In South Boston, St. Patrick’s Day means a weekend affair filled with beer, brogues, green garb and beer. It’s known primarily for the annual, rather comedic, political roast which takes place on the Sunday morning preceding the actual holiday as well as the traditional parade which is often accompanied by controversy.
But what some people don’t realize is the extensive history of the breakfast, how St. Patrick’s Day became in essence the unofficial holiday of the city, and that it was really made popular by a Boston politician whose brother happens to be one of the most notorious gangsters the nation has ever known.
But before we get into how former state Senate President and former President of UMass Billy Bulger revolutionized the hearty breakfast, let’s wind the clocks back to 1901.
BostInno spoke with Suffolk University Department of History Chair Robert Allison, who told us that there were once dueling parades in Boston on March 17, and one of those evolved into the procession we see today.
“The first parade was in 1901 and it was really the Evacuation Day parade,” began Professor Allison. “There already was St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, from Dorchester Heights to Downtown Boston.”
The real focus though, the good professor continued, was on Evacuation Day and was organized by the South Boston Citizens Association.
It went on this way until the 1940s when things started to unravel. “We really only have room in town for one parade during that day,” noted Professor Allison.
Following the United States’s involvement in World War II, the Allied War Veterans Council felt that they should spearhead the parade effort. After the Allied War Veterans’ selection for a parade Chief Marshall was backed by then Mayor James Michael Curley, according to Professor Allison’s son John in a piece for South Boston Today, he suggested that the Citizen’s Association selection be the chief marshal’s adjutant.
But it was around this time that the seeds of candor that blossomed under Bulger while at the helm of the breakfast roast were sown.
Local officials, Professor Allison told us, “would give speeches they said they wish they could give every other day of the year,” implying, perhaps, that what they orated at these breakfast events were hardly politically correct or politically charged.
Come the 1950s there were issues brewing between city and state lawmakers. State Senator John Powers from South Boston butted heads with Mayor John Hynes as to who would continue hosting a meal. They hosted their own, buy Powers’s would survive into the next decade when Mayor John Collins considered the event too expensive an undertaking. Up until 1962, it was government funded.
Having Powers as emcee set the precedent, from then on forward, that the state Senator representing South Boston would host the breakfast as long as they hold office.
In 1971 Billy Bulger was elected to the state Senate after serving a stint in the House. He was shortly thereafter elected as President of the Senate. With a wealth of political experience and a classic Boston wit unmatched by his predecessors, Bulger revolutionized breakfast hosting duties and made it an experience to look forward to.
Professor Allison told us quite bluntly, “Bulger is a natural entertainer.”
As you’ll see in the clip below, even he wasn’t exempt from jokes but had the charming ability to laugh at himself, even when his notorious criminal brother James “Whitey” Bulger was involved.
Similarly, the Boston Globe went on to write in 1999, “In the magical curl of William Bulger’s wit, James Bulger emerged as a figure of fun”
In another instance, Bulger recalls calling former state Treasurer (also head of the Massachusetts Lottery by default) Robert Crane as “the biggest bookie in Massachusetts.”
John Allison’s assessment of Bulger in hindsight is probably put the best. He writes, “This combination of Bulger’s ability to steal the show, along with his long tenure as Senator, created the impression that the way Bulger ran the Breakfast was the way it had always been.”
In recent years, Professor Allison tells us in wrapping up, the breakfast and parade have changed and not necessarily for the better. The widespread adoption of television in tandem with broadcasting the festivities commercialized the event in a way, altering the atmosphere to make it more about the politicos as opposed to what they were celebrating.
“[They] started playing for the camera… Linehan didn’t want to do it again,” said the professor, explaining how breakfast sentiments began to turn and South Boston City Councilor didn’t want to undertake hosting duties again this year.
State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry will be charged with presiding over the breakfast this year, the first time that a woman has ever done so. How well she’ll fare remains to be seen, but in the end, the breakfast is about enjoying the the holiday, laughing at ourselves and with others and being Irish, if only for a weekend.
For more information on Billy Bulger, check out this 60 Minutes interview with him from 1992 right here.
Have some fun, untold St. Patrick’s Day breakfast stories? Let’s hear ’em in the comments section below.
[Image via Wikipedia]