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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Mar 20 1996
Most every country has a patron saint: England has her St. George, Scotland has St. Andrew, Mexico has the Virgin of Guadelupe. Uniquely, Ireland's St. Patrick, who is attributed (some would say branded) with driving the snakes and druids out of Eire, is celebrated in almost every major city in the world. While, in much of Ireland, the day is still treated as one of holy obligation -- reserved for attending Mass and visiting sacred sites -- here in the good ole U.S. of A. it has become, according to one gent, "a Miller Lite commercial" complete with mandatory beer-swilling, fuzzy leprechauns, and loud shamrock ties.

Unfortunately, aside from stunning Sunday weather and a float of drunken Irish Elvises sponsored by Blake's and the Starry Plough, the San Francisco St. Patrick's Day Parade struggles to meet even the mildest consumerist expectations. Among a slew of high school bands, ROTC units, dog clubs (yes, Irish setters), and the city's finest -- Mayor Willie Brown, Sen. Quentin Kopp, mounted police, and firefighters -- is the occasional group of Irish musicians or dancers who are immediately upstaged by the ludicrously out-of-place floats which appear to have missed a turn on the way to Carnaval.

"It's not even enough to get me to wear my silly hat," complains a man waving a small green plastic derby. "But the horses were a hit." He motions to his wee daughter who teeters in the afternoon sun.

Supporters of the Irish Liberation Army pass by wearing large heads blindfolded by British flags to symbolize Americans blinded by the British media, but a ruddy man wearing an IRA T-shirt is unswayed.

"Lotta padding in this parade," he says pointing to a group of spiffy sanitation engineers as they roll highly polished garbage cans down the center of Market Street.

Elsewhere, there are St. Paddy's celebrations of a more noble persuasion to be had, whether the corned beef and cabbage being served by the wacky folks down at the Dovre Club or the cultural salute at "Coirm Cheoil" (Gaelic for "musical happening"), a weekly event at Nickie's BBQ. "People think running an Irish night is about getting drunk and playing the Pogues," explains Mark Walshe, the 30-year-old DJ and promoter. "I do both, but there's more to Irish music than bawdy drinking songs. It's quite vast."

The tiny club's interior, illuminated only by the mellow glow of twinkle lights and red and blue bubble bulbs, is crowded as one would expect on the 17th of March, but the 10 o'clock crowd is surprisingly serene. While some folks sip pints and chat in the shadows, most of the patrons sit enraptured by Storm in the Teacup, a traditional Irish group comprised of two fiddle players, a bouzouki/guitarist, and a vocalist.

"It's very participatory," says Walshe from inside his candlelit DJ booth. As if on cue, several crowd members respond to the musicians with small whoops and whistles. "It's not like most musical forms," Walshe continues. "There's no real division between the band and the audience." Subtle percussion is supplied by the gentle tapping of feet as an inspired American woman takes up a traditional Irish dance, only to be joined by an Irishman who, to her amazement, actually knows how to lead. Not to be outdone, an Italian from Boston performs an improvised version of the same with a hearty grin and a challenge to all those real Irishmen.

The first of many sets finished, the crowd turns back to the bar to quaff fresh, frothy pints served up by the elder brother/partner, Ed Walshe, while Mark spins local musician John Hicks and the more traditional De Danann.

"I like to start the evening off with more traditional and folk music," explains Mark. "It has a strength and power all its own. Later in the evening I'll play the artists everyone recognizes like U2, the Waterboys, and Thin Lizzy or new artists like Schtum. I like to think that people have figured it out and that they come in at the time that most appeals to them." After two years, "Coirm Cheoil" has managed to play host to a nice cross section of nationalities and musical tastes without ever having lost its integrity -- meaning there are always plenty of Irish people present.

"I wanted to be faithful," Mark explains. "This is not about corned beef and cabbage or debauchery -- though that may well be included. This is a celebration of Irish music and culture. The music is joyous. It doesn't matter where you're from."

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By Silke Tudor

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