In some communities, St. Patrick’s Day is a brief affair, celebrated on one rowdy night. Here in Oak Park and River Forest-two villages with an exceptionally high percentage of Irish-Americans-it’s more like a season.

“It starts in late February and goes all the way until March 18. It’s more like three or four weeks than it is a day,” said Cliff Carlson, publisher of The Irish American News, which is based in Oak Park. “The high holidays, I call them.”

Carlson is a busy man this time of year: he’s traveling to Washington, D.C., then New York, and then back to Chicago, where he will probably be at the reviewing stand for the St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown. And earlier this month, on March 1, Carlson put out an 88-page paper, over 20,000 copies of which will be shipped to 600 locations to be distributed.

It’s also hectic in March at the northeast corner of Oak Park Avenue and North Boulevard, the location of the Irish Shop.

“We have a customer base of about 5,000-especially around March 17. It’s not just St. Patrick’s Day anymore, but a season,” said red-haired Belfast native Ann August, the store’s owner. “All these Irish-Americans are rallying around to be happy about their heritage.”

It’s no coincidence that the Oak Park-River Forest area is home to the Irish Shop and the Irish-American News: the villages have extraordinarily high numbers of residents of Irish-American descent. According to the 2000 census, the number of people of Irish ancestry in Oak Park is 9,179, comprising 17.5 percent of the population. An even higher fraction of River Forest residents have Irish blood in them-30.9 percent, to be exact, totalling 3,592 Irish-American villagers. Both communities far exceed Illinois’ percentage of 12.2.

“Oak Park, River Forest, Elmwood Park, Forest Park, Berwyn-there’s just a mint of Irish population in the surrounding suburbs. It’s great. Demographically, there’s a ton of Irish-American people,” said August. “Here on the West Side, they’re just spread out a little more, but we have a lot of them.”

Irish-Americans, not surprisingly, tend to be looking for items that will remind them of the old sod-sometimes literally. The Irish Shop is selling Irish “turf,” for $27.95 a bundle.

“There’s a big connection between Irish-Americans and Ireland, no matter what generation they are,” observed Jim August, Ann’s husband. Irish candy bars, potato chips, tea, and Celtic knots will do the trick, he said, but there’s one item in particular that has a fantastic story behind it.

That would be the Claddagh ring. “The story of it is that Richard Joyce was kidnapped by marauding pirates going up the coast from Africa, and he was taken back as a slave,” August explained. “As a slave in Africa, he learned the trade of goldsmith. He earned his freedom and made this ring for his sweetheart, who waited for him.” Other than the shamrock or the harp, it is the most popular symbol of Irishness.

Being Irish is so popular in Oak Park and River Forest that if you want your house cleaned by professionals, you can call-who else?-the Irish Cleaning Services on Roosevelt Road in Oak Park.

And there are countless other ways Irish-Americans make their presence felt.

Carlson said that although Irish-Americans tend to blend in, their influence is everywhere. “In writing, in music, in stage, on the screen, in politics, in jobs like the police department and the fire department, the Irish are still strong,” he said. “We carry on the traditions of the culture from Ireland, more so than many ethnic groups. I’m half Swedish, and we don’t do anything like this.”

The Irish Shop is growing to meet more and more of the Irish-American community’s needs. “We are travel agents because we had so many asking us where to go when we go to Ireland. We’ve become full service: people ask us about genealogy, they ask us about pronunciation and spelling. A schoolteacher called to bring in children to see the Irish dancing costumes-it’s become almost like a cultural center,” said Jim August.

But at no other time than St. Patrick’s Day do the green and orange in the community stand out more.

After work on Saturday, Jim plans to “sneak out and get a pint of Guinness-a pint of Guinness is compulsory.”

August has a piece of advice on how to sound like you’re right off the plane from Dublin on the night of March 17. Ask your neigbor, “Hey, what’s the craic?” That is, are you having a good time? If she replies, “The craic is 90,” you’re having a great time.

For a place where you can raise your craic (pronounced “crack”), check out the sidebar.

At FitzGerald’s, 6615 W. Roosevelt Road, in Berwyn, performers in the all-day party include the Dooley Brothers, Trillium, the Mayer School of Irish Dance with Paul McHugh and Mary Mayer-McHugh, Irish fiddling with the Avenue Kids, jamband groove gurus Jack Straw, and Irish-American Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen performing New Orleans blues and R&B.

NCAA basketball games will be broadcast in the sidebar all day. Pints of Guinness, Harp, and Smithwicks will be available on tap, and the Irish Black & Tan will be on special.

Wishbone Restaurant will serve Guinness beef stew, corned beef and cabbage, and soda bread at a “pick-‘n’-pay” buffet.

All children must be accompanied by an adult and are welcome to stay until 10 p.m. Doors open at noon, and performances begin at 1 p.m. Entrance $10, or $5 for kids, 12 and under. Call 708/788-2118.

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