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Cover Story

An Irish free-for-all


Poor ol’ Mick Flaherty. He got a wee too sauced at a downtown tavern last week — too much of the Guinness and whiskeys, one might suspect. He stumbled out of the pub and into a warm Sunday afternoon air. His drunken eyes squinted in the light as an ambulance went screaming by at great speed. Blue and red lights flashing, siren blaring, it roared up Court Avenue with Mick in full sprint after it — a hundred yards, 200, 300, almost a quarter of a mile, Flaherty ran until his heaving lungs gave way, his stretched legs buckled and he fell, face-first, into the gutter. Barely able to form words, with his last breath he slurred, “Keep your damn ice cream.”

CVA_14PAGE 184646It’s easy to have a laugh at a drunken mess — unless that mess is you, in which case it takes a little hindsight to come around and see the humor — but, there’s no denying alcohol makes people do strange things. So this year’s annual Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick’s Day (FSOSP) Parade is sure to be brimming with oddities of the sort, most of which will surely be inspired by an intoxicating muse of the alcoholic variety, as per the hearty tradition. It’s perhaps the only day when Des Moines police officers look the other way as folks brown-bag their bottles, cans and cups and break every open-container and public intox law on the books.

But it’s not just the crowd. The old Irish holiday might be the only one in American history that has plenty o’ booze a flowin’ aboard the floats, too. The Irish Queen, who’s crowned by the FSOSP board prior to the parade, might be the only princess in the history of parades who waves to her adoring fans with one hand and clutches a beer with the other. How is this abomination of the law suddenly acceptable by all?

“It’s in the city ordinance,” said Sgt. Jason Halifax.

It’s true. As long as people stay within the confines of the parade route, they’re absolutely within their legal limits to drink alcohol:

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CVA_14PAGE 1668465“A person shall not use or consume alcoholic liquor, wine or beer upon the public streets, sidewalks or highways,” (so goes the city ordinance, but then comes the important part) “except this prohibition shall not apply to the consumption of wine or beer on a sidewalk along a bona fide parade route while a parade is in progress or along any street, sidewalk or highway which has been temporarily closed by action of the city council during the period of temporary closure.”

Thank you, Ordinance Section 70-123 – Public consumption of alcohol. But just because it’s officially legal doesn’t mean cops necessarily “look the other way.”

“We don’t have any more patrol officers assigned, but there are several off-duty positions that day,” Halifax said. “The parade route will probably have a dozen or so, then there are others working in the Court Avenue district from around noon till 2 a.m. We do see more arrests, mostly for public intox.”

CVA_14PAGE 1864654Increased public intox offenses is an obvious side-effect of allowing drinking during the parade, but, as long as the parade is caravanning, and people are along the designated route, it’s officially legal, and thousands of attendees are happy about that fact and take full advantage. Still, it’s probably safe to assume that a good percentage of the 25,000-plus people who attend the parade and its off-shoot parties every year are well over the .08 blood-alcohol level of legal tolerance for being in public, riding in (or on) vehicles and carrying cups of beer around freely. Imagine the cost of enforcing the public consumption of alcohol laws without the subsection allowing it for parades. Is there enough room in the Polk County fish bowl for that many Mick Flahertys?

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Regardless, the fact is, you can drink. You can drink until you are drunk. But it’s what you do from there that you must be mindful of, Halifax advises. Just because the city is allowing you to be the village drunkard for a day — Mayberry’s own Otis, times a couple thousand — doesn’t mean you can go ahead and pee where you please, puke in the flower pots or raise hell to the point of disrupting the peace.

Of course, safety has been the forefront in the minds of the event’s organizers and facilitators from day one — even more than celebrating the holiday. Every year the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick of Central Iowa hold monthly meetings leading up to its climatic St. Patty’s Day event, and the first item on the agenda is always safety.

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“The City of Des Moines has never been inflexible or demanding in its dealing with the Sons,” noted the out-going FSOSP chapter president, Ed Modglin, to club members in his final address in the group’s monthly newsletter. “The safety of the crowd is paramount and will continue to be addressed and improved as time goes on. No one involved in this parade wants anyone hurt, especially a child grubbing around for a Tootsie Roll.”

CVA_14PAGE 18468Police on bikes and volunteers in golf carts will be helping patrol the crowd and keep the kiddies behind the green line (a green, plastic snow fence stretching along both side of the parade route to barricade the crowd from the parade floats). In the history of the FSOSP Parade, it’s been so far so good.

“We usually don’t do much crowd control, at least there has not been a need for it,” Halifax said.

Somehow, in all the madness and drunkenness, Granny in her hankerchief, Mom pushing a stroller, Dad with his daughter on his shoulders and a really really drunk guy and his buddies can all harmoniously co-exist on the same corner to watch the green and orange float by.

“Parades are for everybody,” said long-time parade-goer (and one of the aforementioned drunk guys) Craig Ackerman.

Ackerman, of Polk City, admits he usually sticks to the west side during St. Patty’s Day, because that’s where everybody knows his name. But when he’s looking for a different kind of cheers — the kind you raise your glass to rather than the quiet pub with a bar stool cushion that is perfectly formed to your ass — Ackerman and his crew head downtown.

“Downtown there are more random people compared to the west side where I know everyone,” he said. “Downtown can be more fun because of that reason. You meet new people and find something different, but in the same breath, it’s nice to come back where I know people, too.

CVA_14PAGE 16646“It’s fun to start at Court Avenue, because they have great festivities. The No. 1 best thing about downtown is the entertainment — great bands, and it’s cheap to get in and good drink specials, too.

“Last year we jumped on a random party bus, and it was a blast.”

Ackerman couldn’t say on the record what was so fun about the hijacking, but surely nothing inappropriate went on as the bus carried him and a bus full of drunk women from Court Avenue to the West Des Moines St. Patty’s Day crawl of Sully’s, West Port Lounge and Limey’s and eventually landed him back in the comforts of Clive at Mickey’s, Tapz and Down Under.

“With as much work that goes into this, I have to say it’s worth it,” Modglin wrote in his letter to the FSOSP. “We put on a great event that’s enjoyed by tens of thousands of people and is a great plus to the community.”

 “And it all adds a lot of stimuli to the local economy, among other things,” Ackerman laughed. CV

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