Preparations begin on New Year’s Day. Men across the Panhandle and lads from as far away as New York, California, and even Ireland, get out their razors for the last time until March. This is Day One of the Donegal Beard Growing Contest. Only 77 days remain for competitors to nurture their best leprechaun-inspired facial hair (full beard, no mustache), judged on length, fullness, and personality (extra points for carrot-tops and the use of green hair dye).
Come mid-March these contestants will join more than 10,000 people descending upon the small town of Shamrock—that’s more than four times the population of the town itself. When it comes to Shamrock, this is the main event. “St. Patrick’s Day defines Shamrock,” says Austin filmmaker Mike Woolf, whose 2003 documentary Growin’ a Beard records the eccentricities of the Donegal beard contest.
While Chamber of Commerce director David Rushing estimates that only around 15 percent of the Shamrock population is Irish, he says everyone is welcome to participate not only in the beard contest but also the banquet, parade, beauty pageant, carnival, dances, team roping, and litany of other events running March 18–20. “Everyone who comes is Irish for that day,” Rushing says.
The tradition of embracing the Irish in everyone is longstanding in Shamrock. The weekend-long celebration began in 1938, and after being put on hold during World War II and the Korean War, has been the focal point on the community calendar and a time for good ol’ family fun for the past 52 years.
“It’s a dry county,” Woolf says. “You really have to be putting [on] some kind entertainment to keep those people happy.” Despite the lack of alcohol-induced belligerency (common at other St. Patrick’s Day celebrations), there is no shortage of merriment in this Panhandle town. Last year’s parade included more than 180 entries. This year the adult dance will feature Trent Willmon and Jason Boland and the Stragglers. And, of course, there’s the excitement of the crowning of the Donegal Beard King on the morning of the 19th.
“It’s a fun tradition—fathers and sons have grown the beards together,” Woolf says of the contest. “Finally there’s a way to get some positive respect from having that much hair.” While there is a $100 prize for the winner, it is pride that Rushing says contestants are after. It takes a special kind of person to grow a Donegal. “To be in the contest you have to be naturally blessed (or cursed) with the ability to grow a lot of facial hair,” Woolf says. Apparently, this is a talent Woolf lacks, as he failed to compete in the contest, but rather supported his “hairy outsider” friend Scotty McAfee.
But whether in Shamrock for Donegal glory, or just for some furry fun, perhaps what strikes visitors the most lies not in facial hair, but in the smiles underneath it. “The best part about making the film was getting to spend time with the people of Shamrock,” Woolf says. “They are the nicest most generous people—they were just wonderful.”
Texas Go Bragh
While Shamrock may have one of the most spirited celebrations in Texas, there are plenty of “Erin go Bragh” refrains throughout the state. Here’s a list of what’s happening in a shire near you:
B.D. Riley’s St. Patrick’s Day Festival
This pub is probably the most authentically Irish interior in Austin. Owner John Erwin went to the motherland, hired five brothers to build the pub in their barn in Dublin, shipped it part by part to Houston, trucked the pieces to Austin, and flew the brothers across the Atlantic to assemble the pub at its current home near Sixth and Brazos. March 17 will mark the pub’s fifth annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Live music begins at eleven in morning, with local artists performing variations on Irish tunes until two the following morning. This year features Gan Fidil, Tip the Jar, the Capital City Highlanders, Cluan, and headliner Pubcrawler. If you can’t get off work on the 17th, come out for “St. Practice Day” on Sunday, March 13, when patrons can get a preview of Tip the Jar and Gan Fidil, or bring their own Irish instruments and jam with other Texans in an Irish tune session. All of B.D. Riley’s events are free, because as Erwin says “in Ireland if you go to your local pub, you’d be offended by someone trying to charge a cover.” Thank goodness for authenticity.
Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul St. Patrick’s Celebration
This concert, featuring nine-time All-Ireland fiddle champion Eileen Ivers, is the yearly benefit for the Cathedral Concert Series. Ivers, star of the original Riverdance, will perform on Sunday, March 13, at four o’clock. The world-renowned fiddler, who has been touted as “. . . the Jimi Hendrix of the violin” by the New York Times, is sure to bring out the Irish in everyone with a program that features a unique fusion of sounds while remaining true to Celtic traditions. Tickets range from $15–$25. Call 361-888-6520 for more information.
