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When people think of St. Patrick’s Day, they often think of New York or Boston, big East Coast metropolises settled by scores of Irish who came across the ocean and brought their culture to neighborhoods in America’s grandest cities.
But city folk are not the only ones who carry on the Irish legacy, the Western Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee became home to tens of thousands of Irish, particularly the Ulster Scots, also known as the Scots Irish.
Much of Appalachian Mountain culture celebrated today, like clogging, traces its roots to Irish ancestors. In fact, bluegrass, the music of the mountains, carries very similar instrumentation to traditional Celtic music and the high reedy Bluegrass singing style comes straight from Ireland.
So while they may be having St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York, Boston and Chicago, if you want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day another way, come to the mountains.
Here are the top 5 ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the Smoky Mountains.
1. Listen to some authentic Irish music at Dollywood
Look, the Irish, like the people of Appalachia have been willing to profit off of other’s perceptions of their culture. The tourists will pay for leprechauns and heavy accents? By God, that’s what they’ll get. Dollywood will traffic in some of the same ideals, corn pone humor, heavy accents, and the whole deal. But, if you know where to look, Dollywood does a lot more than serve up a heaping helping of stereotypes. Part of that is the annual Festival of Nations each spring. The park brings in acts from all over the world, celebrating cultures from Africa, Asia, South America and yes, Ireland. How authentic are the acts? It depends, honestly. They are somewhat homogenized, theme-park friendly music acts, but still, you have to give Dollywood credit. It’s like a month-long Appalachian Epcot and it’s always pretty awesome.
As part of that celebration there is almost always a musical act from Ireland and this year is no different.
JigJam is a multi-award winning quartet from the midlands of Ireland. They blend traditional Irish music with Bluegrass and Americana which has been branded as “Celtgrass” but I’m not hopeful that branding is going to stick. They are very good and very Irish and if you want to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day – albeit a day late – there’s no better place in the mountains to do it than with JigJam at Dollywood.
JigJam will be at the Festival of Nations from March 18 (the day after St. Patrick’s Day) through April 20.
2. Buy some authentic items from the homeland at Celtic Heritage in Gatlinburg
Confession time: I have never been much in touch with my Irish heritage, having only recently discovered the Ring of Gullion in the County Armagh. But even before I knew just how much Irish blood runs through me, I thought this little shop which specializes in items that are hard to find on this side of the pond was cool. They offer jewelry, clothing, food, music, clan heraldry and various other collectibles in store and, even if you’re not very Irish, spending some time in this store gives the right flavor to put you in a St. Patrick’s mood.
3 Go to the Island
No, not that Island. The Island is Pigeon Forge is a giant “family fun center” AKA place for the tourists. And for one day a year it becomes partially Emerald Island. This year, on St. Patrick’s Day, the Island will feature the music of Sigean and traditional Irish step dancers starting at 2 p.m. The fountains will be dyed green and the lights on the giant Ferris wheel will be green as well. Many of the Island’s restaurants will serve green beer. This is the Americanized cartoon celebration of St. Patrick’s Day but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.
4. Go to Shamrock’s
Look, I didn’t want to fall into stereotypes here, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t give you a couple of options to get your drink on. Shamrock’s isn’t the most authentic pub in Sevier County but I will not send you to a pub that bills itself as “British” for St. Patrick’s Day. I may not be very Irish, but by God there are some lines I won’t cross. Shamrock’s has live music and, sometimes karaoke, but I won’t hold that against them here. Located just off the strip, it’s usually a high-energy place to have fun.
5. Pub crawl Gatlinburg style
Get you some moonshine. Be safe. Don’t be stupid. Get passes to ride the trolley and park your car for the night. But, if you want to have a proper drinking celebration in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, hit the moonshine distilleries. If you find one where the spirits are flowing and they’re singing the old Irish songs, stay and have fun. Otherwise get a drink or two and move on to the next one. Provided you can walk, I’d start at the top of the strip and Gatlinburg and work my way down. Remember to watch traffic; you’re going to have to cross roads and to not be belligerent. It’s still a family town after all, but Gatlinburg on St. Patrick’s Day can be a pretty great place for a pub crawl. Just watch out for the English.
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