On March 1, Asheville's homesick New Orleans transplants, attempting to offer the uninitiated a taste of Big Easy bedlam, donned monkey suits and delivered our city's inaugural Mardi Gras parade.
Not to be outdone, a local Ireland native and a Celtic-centric bar owner have united to provide the area's first annual St. Patrick's Day Festival.
Annmarie McConnell, owner of upscale clothing-and-gift boutique My Native Ireland, and Joe Eckert, who started downtown brewpub Jack of the Wood, began seriously planning the festival last summer, McConnell recently revealed.
But the idea was planted soon after she recreated her homeland at the corner of Wall Street and Battery Park.
"When I opened my shop four-and-a-half years ago, I saw pretty quickly that people had a genuine interest and passion in Irish culture," says McConnell.
"A lot of people have their roots there," she continues, referring to Western North Carolina's heavily Scotch-Irish heritage.
McConnell and Eckert received an unexpected boost to their plans when the Renaissance Asheville Hotel and the Asheville Track Club contacted the pair this year about co-sponsoring those organizations' own St. Patrick's Day events -- a pasta-with-Irish-music dinner and a 10K run, respectively.
"It was exactly the kind of launching pad we needed," says McConnell.
An increasing mania for the Irish holiday will likely help their cause, as well. Last St. Patrick's Day, Boston Globe correspondent Necee Regis noted that "before 1995, the feast of St. Patrick was a low-key, religious holiday in Ireland. Taking a cue from its American cousins, the [Irish] government established a four-day festival around the national holiday, aiming to showcase the city of Dublin as a creative and vibrant travel destination."
The wild celebrations held in such Irish-American enclaves as Chicago, Boston and Savannah, Ga., have also caught fire in less-populated regions of this country. But Yale Herald writer Colleen Kinder points out that "though [America] is known for its eagerness to turn the slightest observance into a reason for blaring, hyper-commercialized hedonism, when it comes to this holiday ... there is also a real sentiment behind the hype. Irish-American pride is a tremendous force."
Asheville's new, four-day St. Patrick's Day Festival will highlight top-drawer traditional Celtic bands Chulrua and Old Blind Dogs, as well as poetry, dancing and local music acts.
But McConnell claims the real festivities have barely begun.
"This is just our first dabble in it," she says. "I would love to perhaps grow this over the next couple of years, and put together a genuinely authentic experience of Irish culture."
St. Patrick's Day Festival events
• Friday, March 14
5-8 p.m. $10 pasta dinner at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel (1 Thomas Wolfe Plaza). Live Irish music. 252-8211.
9 p.m. Celebrated traditional-Irish trio Chulrua at Jack of the Wood; the band features Paddy O'Brien, Tim Britton and Pat Egan. 252-5445.
• Saturday, March 15
9 a.m. The St. Patrick's Day 10K presented by The Asheville Track Club; race starts/ends behind the Asheville YMCA. (The race is part of Jus' Running's Grand Prix series, with cash awards). 259-9101.
12-8 p.m. Tours of My Native Ireland (12 Battery Park). Ask how to qualify for a free pint. 281-1110.
3-5 p.m. Pulitzer Prize-nominated local writer David Hopes reads Irish poetry and stories at Jack of the Wood. 252-5445.
5-8 p.m. Special Irish dinner at Jack of the Wood. 252-5445.
8 p.m.-2 a.m. Jack of the Wood's Irish Ceili Night, hosted by WNCW's Martin Anderson: ceili- and set-dance lessons, step dancing, traditional Gaelic songs, poetry, local Celtic band Half Nine and Irish rock tunes (Boomtown Rats, Hothouse Flowers, etc.) spun by Anderson and Annmarie McConnell. 252-5445.
• Sunday, March 16
5-8 p.m. Traditional Irish-music session at Jack of the Wood. 252-5445.
• Monday, March 17 (St. Patrick's Day)
4-6 p.m. Live music and drinks at My Native Ireland. 281-1110.
8 p.m. Green Linnet artists Old Blind Dogs at Jack of the Wood.