North Texas Irish Festival
This year’s theme, “Bluegrass Has Green Roots,” exemplifies the connection between Irish and Texas music, and the festival’s lineup reflects this relationship. Headliners include Grammy-nominated, Americana singer Tim O’Brien; traditional Irish quintet Téada; guitar, fiddle, and accordion trio Sliabh Notes; uilleann piper Paddy Keenan; traditional duet John Williams and Dean Magraw; Scottish folk singer Ed Miller; the Elders; the McKrells; and a quartet featuring Jed Marum, Tom Leighton, Curly Boy Stubbs, and Betty Blakley Waddoups. There are also nine dance groups, 26 regional musical groups, and a play and music workshops. Now in its twenty-third year, the NTIF runs March 4–6 at Dallas’s Fair Park. Pricing and schedules are available at ntif.org. Drawing more than 35,000 people last year, this festival continues to give spectators a real taste of Ireland—and that’s no blarney.
Downtown Dallas St. Patrick’s Day Parade
At two in the afternoon on Sunday, March 13, more than a dozen floats, ten marching bands (including one from Ireland), the Dallas Mavericks Dancers, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, and the Texas Tornado dance team will hit the streets from the Arts District to the West End. “We boast we are the first family festival once spring hits,” says parade treasurer Cynthia McDonald. Bring the entire family a little early (say noon) and hang out at the kids’ area, grab a drink at the beer tent, listen to some music, do a little dancing, and inhale some good eats at the food concessions.
St. Patrick’s Day Celebration
That’s Dublin, Texas, y’all. A little more than one hundred miles southwest of Dallas, Dublin has drawn people from the Dallas–Fort Worth area for its celebration for more than thirty years. This year’s festivities are from March 17 through 19 and include a battle of the bands, a softball tournament, a stew cook-off, and race cars and bounce houses for the kids. There will be a parade at ten in the morning on Saturday with nearly one hundred entries.
St. Patrick’s Day Celebration at the Stockyards Station
With entertainment of all kinds—from balloon artists to face painters to a leprechaun on stilts—the St. Patrick’s Day Celebration at the Stockyards Station is sure to keep people on their toes. Starting at twelve-thirty on Saturday, March 12, the free, family-oriented event culminates with a parade later in the afternoon that features the Fort Worth Herd Cattle Drive as the grand finale. This marks the tenth year Cowtown has “Gone Green,” and this year’s parade will be the longest yet, starting at the Fort Worth Cats baseball club field.
Northwest Houston St. Patrick’s Day Parade (1960 Parade)
For the past 26 years, the 1960 Parade has used St. Patrick’s Day as a catalyst to raise thousands of dollars for charity. Last year the parade and related events raised $30,000 to assist Cypress Creek Emergency Medical Services, and this year the parade committee hopes to raise even more for the CCEMS Scholarship Fund. The parade generally draws 60,000 to 80,000 people and boasts marching bands, floats, twirlers, and gymnasts, according to parade committee chairman Rod Hudson. “The parade is very much family oriented,” Hudson says. “There’s something for everybody.” So bring the family out on Sunday, March 13, for some green-themed, good-hearted fun, but keep in mind that FM 1960 will be closed for the parade from one to five from Champions Forest Drive to Kuykendahl Road.
Alamo Irish Festival
The sixteenth annual Alamo Irish Festival is one of many events in San Antonio sponsored by the Harp and Shamrock Society. The festival, which takes place March 11–13 at La Villita, the historic neighborhood on the south bank of the San Antonio River, features a variety of live entertainment, such as Irish dancing, Irish music, and jazz, as well as crafts, food vendors, and rides for the kids. Admission is free, and all proceeds from concessions and sales go toward funding the society’s two parades.
Harp and Shamrock Street Parade
The thirty-eighth annual street parade runs down Alamo from Avenue E to La Villita at two o’clock on Saturday, March 12. It boasts an assortment of children’s groups. “It’s probably the only parade in town that’s mostly children,” says former Harp and Shamrock president Mae Kelly. This year’s theme, “And The Children Shall Lead,” reflects this focus on the little urchins.
Harp and Shamrock River Dying Parade
The thirty-seventh annual river parade is a twist on your typical St. Patrick’s Day procession, with boats floating down the dyed-green San Antonio River, transporting Irish and other Celtic bands. The parade takes place on Sunday, March 13, at one in the afternoon and ends at the Arneson River Theatre, where, starting at noon, spectators can hear proclamations from the governor, the mayor of the Alamo City, and a speech from this year’s parade marshal, J. Patrick Kelly III.
To learn more about Growin’ a Beard, go to growinabeard.com.