Alexandria, VA – On the first Saturday of every March, all of Alexandria’s Irish and Irish-at-heart line the streets to celebrate Irish pride and culture at the Ballyshaners St. Patrick’s Day Parade on King Street. It’s a tradition going on 39 years.
Thirty-nine years? How has this been gone on so long? How did it start?
The idea for it started 40 years ago with Pat and Bernadette Troy. Pat Troy grew up in County Offaly, Ireland, where he was working as a butler when an American tourist offered to sponsor him in America.
Pat immigrated to the U.S. in 1962 and began working as a butler in Washington, D.C. He met Bernadette, who had also immigrated from Ireland and, in 1980, the couple opened Ireland’s Own, a (now-closed) Irish pub in Old Town.
Ireland’s Own pub quickly became a busy Irish gathering place. It was across King Street from the courthouse, and a convenient lunch spot for Judge Daniel O’Flaherty. That’s where the judge heard that the Troys were gathering people who wanted to honor Irish Heritage and the contributions of the Irish people throughout Alexandria history by organizing a St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“My dad had visited Ireland several times and was very interested, so he said he would help,” says the judge’s daughter, Lucelle O’Flaherty. “Dad came up with the name Ballyshaners. It means Old Towners in Gaelic, and the group loved it.”
So Ballyshaners they became and are to this day. The name fits, as this group brings a taste of tradition and fun to the city more than once a year. From the start, Pat Troy and Judge O’Flaherty were active leaders in making the Ballyshaners St. Patrick’s Day Parade an Alexandria institution. The first parade was held in 1982.
“In 1999, the Ballyshaners had their first Grand Marshal Dinner and Installation, and my dad was the Grand Marshal. This dinner is the night before the parade each year,” Lucelle says. The judge passed away in 2015. “He was truly the original Ballyshaner,” Troy said of him.
Traditions take time and repetition
The parade is always the first Saturday in March, and Alexandria’s mayor always presents a proclamation declaring March as Irish American Heritage Month. Alexandria flies the Irish Flag the entire month of March honoring this. Of course, the tradition of celebrating for the entire month is also great for Alexandria businesses and bars.
Kimberly Moore, current Ballyshaners chair, got involved when she met Pat Troy. “I joined through Pat. I had known him for years from Ireland’s Own. He knew I enjoyed taking pictures and he asked if I’d help photograph the parade. So I joined in 2002 as parade photographer.
“I served in that role for a few years and it was amazing. After that, I became lead marshal, then vice chairman, and I’ve been chairman for three years now,” she adds.
Kimberly has plenty of fun memories. “So many! Camaraderie among the Ballyshaners is amazing. Many have become dear friends. Parade day is hard work, exhausting, and fun. It thrills us to see so many turn out—and then they spend a lot of money in local businesses.”
Although the parade draws the community together for the sole purpose of celebrating the Irish, Moore says, “I have developed friendships with business and city leaders, and while that is great (for Ballyshaners), those relationships also make me feel even more a part of my community.”
It also provides lasting memories. “In 2003, I was taking pictures in the middle of King Street and the (Shriners) little Kena cars drove past. I thought they would go right by me, so I crouched down to get a photo of a car when another one turned back in my direction. And I got knocked over,” she says. “So much for the photographer blending into the crowd!”
Parade captain John Bryk loves the tradition the parade represents. “Pat Troy was the heart of Irish heritage and culture in Old Town. Ireland’s Own sponsored a huge, pop-up Irish pub in the square behind the restaurant every year. Thanks to Pat and the Ballyshaners volunteers, St. Patrick’s Day in Old Town lasted from the first Saturday of March until midnight on the 17th.”
John joined the Ballyshaners in 2006. “I was Shanghaied on New Year’s Eve at Pat Troy’s restaurant when two Ballyshaners invited me to volunteer as a parade marshal ‘just for that day.’ This will be my 14th year, and my 13th parade. I missed 2008; I was in Iraq.”
For this year’s parade, the Ballyshaners selected John Brennan, owner of Daniel O’Connell’s Restaurant and Bar, as Grand Marshal. “To follow on what Pat Troy started is a privilege,” he says.
Brennan is a native of Kilkenny, Ireland, and an Old Town homeowner who has been an active member of Alexandria’s business community since he and Billy O’Sullivan opened Daniel O’Connell’s in 2006. They wanted to bring an authentic, modern Irish dining experience to Alexandria. John and his wife Margaret took sole ownership of O’Connell’s two years ago and last year O’Connell’s was recognized by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce as the 2019 Best Medium Size Business of the Year.
“My first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Old Town was 10 years ago. I thought it was fantastic, and every one I have attended since—I can only be proud to be Irish. To all the police that control the route and also to the City, I thank you,” he says.
“I think Alexandria, and especially Old Town, is a fantastic place and a beautiful area to live in. We looked at a lot of different places to open up O’Connell’s but the day we drove down King Street I knew we had location, location, location,” Brennan adds. “I love the historical feeling you get walking around Old Town. Developing the waterfront will encourage more people to come here and enjoy what our fantastic restaurants have to offer.”
How does it all happen?
This year’s parade is expected to include more than 110 separate entries with some 1,300 participants ranging from many types of bands to civic groups and fraternal organizations; Irish dancers and performers to police, fire, and military honor guards and displays; political interests and even Meet-Up groups and Star Wars reenactors. It looks to be something for everybody.
And that “everybody” in 2019 was more than 14,000 people lining the parade route. Ballyshaners membership is only 20 people (plus volunteers on parade day), so organizing this event takes year-round effort. And money. It costs at least $42,000 to fund the parade.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the only parade that proceeds down King Street and that’s not going to change anytime soon, even though keeping the King Street route adds approximately $10,000 to total costs. The Ballyshaners, known as fierce advocates for small business owners, believe it is important to celebrate Irish heritage while showcasing King Street’s many businesses and restaurants. In fact, numerous businesses report that St. Patrick’s Day Parade Day is their biggest business day of the year!
Why the Parade is so early in March
You may have noticed by now that St. Patrick’s Day is March 17. Why is the parade held so early in March? The fact is that Alexandria is not alone in celebrating Irish heritage this month. Because so many of the bands, dancers, schools, and other participants also march in that parade across the river, the Ballyshaners hold the event on the first Saturday of March to ensure they will never overlap.
The parade is a rain or shine event and was postponed only once in its history. In 2018, the City of Alexandria cancelled it due to unusually high winds. That was the year that Pat and Bernadette Troy were named Grand Marshals. Not wanting their founder to miss having a parade in the year when they were chosen for that honor, Ballyshaners held the parade on March 18. They expected that many bands, dancers, and other entrants would be too worn out from events elsewhere. To their pleasant surprise, virtually all participated. Pat Troy died a week later.
Because the event requires year-round planning and outreach to businesses, Ballyshaners conduct fundraisers and accept tax-deductible donations all year, culminating with the Irish Festival in August. They steadily cultivate new relationships, and this year have welcomed partnerships with The Alexandrian, Morrison House, and Landini Brothers Restaurant.