“God love him, you can’t have a holiday without Mike,” says Beth Lipski of her uncle, Mike Welch. He’s the one standing in full Tipperary kilt on the greensward of Balboa Park along Sixth Avenue, with the green dye tinting his beard and eyebrows and the shamrock dangling from his right earlobe. Most of the time, he’s a respected allergist. Today, he’s the leader of the 666 Irish Division Rebels — so named because he lives just north of here, in 666 Upas, which is also the site of his annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade afterparty.
But first, jokes.
He passes slips of paper to everyone in his party, then bids each to read their joke into his microphone, which broadcasts to the speaker held aloft by his (equally Irish) wife Trudy. The jokes are new this year; in 2017, the group posed as Irish Drunks for Trump — “very tongue in cheek” — and too few passersby got the gag. So now it’s back to traditional fare. Like the one about Mary, who weepingly tells the priest that her husband died last night. The priest asks if the man had a last request, and she repeats it, “Please, Mary, put down that damn gun…” The jokes land well, helped, perhaps, by a drop o’ the craythur. (It’s after noon, and they’ve been here under the Rebels’ shade tent since 10.)
Welch’s heritage is not simply an excuse to dress up, drink up, and serve up slabs of corned beef (there there is that as well). “I’ve stood on the plot of land where my great-great-grandfather eked out a living back in the old days,” he says. “They’re very into that back in Ireland; it’s part of their tourism business. As you get older, you want to know your origin, and they know that a lot of us Americans want to find out where we came from.”
I tell him that I’ve been wondering what being Irish means to the people here — if it’s something more than drink at this point. “A lot happens in the pub,” he answers, putting my question in its place. “It’s still an important place for music, for falling in love, for gossip.”
Instead of a pub, Welch’s crowd convenes amid the 1970s splendor of 666 Upas’ third-floor common room. (Oh, the glory of those circular, globular chandeliers.) As in years past, the Helix High School bagpipe band arrives for a post-parade concert on the balcony. “The Irish pipe is the Uilleann, and it’s quiet and melodic,” says instructor Shawn Eccles. “But when you hit a parade with the Scottish highlander pipes, that’s when the crowd goes crazy.”
They’re followed by Clan Rince, an Irish dance troupe. One of the girls suggests that the reason Irish dancers keep their arms at their sides has to do with keeping one’s movements hidden from English oppressors. It’s probably blarney, but it does sound Irish.
As the band packs up its pipes, Welch writes Eccles a check. “I don’t have to ask the date,” he deadpans. “We’ll be here next year,” assures Eccles.