St. Patrick's Day celebrations are richer than green beer

St. Patrick's Day in Chicago isn't all just green beer and embarrassment.

St. Patrick's Day is Tuesday.

This may come as a shock to those of you who chose to jump the holiday by a few days to partake of the many celebrations, drink specials and subsequent hangovers that have been amply available. That's how it is here. More than most cities, Chicago takes its St. Patrick's Day exuberantly, if not always seriously. We become awash in green clothing, "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons, Shamrock Shakes, politician-peppered parades, all manner of musical diversions and restaurant offerings of suspect merit: A downtown sushi joint called Aria is offering a special cocktail called the Irish Snowflake, made with Jameson whiskey, Frangelico liqueur, green creme de menthe and whipped cream. It costs $13.

There are many, drinkers especially, who have come to think of St. Patrick's Day as an extra New Year's Eve, a time for reckless abandon and financial splurging. But unlike New Year's Eve, it is difficult for restaurants to jack up their prices. Just how much can you charge for a plate of corned beef and cabbage? Still, creativity does hit some kitchens, as that of Bar Toma, across from the Water Tower, which is offering through Tuesday a green-crust pizza with melted leeks, spinach and pistachio pesto.

All of this commotion is enough to make most revelers forget (if they had ever known) that the day's roots go back some 1,600 years ago as a holy day to honor the saint credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland and efficiently, if apocryphally, ridding the island of snakes. March 17 is unreliably believed to be the day St. Patrick died in 461.

Green beer, indeed.

But some of the St. Patrick's Day-related activities have substance and soul, as more than a few people discovered when they chose to attend a March 7 afternoon performance by Mary Pat Kelly and Catherine O'Connell in the Fifth Province, a cozy pub inside the Irish American Heritage Center on the Northwest Side (irish-american.org).

Located at 4626 N. Knox Ave., the building is a treasure, brought back to life in 1985 after spending years as an abandoned, graffiti-splashed wreck. It was originally the Mayfair Grammar school. Now it is alive with events, classes, performances, a gift shop and art gallery, its aim to showcase the Irish-American cultural contributions to the United States, especially Chicago.

There is a fine book detailing the history of the place, written by Monica Dougherty and Mary Beth Sammons, part of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series.

It was the center's cultural committee that asked Kelly and O'Connell — their names are enough to make you start humming "Molly Malone" — to perform that Saturday. The two had first teamed up a few years ago for an impromptu show and now get together whenever they can.

She and O'Connell had a lovely afternoon telling stories and singing songs.

As Kelly says, "The people who came were great. Everybody sang along and shared stories about their families with us. The history of Ireland and Irish America is one of tragedy and triumph, and attention must be paid."

O'Connell says: "The reception we received warmed our hearts. People laughed, cried and clapped along."

These two women are a match made in some sort of creative heaven and will be doing their thing again Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Polo Cafe, that charming restaurant at 3322 S. Morgan St. in the heart of Bridgeport, home to such Irish political notables as Mayors Edward Kelly, Martin Kennelly, Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley. Michael Bilandic lived there, too, but he was of Croatian descent (polocafe.com).

Mary Pat Kelly once worked in Hollywood as a movie screenwriter and in New York City as a producer with "Good Morning America" and "Saturday Night Live." She received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York, and that is where she lives now. But she was born and raised here and has artfully used the city as backdrop for her new career as a novelist.

Her first novel, "Galway Bay," starts in Ireland in the mid-19th century with the family of Michael and Honora Kelly, as they suffer what the author calls the "great starvation" and make an arduous trip to Chicago. Her latest is a sequel. "Of Irish Blood" takes the story deep into the 20th century. Both are inspired by the life of Kelly's great-aunt, and both are compelling historical novels of solid research, real-life characters, lively prose and vivid imagination.

O'Connell is one of Chicago's favorite Irish singers. She has a number of CDs to her credit, and has sparked and warmed hearts in saloons and concert halls, chapels and cathedrals, funeral homes and festival halls. She has performed at hundreds of baptisms, weddings and funerals, including that of the late Maggie Daley, the city's former first lady. She has been called — and if you have heard her, you'd agree — "a dazzling Celtic nightingale … Chicago's Irish diva" (catherineoconnell.com).

She just finished a busy week, singing the national anthem at Monday's Bulls-Memphis Grizzles game and performing Tuesday at "Siamsa na nGael" (roughly translated as "a Gaelic celebration") at Symphony Center, something you should put on your next year's St. Patrick's Day activity list.

The city's major St. Patrick's Day parade — once characterized by columnist Mike Royko as existing so "politicians could strut on State Street and their admirers could get drunk" — was Saturday, and there are a couple more parades Sunday, on the South Side (southsideirishparade.org) and Northwest Side (northwestsideirish.org).

O'Connell does not get wistful at the thought of parades, even though she has a right to. In 1976 she was the queen of the St. Patrick's Day parade, and each year she attends a special luncheon of all former queens and the current one, whose name is Lauren Corry.

"It is a great kind of a sorority," O'Connell says. "I feel like a den mother. We have so much fun."

Green beer, indeed.

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

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