HUBBARDSTON — Historically speaking, there’s some doubt as to whether St. Patrick really drove the snakes from Ireland, or whether that’s simply a myth, bound inextricably to his conversion to Christianity of several pagan sects whose worship had previously included images of snakes. There have even been some latter-day theologians who have questioned the very legitimacy of Patrick’s sainthood itself.
If that’s your opinion, it’s one you were probably inclined to keep to yourself on St. Patrick’s Day in Hubbardston. They take St. Patrick’s Day seriously at Shiel’s Tavern, reputed to be Michigan’s oldest pub.
The annual event features Irish dancers, Celtic music, a parade and even a bagpiper, for both authenticity’s sake and the sheer fun of it.
That fun was under way early; by 10:30 a.m., Shiel’s was filled to near capacity. Many of those present were using the pub as a staging area for the 11 a.m. parade, a small but enthusiastic group traversing what may be the world’s shortest parade route — about a block — right past the front of the pub and into the front door.
According to Barb Blanchard, who together with her husband, Bill Cunningham, own Shiel’s, the event is the small village’s most important annual festival. Considering the town’s long Irish heritage, that’s not surprising.
Blanchard says the town consists of “about four” families, though that may be a bit of an exaggeration.
“My husband was born and raised in Hubbardston,” Blanchard said. “He dragged me here. Hubbardston takes care of its own, though; the people here take care of their own. It’s really a very nice little town. But everyone is related in at least a couple different ways.”
This year’s grand marshal, Clare Benedict Cunningham, for instance, is Bill’s uncle. His picture, framed in gilt, was proudly displayed on the pub’s wall throughout the celebration.
Though the parade was held Sunday — St. Pat’s Day — the party lasted throughout the weekend. According to Blanchard, the bar ran out of beer Saturday evening, even though management had “doubled up” on their ordering earlier in the week.
“It’s been very busy,” she said. “This is our third St. Patrick’s Day (as owners of the bar), though Sundays aren’t usually as busy as the rest of the time.”
That wasn’t the case this past Sunday, however. St. Patrick’s Day celebrants from as far away as Grand Rapids arrived by the busload (literally — there were two busloads filled with folks dressed in authentic Irish costumes) to enjoy the festivities.
Shiel’s sold Irish stew throughout the day, with profits from the $5-per-bowl donations going toward Hubbardston’s youth Little League baseball teams.
Sandy Rousch, who has made the trip from Muskegon to Hubbardston every St. Pat’s Day for the past four years, said the event is more than worth the drive.
“They really know how to do it here,” Rousch said. “I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe Ireland.”