Emerald-clad spectators clogged the sidewalks and streets of South Boston Sunday, excited to see a return to the city’s traditional 3-mile-long St. Patrick’s Day parade, a year after the event was hampered by historic snowfall.
“The Irish are such a big part of the Boston tradition,” said Eric Peterson, 36, who took cellphone photos before the parade began at 1 p.m. outside the Broadway MBTA station. “I just love being here.”
Boston firefighters and police officers hoisting flags launched the annual march. Next came bagpipers, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, and military personnel. “USA! USA!” chanted a crowd that ran the generational gamut of elderly Bostonians, college students, and young children with their parents.
Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans had pushed for an abbreviated route — first implemented last year because of snow-choked streets — saying it would enhance public safety and lower police overtime costs. But the parade organizers, the Allied War Veterans Council of South Boston, said a change would violate their First Amendment rights — and a US District Court judge agreed.
Police said they issued 294 citations for public drinking and arrested five people for charges that included disorderly conduct and assault and battery.
“By and large, today’s parade was largely peaceful,” said Officer James Kenneally, Boston police spokesman. “Those attending were well-behaved, courteous, and orderly.”
Last year, when the route was about 2 miles, police made 10 arrests and issued 278 citations, primarily for public drinking violations.
Lena Kuenne, an 18-year-old au pair from Germany, was not deterred by the event’s most recent controversy. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, scanning the crowd that was growing into the hundreds.
Dozens of police officers began to gather at 11:30 a.m. near the corner of C and Broadway streets before dispersing along the parade route. They shut down traffic soon after, about the same time that several South Boston bars opened their doors. Groups of young people on bar crawls wore matching T-shirts, including ones that read “Keep Calm and Drink On.”
MBTA staff directed cheerful parade-goers off trains at Andrew Station to walk up Dorchester Street. One MBTA Transit Police officer led a blind and hearing-impaired man with a walking stick by the arm.
The man, who gave his name as Gordon, said he had been coming to the parade for many years and wanted to hear the sirens of the firetrucks as they passed by.
Battles over the 115-year-old St. Patrick’s Day parade are almost par for the course. For years, the War Veterans Council would not allow openly gay groups to march, citing a 1995 US Supreme Court ruling that parade organizers are constitutionally entitled to determine who participates.
But as mayors boycotted the parade and tried to negotiate a truce, that stance recently softened. For a second consecutive year, Sunday’s parade included groups representing the gay community. Boston Pride and OUTVETS, which honors lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans, participated.
Veterans for Peace, however, did not. Parade organizers once again rejected the pacifist group’s application, saying the parade is a celebration of the military and they are a protest group. Veterans for Peace in the past organized its own small parade trailing behind the official march. This year, it held a silent vigil along the route at the former home of one of its members who died in July, Navy Lieutenant Tony F. Flaherty.
A dozen pacifists held signs, including one that read “What would St. Patrick Do?” Some parade walkers gave the protesters a thumbs-up, but military personnel, some riding through the parade in armored, camouflage-colored trucks, did not appear to acknowledge the group.
But, Eric Wasileski, 43, who joined Veterans for Peace after tours of duty in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, was proud of the silent protest. “We promoted our message without antagonizing,” he said.
Despite the ongoing controversy, the parade is still a tradition for many friends and families.
From the second-floor balcony of a Dorchester Street house, a spectator in a green-trimmed Mickey Mouse costume waved as bagpipe music played. Three Boston police officers marching in the procession paused to take a selfie from the street with the beaming mouse in the background.
Jeslyn Galindo, 28, staked out her parade-watching spot at 9 a.m., near the South Boston police station. Galindo, from Reading, said she chose the spot because it gave her a greater chance of avoiding spectators who had had too much to drink.
“We come every year, and my kids just love it,” she said. Her 8-year-old and 6-year-old daughters played nearby, both in green hats and sunglasses. Nevaeh Galindo, the older girl, said her favorite part is the marching bands.
“She loves the whole experience,” her mother added. “Even the train ride in.”
On other sections of the route, less family friendly scenes unfolded.
The corner of Broadway and Dorchester streets saw some of the wildest scenes, as raucous, flask-wielding young people crowded so close together that it was difficult to walk.
Donnie Wozniak, 50, set up a “Sober Safe Zone” on the doorstep of his home on East Broadway Street. Wozniak said he wanted young people to know they could take a break there from the parade’s chaos.
“If it gives one person a second thought about what they’re doing, it’s worth it,” Wozniak said.
The Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums reached the Dorchester Avenue finish line at 3 p.m. Nearby, two young Irish women were craning to get a view of the festivities. Aoife Molloy, 23, and Emma O’Keefe, 25, have been in the Boston area for nine months, and it was their first time seeing the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“Everyone comes out, and they want to be Irish,” said Molloy, wearing sunglasses with green shamrock-shaped lenses.