Talk about the luck of the Irish. It was in full swing this past Saturday as Alexandria hosted the Irish Festival, now known as John Fitzgerald Day, at Waterfront Park.
With what seems like a summer of constant rain, stifling humidity and violent thunderstorms, the 24th annual event was greeted with some of the best weather of the past three months. And throngs turned out to prove it.
"This was the biggest crowd we have ever had. The police estimated it topped 25,000 by the day's end," Pat Troy, chairman, founder and master of ceremonies for the festival and the City's St. Patrick's Day Parade, said. "We ran out of stew and hot dogs about two hours before the end at 7 p.m."
Attendees also consumed more than 20 kegs of beer, according to Troy. Profit from the beer goes to the Alexandria Ballyshaners, Inc., sponsors of both the parade and festival. The are joined in the latter event by co-sponsor Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs.
Troy declared last year that the event would no longer be known as The Irish Festival but rather "John Fitzgerald Day" to accentuate his decade-long struggle to get Waterfront Park renamed in honor of one of Alexandria's founders. Fitzgerald served as George Washington's aide de camp and secretary from 1776 to 1782 as well as Alexandria's mayor, 1886-1887.
In 1795 he was commissioned a U.S. Naval officer for the fortification of Alexandria. Col. John Fitzgerald died Dec. 2, 1799, within 12 days of his close friend Gen. George Washington.
ONCE AGAIN SATURDAY, Troy urged those attending the festival to pressure City Council to bring the matter of renaming the park, which Troy dubs "No Name Park," to a public hearing. "I've spent 10 years trying to get this park named for John Fitzgerald," he said from the bandstand.
"The Irish are the number one ethnic group in Alexandria. There are 14,750 Irish. The Germans are second and the English third," Troy said.
Last year, during the festival, Troy circulated a petition urging City Council to consider the renaming. It stated, "We the undersigned ... urge the Mayor and City Council to consider renaming Waterfront Park after Col. John Fitzgerald, patriot, visionary ..."
Troy said, "This park would not be here today if it was not for John Fitzgerald." He is credited with filling in the river to create the land that encompasses the area from Lee Street to today's river edge in that section of Alexandria which includes Waterfront Park and the Torpedo Factory Arts Center.
"I was so upset when I was denied even a public hearing on this issue by City Council. I lost on a vote of four to three. Those who voted in favor of the public hearing were Mayor Bill Euille, Councilman Andrew Macdonald and Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. You all can figure out who the four were who voted against me," he said.
One of those four, Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper, who serves on the Council's Naming Committee, was standing behind Troy on stage at the time. Only she and Euille were present for this year's event. The other three voting against Troy's request for a public hearing were Councilmen Ludwig P. Gaines, Rob Krupicka and Paul G. Smedberg.
"I urge all of you present to talk to these four on Council who voted against me. These people in government represent us," Troy said. Coming to the microphone, Euille congratulated Troy and the Ballyshaners on the event. "Irish eyes are truly smiling today with this wonderful weather. We honor our ethnicity in this City. And, although Alexandria was settled by the Scots, the Irish played a major role," Euille said.
Last year Euille supported the use of petitions to get the matter before City Council. "This is the right procedure, to have the petition. Up until now it has been Pat bringing this matter to Council. Now it will be backed by other Alexandria citizens," he said at that time. Petitions were available and being signed again at this year's event.
HIGHLIGHTING THE OPENING festivities, following the grand march lead by the Alexandria Pipes and Drum Corps, was the presentation of the second John Fitzgerald Plaque by last year's original recipient, Alexandria historian Mike Miller. The 2004 award went to Alexandria City Councilman Andrew Macdonald.
Each year's opening ceremonies include a rendition of both the U.S. and Ireland national anthems. This year they were sung by Brian Gaffney, a Maryland resident originally from Tralee, County Carey, Ireland. "It took him three hours to get here due to backup on the Beltway," Troy said, explaining the 20-minute delay in getting the event underway.
Other participants on stage included Mike Tiddy, president, Ballyshaners, Inc.; Father John Melmer, associate pastor, St. Marys Catholic Church and Chaplin, Knights of Columbus, who offered the benediction; state Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-45); and retired Judge Daniel O'Flaherty, a past Grand Marshall, St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Following the initial welcome, Troy donned a leprechaun suit entertaining children on stage and throughout the park. Attendees were able to purchase a variety of Irish made items as well as heraldry souvenirs and family tree documentation and crests.