MANCHESTER — A month-long celebration of Irish heritage culminated in Manchester Sunday as tens of thousands of people from the city and beyond gathered for the annual St. Patrick's Parade.
Greeted by balmy weather and periods of sunshine, the festive crowd celebrated the Irish and their heritage in the 18th version of a parade that began as an idea shared by three sons of Ireland nearly two decades ago.
"It's great for the Irish, my parents were from Ireland, County Kerry, and I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Boston," said James Sheehan, one of the core group that worked to revive the Manchester parade after a 75-year lapse.
"It's great to see something like this in New Hampshire," said Sheehan who came to New Hampshire for military service in 1954, met the woman who was to become his wife, and stayed.
Privately funded, the parade depends on donations from individuals and sponsorships by business organizations, such as the New Hampshire Union Leader, which sponsored one of the five divisions in the parade.
Participants included marching bands, Irish civic groups, community organizations, public safety workers, veterans, politicians, beauty queens and the Manchester Memorial High School state hockey champions.
The lure of the parade gave people a good reason to get out of the house after a long and snowy winter, and brought thousands to Manchester's business district well before the start of the parade. Downtown shops and restaurants saw a steady business before and after the parade. They also got the chance to show off their services and wares to the thousands who walked city streets on Sunday.
"It's incredible," said Mayor Ted Gatsas. "You have this many people who are out on a beautiful day, you've got all these people who are in the parade, you have 3,000 people in the Shamrock Shuffle — it's bringing a lot of people to the businesses, which are fortunate to have a good day on a Sunday."
At 3,000 participants, the Shamrock Shuffle road race was sold out to runners and walkers who wanted to cover the two-mile route. Organizers speculated that had there been room, several hundred others probably would have entered.
The parade is traditionally held the last Sunday in March to draw bands and other groups that might be booked elsewhere during the busy month. It was moved up a week this year to avoid a conflict with Easter Sunday.
At the core of the event was a celebration of Irish heritage and contributions to American life.
Lonergan, as representative of the Irish government, sees a lot of St. Patrick's festivities and said Manchester parade organizers do a good job in stressing Irish pride and respect for Irish heritage.
"I think you see organizations here like the (Ancient Order of Hibernians) remind Irish Americans of their history," Lonergan said. "It reminds us that, while many of the reasons why people left Ireland were difficult and challenging and sad, the history of the Irish-Americans in general is one of great success."
Sheehan, recognized as grand marshal in the 2006 parade for his work in the Irish American community and work to organize the parade revival, said he felt "proud" seeing so many non-Irish joining in the celebration of contributions made by people who, like his parents, left Ireland for a better life in America.