Two years ago, every last detail was settled and the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade was ready to roll — until the coronavirus swept across the city and the nation, causing the parade, and so much else, to be abruptly canceled. “That was crushing,” said Dave Falvey, the leader of the veterans group that organizes the event.
On Sunday, at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the decline, the parade will return for the first time since 2019. Already, South Boston is celebrating — though, as has so often been the case with the parade, a whiff of controversy is in the air.
“It’s not just about St. Patrick’s Day,” said Maureen Dahill, a lifelong resident and the editor of the blog Caught in Southie. “People are also celebrating a return to a sense of normalcy.”
The party began on Thursday, St. Patrick’s Day (if not earlier). By 5 p.m., a line stretched down the block at Shenanigans, a West Broadway stalwart. Inside, the bar was packed wall-to-wall with revelers dressed in green — a handful wearing scally caps — and cheering for a step-dancing troupe.
“It’s been three years since we last did this,” said Courtney Linehan of the Woods School of Irish Dance. “It feels awesome.”
For Peggy Higgins, 75, the parade is a symbol of continuity in a changing neighborhood. Every year since 1977 she has hosted a parade day party at her home on 4th Street — except, of course, during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. “It was very disappointing,” she said.
The party, a staple of neighborhood activity on parade Sundays, used to attract a huge, local crowd. But as folks moved away, guests now travel into the city for the event.
“They come from far and wide,” Higgins said. “Weymouth, Plymouth, Swampscott.”
The result is a smaller guest list. “It’s back to just family now,” said Higgins, who is Dahill’s aunt. “I could get anywhere from 40 to 60 people,” she said.
The parade, like the neighborhood, has been in flux for decades. The highest profile change has been the inclusion of gay veterans among the marchers. (This is a double duty parade: The event originated as a commemoration of Evacuation Day, the day that American rebels drove the British from Boston, and still has strong ties to the military.)
The group OutVets first marched in 2015 after a bitter, two-decade fight that included a Supreme Court decision allowing the parade to exclude groups on free speech grounds. Mayors Thomas M. Menino and Martin J. Walsh boycotted the parade in support of the gay veterans.
In 2017 and 2018, new leaders took over, including Falvey and Bryan Bishop, the current director of parade operations who is gay and formerly led OutVets. A City Hall spokesperson said Mayor Michelle Wu plans to march. Bishop is Wu’s deputy commissioner for Veterans Affairs.
“After OutVets was banned,” said Falvey, the commander of the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, which runs the parade, “myself and others decided we needed to step up and change this organization.”
Still, it wouldn’t be a Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade without controversy. This year the point of contention is the route.
Typically, the parade rolls down West Broadway and East Broadway before doubling back to pass through Telegraph Hill and past the Dorchester Heights Monument that commemorates Evacuation Day. But this year, the route stops abruptly at the end of East Broadway — which has stirred controversy.
“The neighborhood is upset,” said Billy Kyriazis, the proprietor of Land of Pizza on West Broadway, who moved to South Boston in 1987 and left for Canton in 2014.
It’s not just that the parade is truncated, Kyriazis said. It’s the symbolism. About half the parade now runs along West Broadway, ground zero of the neighborhood’s gentrification, where new bars and luxury condo buildings have been springing up around Kyriazis’s pizza shop for more than a decade.
“Now it’s only about the bars and restaurants,” he said. “It’s not about the people.”
The backlash on social media was fierce, Falvey said. And at least one politician even entered the fray.
Nick Collins, a state senator from South Boston, come out against the route during a Wednesday call for elected officials, organizers, and public safety officials, according to a report in the Boston Herald. The shortened route cut off “the only part of the parade that, quite frankly, matters,” he said, referring to the Dorchester Heights Monument.
Falvey said the organizers arrived at the shortened route during the winter when there was still uncertainty about whether the event would go forward and after hearing the concerns of public safety officials worried about the implications of the ongoing pandemic.
“We went in this direction because we thought it gave the best chance to have the parade at all,” he said.
The parade has typically been defined by contrasts. “Families with kids pull up chairs” by the parade route, Higgins said. “It’s a fun day.”
But the event had also earned a reputation for debauchery and disorder. In the years before the pandemic, though, the event’s image seemed to be softening.
“I’m knocking on wood right now,” Dahill said, “but in the last 10 years, there hasn’t been too much trouble.”
On Friday, as festivities continued at neighborhood bars — the old stalwarts and newer upstarts alike served corned beef and cabbage all weekend — Higgins spent the afternoon cooking for her Sunday party.
She was nostalgic, in some ways, for the parades of the past, when it seemed like South Boston lifers wielded outsized influence not only in the neighborhood but across the state.
“Ray Flynn was mayor for so long,” she said. “It just hasn’t been our Southie group like the good, old days, with Joe Moakley and Billy Bulger and all of our local yokels.”
She wasn’t thrilled about the route, either, although she said she was happy to see the event return after its three-year hiatus.
“I’m pretty surprised the parade was shortened,” she said. “It should go around Dorchester Heights for the remembrance. But anyway, I’m glad that it’s back.”