Sandy Byrnes tosses candy to kids during the Forest Park St. Patrick's Day Parade on Madison Street. The weather couldn't have been finer and Irish eyes were smiling.

Who can forget our last “normal” day before the pandemic? It was March 7, 2020 and we enjoyed our annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. We celebrated Irish culture with music and dancing. As usual, the final float carried a rock band. Their nickname was “Johnnie Corona and the Viruses.” It was the last day anyone could joke about COVID-19.

We just now celebrated our newest “normal” day, with the return of the parade. The weather was glorious on March 5. We had an enormous turnout on Madison Street. The atmosphere was especially festive because we were so grateful to be together again. After two years of masking and social distancing, we hugged. Kids scrambled to gather candy thrown from passing floats. There may even have been some beer drinking. 

It’s fun to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but I’m reading about a dark chapter in Irish history. I didn’t know much about the Great Famine that devastated Ireland in the 1840s until I read Paddy’s Lament, by Thomas Gallagher. I was stunned by the degree of suffering, as two million died and another million emigrated. My family was among those who escaped. We came to Chicago because we were starving to death. 

I was also struck by the parallels between the famine and the pandemic. Prior to the potato blight, the Irish peasants may have been poor, but they knew how to enjoy life. They were fun-loving and lived in close-knit villages with a communal spirit. But all that changed with the famine. As one eyewitness reported, “Sport and pastimes disappeared. Poetry, music and dancing stopped.”

It’s like what our own convivial village suffered because many of our businesses depend on social interaction. Our economy is based on providing gathering spots where people can have a good time. We’re so fun-loving, we come up with constant reasons to celebrate. We’ve had great times at Ribfest, German Fest and Casket Races. During the summer, we come together for the 4th of July fireworks, the No Gloves Tournament and the Groovin’ in the Grove concerts. 

But for two years, we didn’t have these gatherings. We were afraid to socialize. We isolated and lived in dread of a disease. Our bars and restaurants suffered. Some closed their doors for good. Like the famine, the pandemic caused massive social and economic upheaval. Another parallel is that government policies made both crises worse.

Ireland was not suffering from a food shortage during the famine. Huge quantities of grain and meat were being exported from Ireland to England, while the potato-dependent Irish peasants starved to death. They also died in droves from disease. Many sick people died alone because even their family members wouldn’t go near them.

Wakes and funerals are sacred rituals for the Irish, but services stopped being held and victims were no longer being buried in “sacred” ground. Americans had the same bitter experience during the pandemic. We couldn’t visit our sick loved ones and funerals were remote. 

Just as the British response to the famine was seen as indifferent and uncaring, our own government made missteps. The pandemic was at first downplayed. Then the CDC issued confusing guidelines. We developed vaccines but not everyone was on board for getting shots and wearing masks. The U.S. has had a far higher death rate than other wealthy countries. But, like the Irish, we’re resilient. 

Forest Park displayed its resilience last Saturday. We came through the dark days, with our community spirit intact. As usual, the final float in our parade carried a rock band. This time their nickname was “Vinnie and the Vaccines.”

John Rice, who grew up in Oak Park and now lives in Forest Park, writes a weekly column for the Forest Park Review, a Growing Community Media publication.

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