Originally known as Ireland Parish in West Springfield, Holyoke saw some of the earliest Irish immigration to this country in the 1820s as Irish speakers from County Kerry came to build the dam and canal system and work in the paper manufacturing plants and textile mills. Irish pride still runs high nearly two centuries later, and the city holds one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parades in the country. As luck would have it, St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday this year, so the parade will take place on the actual feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. Holyoke doesn’t limit the celebration to a single day. About 8,000 runners are expected to take to the streets for the 38th annual St. Patrick’s Road Race on Saturday and some downtown streets are closed to automobiles for the weekend to encourage friends and family to gather and have a good time.
But the parade — this year is the 62d — is the big event. It kicks off at 11:30 a.m. Richard Dupuis, 2013 president of the parade committee, and Ray Feyre, media liaison, remember seeing the parade as kids and talk about what makes it special.
Q. What should viewers expect at Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade?
Ray Feyre: Where other parades might be bigger because they let everyone march, we keep ours to three hours for the convenience of television. [The parade is broadcast on WGBY 57 in Springfield, starting at noon.] We’re a balanced parade with music, floats, and marchers. We’re an invitation-only parade, but our bylaws weren’t written to exclude anyone, just to make sure that we have a quality parade.
Q. What are some of the highlights?
R.F. The parade in New York is the largest, but we’re known for our floats. We’ll have about 40 floats, more than 40 bands, and about 15,000 participants. It’s not just Holyoke. The towns of Springfield, West Springfield, Chicopee, Agawam, Easthampton, South Hadley, Northampton, and Westfield participate. They have floats, colleens, and marching units. Without them we would not be as big as we are.
Richard Dupuis: The Mummers come up from Philadelphia to march in our parade every year. This year we have three Mummer bands. The Shriners like to end the parade because they are a parade unto themselves.
Q. Any surprises?
R.F. Spanish dancing horses are in the parade almost every year.
Q. How many people attend?
R.D. About 400,000 people come to view this parade. We’re nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires between New York City, Hartford, Albany, and Boston. That’s one of the reasons our parade reaches so many people.
R.F. We like to refer to our parade as a homecoming. Generation after generation comes back to Holyoke for the parade because they had it when they were young. They like to be part of the road race and they make a weekend of it. They want their children to be part of that tradition.
R.D. This is a friendly town and a family-friendly parade. You’re part of Holyoke no matter where you’re from.
Q. We hear that people start putting out chairs on Thursday to claim their viewing spots.
R.F. They do — and nobody steals them. Everybody goes to the same spot every year. If you’re looking for your aunt or uncle or parents, they’re probably in the same spot.
Q. How far in advance should parade viewers arrive?
R.F. I would be here by 10 a.m. We’re working with Holyoke Community College for parking and we will shuttle people down to the parade.
Q. Can you recommend some good viewing spots?
R.F. We put barriers up in the street to give people extra room to stand. The parade route is 2.6 miles and there’s not a bad spot on the route. The Yankee Pedlar Inn is a prime spot because the parade makes a turn right there. Holyoke High School is also a great location.
R.D. The reviewing stand is in front of City Hall.
Q. Where can viewers get a bite to eat?
R.D. There are plenty of vendors along the route selling hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage, grinders, fried dough. There’s plenty of food. And the streets are lined with Irish pubs, especially along High and Maple streets.
Q. What has kept the parade going all these years? It’s a lot of work for an all-volunteer organization.
R.D. I’m a float builder. We eat, sleep, and breathe parades 52 weeks a year. You get enthralled in this thing. There are 250 of us, and when you get 250 Irishmen in the same room, you naturally get a lot of different viewpoints. But it all comes down to one thing: How to send down a better parade every year.