Damian O'Rourke, a George Mason University student originally from the Shannon Region of Ireland's west coast, was taken aback the first time he experienced a St. Patrick's Day celebration in the United States. A member of the GMU soccer team at the time, O'Rourke ventured out to the bars of Old Town Fairfax with a few of his countrymen, sporting Irish soccer jerseys and not really knowing what to expect.
"The first time we had a St. Paddy's Day here, it was weird because everyone was wearing green and praising all things Irish," recalled O'Rourke of the 2002 celebration. "Our first celebration was at Ned Devine's. Basically we went in, had a lot to drink and had a great time. Everyone was going all out and I thought it was great — it was real quality."
O'Rourke's friend and teammate, David Quinn, who originally hails from Ireland's south coast and is now the Assistant Turf Manager at GMU, was equally surprised by the turnout of the holiday, recalling that the group, "got a lot of attention with people telling us about their descendants — everyone becomes Irish that night."
A HOLIDAY THAT TRADITIONALLY celebrates Ireland's first introduction to Christianity, brought to the Emerald Isle by St. Patrick in the fifth century, both O'Rourke and Quinn remember the St. Patrick's Day celebrations of their grade-school youth as being very community oriented, culminating in a parade through the town.
"My recollection of St. Patrick's Day is more in school," said O'Rourke. "Leading up to St. Patrick's Day, we would hear stories and folklore about what [St. Patrick] did back in the day. We wore emblems on our crest — we'd pin real shamrocks on our chests, sometimes more than one. There would be parades in town and big ones in the local cities."
"Back home, the week leading up to it was intense about getting ready for the parade," said Quinn. "It kind of gave a community feel with the younger children getting involved."
Dominic Keane, manager of Auld Shebeen in Fairfax, emigrated to the United States 13 years ago from Dublin and spent his first St. Patrick's Day in San Francisco.
"I couldn't believe it to be honest with you," said Keane. "I knew it would be a busy day. Everyone was in great spirits and everyone was out dancing and singing."
"At home it's a big holiday — don't get me wrong," he continued. "But here it's celebrated by everyone. At home you'd get up, go to mass — it's a family day."
AS KEANE, QUINN and O'Rourke all experienced, St. Patrick's Day for many in America centers largely around the pub, the holiday's origins somewhat lost in translation — but a few local pubs are pulling out all the stops on March 17 to bring an authentic slice of Irish life to Fairfax County.
Mike Kearney, owner of the Old Brogue in Great Falls, says St. Patrick's Day brings the biggest business of the year to his Irish country-styled pub — and this St. Patrick's Day also marks the 26th anniversary of the establishment.
"On an average night, we'll serve 400 people here," said Kearney, who has been traveling to Ireland since the age of six, often to see his late Grandfather, the former owner of a pub in Derry, Ireland named The Smugglers Inn. "We're usually just packed and it's constantly a turnover and constantly go-go-go. But on St. Patrick's Day, we'll usually serve close to 2,000 people."
Inside the dimly lighted, dark wood bar area of the Old Brogue, a digital clock counts down the days, hours and minutes to March 17.
Ken Bass, a Great Falls resident and Old Brogue regular sat near the clock, finishing his corned beef dish and sipping on a traditional Irish coffee.
"The first St. Paddy's Day I did here was in 1988," said Bass. "I was down in D.C. at a 'Friendly Sons' dinner, swung by here afterwards and it was still open. I was the only one in a tux. It's the closest thing I've seen in the Washington D.C. area to an authentic pub — and one with a family atmosphere."
"When you walk in here, it's like you're walking back in time," added Kearney. "I think we're well grounded here — we could replace the tables but all of these dings here are a story. You never really know who is sitting next to you. It could be the Vice President of AOL or a long time resident — and no one really cares."
Quinn, who recently moved from Fairfax to Sterling, agrees that the Old Brogue offers a level of authenticity that can only come with age.
"It's very similar to what you would find [in Ireland]," he said. "It's kind of out there, like the pubs you would stumble across in the countryside."
For this year's annual celebration, Kearney has organized a variety of entertainment — including live music all day in the pub with Conor Malone, traditional Irish lunch and dinner in the Snuggery Dining Room with music performances by Don Corbert and the Sarah Croker Trio, as well as a tent addition to the front patio of the Old Brogue to house the holiday surge of patrons.
In Fairfax, Keane noted that the Auld Shebeen is celebrating 'Irish Week," culminating on St. Patrick's Day, which begins with the anticipated Six Nations Rugby match that pits Ireland against Italy — a morning game, Keane said the doors of the Auld Shebeen open at 6 a.m. on Saturday. Throughout the week, the pub features Irish music stylings of bagpipes and local celtic groups — as well as traditional fare and Irish beer on tap.
"Normally the Auld Shebeen in Fairfax has some good bands going on all day," said O'Rourke. When asked for his favorite dish that reminds him of home, O'Rourke settled on the Fried breakfast — which offers eggs, sausage, bacon and soda bread.
"It's all bloody tasty," he said. "The Auld Shebeen has that on the menu — it's something I crave every now and then."
SINCE HIS FIRST St. Patrick's Day in America in 2002, Quinn says that he has found a network of other Irish and American residents and who have turned what is usually a weekend celebration into a month long event — capitalizing on events happening in Washington, D.C., Alexandria and Fairfax County and taking advantage of the atmospheres that establishments like the Old Brogue and Auld Shebeen have to offer. But while Quinn won't be in the area this holiday, he believes the key to having a good St. Patrick's day is about "going out and having a good time."
"I really liked to see the different walks of life and that they are celebrating your nationality," he added. "It's nice that your country and where you were born and raised is associated with that. It gives you a sense of pride."