2015-03-19 / Around Town

Rain Dampens Crowds, Not Spirits

By James Merolla

(Photo by Jack Kelly) (Photo by Jack Kelly) A half-dozen freckled boys from County Cork set the marker and the tone, their cheeks even ruddier in the 40-degree driving rain, their wavy brown and umber hair soaked.

As they held the large green banner six abreast, marking the start of Newport's 59th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a judge greeted them with a warming thought: “Thank you for coming. We are so glad you are here. Sorry about the rain.”

“That’s all right,” a boy in the center smiled. “It’s more like Ireland.”

Newport was more like Ireland for many reasons on March 14 – the greenery, the bagpipes, the drums, the jovial pubs, the lively step dancing, the sincere toasts, and even the windswept driving rain that failed to dampen the spirits of marchers. The parade has never been canceled or postponed because of weather.

This year's event began miles before the official route. At bus stops in front of Bristol’s Roger Williams University, college students adorned in shimmering green congregated on curbs to be bused to Newport. More green teens waited for buses in Portsmouth. They would join Salve Regina students who hung out from apartment windows and stoops along Thames Street, glasses aloft, cheering the lot.

(Photo by Jon Dillworth) (Photo by Jon Dillworth) Across from the post office, parade marshals diverted traffic with a twist of their waxed mustaches. Bagpipers in the Ancient Order of Hibernians Pipes & Drums Band warmed up in back parking lots under a setback roof off Broadway.

“Are you ready for this?” a police officer asked. “Aye,” one Hibernian said.

Pubs were packed after 8:45 a.m., offering green egg specials. In Pour Judgement, the provocative members of The Extraordinary Rendition Band of Providence put their drinks down, picked up their saxophones and trumpets, and played a song called “That’s It!” to patrons hoisting mugs around them.

Tall Cedar Clown. (Photo by Jon DIllworth) Tall Cedar Clown. (Photo by Jon DIllworth) A collection of 15 international flags of bombastic color hung outside the Fastnet Pub, as patrons pressed against the windows to see the parade formation.

It was the same in the windows of Empire Tea & Coffee and Mad Hatter Bakery, where military personnel and members of the Civil War re-enactment unit Battery B 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery wolfed down zeppoles, cannolis, and chocolate croissants.

The State Police and the U.S. Navy, impeccably dressed under water-resistant capes, assembled in Thompson Middle School for last minute drill instructions while impressive breeds of police dogs waited patiently outside City Hall. Other unofficial dogs were painted green.

The Rhode Island Highlanders warmed up under an apartment building canopy. Residents smiled through lobby doors.

Last year, the sun warmed the crowds, that typically average 9-30,000, depending on fickle conditions. But the parade gods this year seemed to want an authentic Ireland feeling, sweeping in chilly, raw rain.

As drummers assembled at 10:30 a.m. for the 11 a.m. start, water rocketed upwards as they struck their snares. At 10:35 a.m., in front of City Hall, U.S. Senator and Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse awaited instructions on where to stand.

“I’m seeding politicians, assembling them,” a tall parade marshal in a yellow parker laughed. Governor Gina Raimondo and her family stood apart from where Jack Reed, Allan Fung, and other Republicans, Democrats and Independents were placed in a single unit, shoulder to shoulder.

There was no confirmation that marching placement favor was given to the Green Party.

Behind the parade banner, one unit down, marched perhaps the most popular individual in the entire proceedings – Grand Marshal, lifetime Newporter, and awardwinning builder Brian Arnold, who with his wife, Debbie, and younger daughter Mary at his sides, hugged, greeted, hooted at, and joked with more than any 10 other marchers along the entire route.

Carrying his grandfather’s hand-carved black and silver walking stick from Ireland, the Grand Marshal was covered by more shouts than raindrops. “Hey, Arnold! Hey, Brian! Where’s the sun? Have fun! Enjoy it! How did you get this gig?” and on and on, with Arnold pointing, smiling, and laughing with the dozens of watchers who know him personally.

As the parade left Broadway onto Thames Street, the Ancient Hibernians’ strains of “God Bless America” and the "Marines' Hymn" inspired the crowd to either singing or crying. Storefronts, restaurants, pubs, shops, and walkways were overflowing with crazily-clad, unusually loud, well-wishers, although their sheer numbers were reduced by thousands because of the weather.

On lower Thames, where the parade divisions stopped to disassemble, teens covered curbings in the driving rain.

As pub influences set in (first drinks began at 8:45 a.m.), hugs, songs and arguments proliferated. Well-kept green makeup dissolved down wet cheeks as voices rose, couples agitated, formerly toasting friends dissolved into drunken foes.

One lifetime Fifth Ward resident, who is a couple of years older than the very parade, observed of the sidewalk spectacle, "More inebriated children per capita than anywhere else in the state."

But at parade’s end, as Irish step dancers put on an impeccable show in the shadow of St. Augustin Church, and octogenarian parade marshal Charlie Donovan continued to defy Father Time with a well pointed wink or a more pointed remark, downpours were a very minor inconvenience.

“We kept going. It wasn’t that bad,” said smiling former Newport Fire Chief John Booth, a Hibernian who was Grand Marshal the parade in 1998. “We only stopped once. The secret, after 40-odd times walking this route, is: Don’t stop on a rainy day.”

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