2-feet wide by 24 feet deep, with two stories and an attic (which frequently would be rented out to borders). In the 1990s, city officials had been prepared to level the whole block, which had become dilapidated almost beyond repair. But preservationists argued that there was a heritage here that deserved to be remembered.

"The houses have been restored in the style of how an immigrant family would have lived in the 1860s and 1870s," says McCusker. The house at 918, he notes, was the home of James and Sarah Feeley, who lived there for 20 years before the turn of the century and raised six children. Furnishings in the house reflect their simple lifestyle.

The area around Lemmon Street was one of three where Irish immigrant families settled, McCusker says. Another was the neighborhood around St. Patrick's Church in Fells Point, where many men found work shipbuilding. And the third was what was known as the 10th Ward, near Green Mount Cemetery and centering on St. John the Evangelist Church.

Many visitors from the old neighborhoods, or their descendants, come by, McCusker says.

"The wonderful thing about the museum is that so many people have an immigrant background from those days, says McCusker, who lives in Glen Burnie but grew up in the 10th Ward as a fourth-and fifth-generation Irish-American. "It's like a touchstone for many people, who come and know that their family had this immigrant experience.

"They spend time in the house," he says, "and learn what family life was like for them."

Rich Hoffmann, manager, Ryan's Daughter Irish Pub

OK, maybe the Tilghman Island oysters aren't the most Irish things on Ryan's Daughter's St. Patrick's Day menu. But cut them some slack; the oysters are a Baltimore staple, they'll doubtless be plenty popular (not to mention tasty) and they're surrounded by classic Irish fare of the most mouth-watering variety.

The St. Paddy's Day menu that will be offered beginning Sunday, Ryan's Daughter manager Rich Hoffman notes, will be pared down to about "a dozen or 14 Irish standards." Those include fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage, shepherd's pies and certainly bangers and mash.

"This is the peak of our season," says Hoffmann, 39, who has managed the restaurant for almost three years, and "was a regular several years before that."

While he plans to be celebrating St. Patrick's Day as hard as the next person, Hoffmann admits that some of the stereotypes that come into play this time of year aren't exactly flattering, or beneficial, or accurate.

"The Irish stereotype – you know, the 'Drink until you're Irish' stereotype — is not the Irish," he says. "We love to have fun, but we're so much more than that. Our tradition in the arts, poetry, music, literature is so strong, and unfortunately the memory of that falls by the wayside sometimes, and people have to be reminded."

That said, he also admits to taking special pride in his Irish heritage every year around March 17. "The fact is, it's fun that everyone can say they're a little bit Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

And about those oysters? "Well, seafood is very much a staple of Irish cuisine," Hoffmann says, adding that the Irish have always been practical. "There's a grand tradition of using what you've got."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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