Luck of the Irish After two years of cancelled or subdued celebrations, St. Patrick will finally get his due today

For purveyors of and participants in St. Patrick’s Day festivities, it’s been a couple of years since Irish eyes have been smiling.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/03/2022 (203 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For purveyors of and participants in St. Patrick’s Day festivities, it’s been a couple of years since Irish eyes have been smiling.

St. Patrick’s Day Events

Dust Rhinos at the West End Cultural Centre

586 Ellice Ave.; 8 to 10:30 p.m.

Tickets $20 at wecc.ca

Irish Association of Manitoba

654 Erin St.; events March 17, 18 and 19

Tickets $10 for non-members, irishassociationofmanitoba.ca

Billie Irish band at the King’s Head

120 King St.; 9 p.m.

kingshead.ca

Dust Rhinos at the West End Cultural Centre

586 Ellice Ave.; 8 to 10:30 p.m.

Tickets $20 at wecc.ca

Irish Association of Manitoba

654 Erin St.; events March 17, 18 and 19

Tickets $10 for non-members, irishassociationofmanitoba.ca

Billie Irish band at the King’s Head

120 King St.; 9 p.m.

kingshead.ca

Karaoke at the Limelight and the G-Strings at the Riverside: Tap & Table

531 St. Mary’s Rd., 9 p.m.

theriversidewinnipeg.com

The Incredibly Hip at Fionn MacCool’s Regent

1582 Regent Ave. W; 8 p.m.

theincrediblyhip.com

Five More Miles at Shannon’s Irish Pub

175 Carlton St.; 9 p.m.

shannonsirishpub.ca

Open Mic and Beer Sale at the Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club

234 Main St.; 8 p.m.

highandlonesomeclub.ca

Just a day before festivities were set to take place in March 2020, fast-changing developments regarding COVID-19 — which had just been declared a pandemic on March 11 — saw pubs close their doors, artists cancel gigs and folks hunkering down and staying home.

When St. Patrick’s Day 2021 came around, restrictions on gatherings, households and the like meant there still weren’t many opportunities to hoist a pint with pals.

With restrictions on masking, vaccinations and gathering sizes all shed in the past weeks and COVID-related numbers looking somewhat promising — for now — St. Patrick’s Day 2022 could be the cèilidh to end all cèilidhs and there may yet be a wee bit of gold to be found at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

● ● ●

“March 16, 2020 was one of the worst days of my life.”

Jay Kilgour pulls no punches when he recalls shutting down Winnipeg’s two Fionn MacCool’s locations the day before St. Patrick’s Day 2020. For Kilgour and others running pubs and lounges who bring the festivities on St. Paddy’s, the pandemic came at the worst possible time.

“We generally do a week’s worth of sales on March 17 — we were fully stocked,” he recalls.

The rapidly changing understanding of the pandemic, and the speed and severity with which it was spreading, meant Kilgour chose safe over sorry — even if it meant taking a financial hit.

“The health orders didn’t require us to be closed, but I felt a pretty big sense of responsibility,” he says. “We’re a destination spot that day, and (Canada’s chief public health officer) Theresa Tam had just recommended that no more than 50 people gather in an indoor place. So along with some other pubs in Winnipeg, we just made the decision that it wasn’t responsible for us to stay open.”

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jay Kilgour practises pulling a pint of Guinness — something he’ll do a lot of today at Fionn’s pub.
The following St. Patrick’s Day was a bit of a mixed blessing for Kilgour, who runs both the Grant Park and Crossroads Fionn’s locations — above-normal temperatures and a lack of snow meant the reduced-capacity party could happen outside.

“We actually had a really fun day last year,” he recalls. “We weren’t allowed to have live music (in the bar) at the time, so I borrowed my dad’s truck and backed it up close to the patio, and we had bands play from the back of the truck.”

At 50 per cent capacity (a total of 45 people on the Grant Park patio), Fionn’s offered reservations in two-hour time slots. “Everyone enjoyed it. We kind of needed that,” Kilgour says.

Heading into this year’s St. Patrick’s Day, Kilgour wasn’t convinced it would be business as usual. “I wasn’t sure if people would be as comfortable going out because of the drop in proof of vaccinations and mask use not being mandated anymore,” he says.

