The easing of COVID restrictions means one of Montrea’s most iconic events — the St. Patrick’s Day parade — will finally return on March 20. Above is a scene from the parade in 2007. Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Wikipedia

St. Patrick returns to Montreal streets

By 
  • March 13, 2022

Montreal’s Irish community will be on its feet again next week with resumption of its St. Patrick’s Day parade — two years after the Great Green blowout was unceremoniously cancelled by COVID-19.

Parade organizers say the March 20 march through the city’s downtown will be a scaled down version due to lack of preparation time. There will be only about 500 participants compared to the usual three to four thousand. There won’t be the usual slow-moving stream of gaudy floats. But there will be bands to entertain whatever crowds turn out along Ste. Catherine Street, which will be good enough since it’s by the luck of the Irish that the event is being held at all.

The Quebec government announced only at the end of February that vaccine passports and restrictions on outdoor events such as the parade would be lifted March 14, right before the actual March 17 Feast Day of St. Patrick, and a day short of exactly two years since the 2020 parade had to be abruptly cancelled because of pandemic restrictions.

“Everyone…just wants to get back and break this curse that we’re all under. We’re hoping this is going to stick now,” says Kevin Tracey, spokesman for the United Irish Societies of Montreal.

While St. Patrick’s parades abound across North America, and are have even become more common in Ireland, Montreal extends the fete to an entire Green Week. The parade caps off festivities that include the selection of a Queen and her court, a gala luncheon that generally features political heavy weights such as former prime ministers or premiers as guest speakers, and cultural activities to mark the city’s recognition of itself as the historic centre of Irish Canadian life. Veteran Montreal journalist Alan Hustak, who is writing a history of Montreal’s St. Patrick’s parade timed for publication on the 200th anniversary in 2024, says much of that Irish heritage back patting is justified given the city’s centrality for 19th century immigration from Éire, and the interweaving of the Irish and French Canadians through intermarriage and politics.

Hustak, however, tut-tuts the boast that the Montreal parade is the longest continuous St. Patrick’s Day procession in North America. For starters, he says, the show failed to go on at least five times in the years before the 2020 cancellation, including during the period of mourning for Pope Pius IX in 1878, and Irish nationalist leader John Redmond in 1918. In 1948, the parade was officially “postponed” because of an impending major storm threatening Montreal and happened only because a group of Second World War veterans who were lined up to go insisted on marching.

“They turned to each other and said ‘we marched through a lot worse in Europe; a storm isn’t going to stop us. So off they marched.’ The idea that the parade has never been cancelled is simply untrue.”

Hustak, one of the few non-Irish Montrealers ever to get the honour of being named a parade chief reviewing officer, adds that a major impetus behind holding it in Montreal was that it wasn’t being held in Toronto. Because Catholics were unwelcome to march in the crucible of 19th century Orange domination, he says, St. Patrick’s Day got legs in a city where the population was overwhelmingly either French Canadian or Irish Catholic.

“The trade-off was Montreal had the Catholic parade, and Toronto had the Orange Parade, and Orange people were banned in Montreal,” Hustak says.

Even the Catholic roots of the parade are more tangled than is often understood given its celebration of Ireland’s patron saint. It began in 1824 as a showcase for Montreal’s Anglo-Irish elite. The working class Irish Catholic unwashed who lived by the shore of the St. Lawrence were left out. Once it was firmly identified as a Catholic event, inter-parish rivalries led to multiple parades being held on different routes simultaneously.

“You wound up having East End parades, and Point St. Charles parades, and downtown parades. It was a non-religious parade, then it was a religious parade, but it’s always been a political parade. The Fenians came along and ran it (in the 1860s), which is why (Father of Confederation) D’Arcy McGee was never invited to walk in it. When he was trying to become an MP, Justin Trudeau showed up one morning at St. Gabriel’s (church) looking like a Paddy in a tweed Irish hat and battered tweed jacket.”

This year, fortunately, both the political and pandemic gods have smiled on Montreal’s Irish. The parade, even as a shadow of itself, can proceed.

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