South Boston's Annual St. Pat's Day Breakfast Is Just The Tip Of A Vast Hibernian Iceberg

To most normal people, the annual South Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast seems like a once-a-year chance for Massachusetts politicians to pull their green ties and scarfs out of the closet, say a few Irish blessings, and tell a couple of good-natured jokes at one another’s expense.

But when Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, and Congressman Stephen Lynch, step onto the stage at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center Sunday morning, it will be just the most visible of many emerald-tinged events of the month—a grinding, and growing, annual obligation for them and the rest of the state’s Washington delegation. Between their committee hearings, legislative meetings, and vote-casting in Washington, they must shuttle north for parades, corned-beef dinners, and painful joke-fests—or offend those whose invites they decline.

“The season is so long now,” says Congressman Bill Keating of Bourne. He marched in the Cape Cod St. Patrick’s Parade on March 4th, “with the wind chill factor of zero,” he says, “so nobody recognizes you all bundled up, and there’s nobody out watching.”

One comic—a real one, brought in for relief from elected officials’ humor attempts at last week’s South Boston Boys & Girls Club St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon—noted this early start to the holiday, asking whether Boston celebrates July 4th in early June.

A few years ago, I began referring to this elongated schedule as Massachusetts politics’ St. Patrick’s Fortnight. Even that has become an understatement. The unofficial season opener, state senator Sal DiDomenico’s dinner in Charlestown, took place on Friday, March 3rd; the last one I know of is 19 days later, hosted by Plymouth County Register of Probate Matt McDonough in Marshfield.

Oh, and that’s not even including the many invites members of Congress get to St. Patrick’s Day events in Washington, including the longstanding Speaker’s Luncheon, and a reception with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Irish Embassy. I am told, however, that D.C. St. Patrick’s Day invites for the all-Democrat Massachusetts delegation have slowed this year, after proliferating during the Barack Obama administration.

Compounding the commuting problem this year, the U.S. House of Representatives is in session on March 17—thanks to Republican leadership, who decided to keep members around on Fridays this year.  Poor Stephen Lynch of South Boston will be waiting for the last vote of the day to be called so he can rush home; constituents are hoping to see him that day at the Irish American Partnership Breakfast Celebration, the South Boston Citizens Association Mass and Banquet, the Dorchester Evacuation Day Historical Exercises, the Annual Friends of St. Patrick Luncheon in Dedham, and the Quincy St. Patrick’s Day Lunch.

Lynch—who hosted the South Boston Breakfast for five years, and whose district includes the Southie diaspora towns south of the city—naturally has the most demanding schedule. He has already attended state representative James Murphy’s breakfast, the Chief Marshall’s Banquet, state senator Michael Rush’s breakfast, and the South Boston Senior Salute.

It’s not just Lynch’s district. Worcester’s pols—the ones who don’t need to commute to Washington, anyway—can’t seem to get enough of bidding Slainte to each other. Mayor Joe Petty had an event at Fiddler’s Green Pub, state representative John Mahoney had one at O’Connor’s, and there was the Emerald Club Dinner and others this past weekend sprinkled around the city’s big parade—which hometown Congressman Jim McGovern marched in despite temperatures barely topping 20 degrees.

Keating once attended many of the same St. Patrick’s Day events as Lynch, to demonstrate his Erin Go Bragh spirit when he represented Quincy and Norfolk County as state legislator and District Attorney. Now, as congressman for the Cape and Islands, he keeps a more limited schedule, including the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick gala in New Bedford.

Markey and Warren, thanks to their presumably busy status as Senators, get more leeway to skip events—at least, outside of their re-election years. Both are doing the Southie Breakfast, but not much else this year. And Joe Kennedy III, carrying the burden of perhaps the quintessential Massachusetts Irish-American political family, commits to very few St. Patrick’s events, and tries to informally stop by those he can work into his schedule.

Keating says he’s learned two lessons about St. Patrick’s Day events over the years: to limit himself to events within his district; and “to use discretion about what is funny—or whether to be funny.”

Funny is part of the problem. The popularity of the famous South Boston Breakfast has spawned imitation events, including DiDomenico’s in Charlestown, the South Boston Boys & Girls Club luncheon, and others in Worcester, Lowell, and beyond. For some pols, those events have become something of a comedy club circuit, where they work out routines.

“They go into a state of panic over these things,” says John Tobin, a former Boston City Councilor who operates a stand-up comedy production company in addition to being Vice President for Community Affairs at Northeastern University. “They can do a rousing stump speech. They can talk policy for hours. But comedy is hard for them.”

And potentially dangerous. In the old days, a bad or over-the-line joke could be quickly forgotten. “Now, everything is captured on social media,” Tobin says.

Public airing of the roasts has also made office-holders more sensitive to jokes at their expense, which makes everyone pull their punches. The funniest barbs about Marty Walsh or Senator Warren get excised. Expect a lot of easy jabs at Donald Trump, though.

Only a few pols quietly retain the services of joke-writers in preparation for the season. A few others are lucky enough to have speechwriters capable of churning out good one-liners. Most beseech anybody they can find for ideas.

“I directed my staff to report to me immediately if they have any funny thoughts,” Lynch told me last week in an email statement. “We have actually been busy on other issues this year and are sort of scrambling. So any help we can get from our constituents is greatly appreciated.”

I am told that Katherine Clark of Melrose, who as usual headlined the Malden Democrats St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast, occasionally runs jokes past her staff, but ultimately uses her three sons as sounding boards.

Prepared bits can help. Niki Tsongas got a good reception at last year’s Lowell event, I hear, with a “Mean Tweets”-style reading of actual twitter dialog. Lynch was brilliant in a pre-filmed skit with Linda Dorcena Forry two years ago.

Punch lines aren’t the only potential peril, as pols were reminded this past week. The Allied War Veterans Council (AWVC), which runs the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade, unexpectedly denied permission to march to OutVets, which represents LGBT veterans—re-opening a controversy that seemed to have ended in 2015.

Lynch personally got involved, meeting with AWVC leaders Friday night and helping convince them to reverse the OutVets decision.

Lynch’s participation in that parade, through many years in which LGBT groups were banned, came back to bite him in 2013, during his U.S. Senate primary against Ed Markey. That year, Lynch skipped the parade in favor of another one the same day—but to some Democrats, Lynch’s past participation reinforced their suspicions of his progressive bona fides.

Now, although OutVets will march, the parade will still divide pols. Forry is still boycotting, as is city councilor/mayoral candidate Tito Jackson. Congressman Seth Moulton of Salem, who marched with OutVets last year, is taking their side, and will not participate. Markey will march in Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day parade instead, as he has planned to all along.

Perhaps it’s best to just flee to places where St. Patrick’s Day is limited to, well, St. Patrick’s Day. This past weekend, while his colleagues were running the green gauntlet, Moulton was taking meetings in Austin, Texas, at the South By Southwest conference (missing, among others, state senator Joan Lovely’s St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in Salem). In photos posted to social media, he seemed remarkably happy—with not a single shamrock in sight.