He needn’t have worried. Both pubs, which open at 11:30 a.m. today and keep the festivities going until midnight, have seen a steady stream of bookings. “It seems that people are ready to go out,” he says, and figures Fionn’s adherence to restrictions throughout the pandemic has helped put people at ease.

Music at both pubs will run from noon to 4 p.m. and then 7 p.m. until close, with each location offering giveaways from Guinness, Jameson and more.

“I’ve even got some scarves from St. Patrick’s Day 2020 to give away,” Kilgour laughs.

“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve accumulated 15 or 16 kegs of Guinness just to make sure that we don’t run out. It’s taken a little bit more planning to make sure that the day goes off without a hitch.”– Jay Kilgour

As of this week, proof of vaccination and masks won’t be required of guests.

“I’ve wrestled with the masks… but the reality is that 96 per cent of the time in our restaurant, guests are not wearing a mask anyway,” he says. “It would be easy to keep but also, you know, with that comes a lot of backlash from a small vocal minority.

“We feel pretty good about where we’re at, and we expect a lot of our guests will wear them anyway.”

For the time being, staff at Fionn’s will also continue masking up.

The dropping of restrictions combined with concerns over potential supply-chain issues saw Kilgour and company make sure both Fionn MacCool’s locations are well-stocked for merrymakers.

“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve accumulated 15 or 16 kegs of Guinness just to make sure that we don’t run out,” he says. “It’s taken a little bit more planning to make sure that the day goes off without a hitch.”

And with the lifting of restrictions, Kilgour has returned to his pre-pandemic St. Patrick’s Day schedule. “I’m the first one at the pub; I’m usually there by seven in the morning, making sure that everything is set up, everything’s prepared,” he says. “But by 4:30 or 5 o’clock my friends start showing up after work, and I leave it in the very capable hands of my staff. I do get to enjoy the day.”

• • •

Last month, members of the Dust Rhinos didn’t even want to talk about St. Patrick’s Day.

“We were so worried that something would happen and we’d get closed down again,” says Blair McEvoy, who sings, strums and plays the bodhrán with the local five-piece Celtic band. “That disappointment would be too much.”

For 26 years the holiday, which McEvoy likens to Irish New Year, was the band’s biggest annual gig. They played classics like The Wild Rover and Rocky Road to Dublin to raucous, beer-soaked crowds in pubs across the city, sometimes performing multiple sets a day. In 2020, however, the event took on new meaning.

Supplied Winnipeg Celtic band the Dust Rhinos are thrilled to be playing a live gig on St. Patrick’s Day again.

“(It’s) two years to the day from our first show getting cancelled,” McEvoy says. “The pandemic hasn’t just curtailed our playing out, it’s curtailed our rehearsals and getting together and playing music.”

Superstition turned to cautious optimism this week. The Dust Rhinos played a virtual St. Paddy’s concert at the West End Cultural Centre last year and they’re returning to the venue on Thursday for a show in front of a real live audience. To say McEvoy and bandmates Dan Cannon, Ivanka Watkin, Darren Wittmann and Ryan Spracklin are excited would be an understatement.

“We are just so thrilled to be getting back out and to have the most normal St. Patrick’s Day that we’ve had in three years,” he says. “Bring your dancing shoes, be prepared to sing along and to have a good time.”

Audiences can expect Dust Rhino originals, traditional Irish ditties and some new material. (“New to us — I think the one new song we’re adding is over 100 years old,” McEvoy says.)

They’re also open to requests — for a price. “We usually have a rule that you can request a song, just write it on a $50 bill,” he adds with a laugh.

• • •

The Irish Association of Manitoba is also looking forward to the return of crowds to its Erin Street clubhouse.

“It’s the most money-making event of the year for our club and the biggest day for anyone Irish,” association president Gerald Martin says. “But mainly, it keeps the doors open.”

Fundraising for the organization’s annual scholarship and activities has been difficult amid the pandemic and without Folklorama.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the club is hosting three days of music, food and Irish dancing beginning today. While the holiday is synonymous with beer for many, it’s also a chance for the Irish Association’s 150 or so members to reconnect and share their culture with the community.

“We’re looking forward to seeing everybody back again,” Martin says. “We had a couple of events last week… where people came out that we hadn’t seen in two years — it was nice to have a full house for a change.”

ben.sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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