Would-be grand marshal keeps St. Patrick’s Day green while world is singing the blues

Peggy Gray, far left in this photo of the 2018 St. Patrick's Day Parade, was supposed to be the grand marshal of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Corktown. The parade was canceled, but Gray still plans to keep the Irish spirit alive this St. Patrick's Day. (Photos courtesy of Peggy Gray)

Cancellation of Corktown parade, Masses and parties can't dampen the spirit of Irish pride for Livonia’s Peggy Gray and her Irish family

LIVONIA — Admittedly, this St. Patrick’s Day is not going according to plan for Peggy Gray.

Gray, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia and several Irish-American organizations across Metro Detroit, was supposed to be the grand marshal for the 62nd annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, originally scheduled for March 15 down Michigan Avenue in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

The COVID-19 outbreak has derailed those plans, and many other plans, but Gray, with a classic Irish spirit of defiance, and her family are persisting, celebrating the patron of her family’s homeland.

“I wasn’t surprised (when they canceled), because they were cancelling parades everywhere, even in Ireland,” Gray told Detroit Catholic. “We happened to be at an event at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall, a Druids concert, a band of Ireland, when word came out the parade was canceled.”

Peggy Gray, left, with Mary Foley, the former deputy mayor of Cork, at the 2019 New York City St. Patrick Day Parade.

Gray has been a delegate to the United Irish Society that organizes the parade for 20 years, doing everything from decorating the reviewing stage, developing promotional posters and working The Parade Times for 20 years. This year, as grand marshal, she was to be on the reviewing stage, judging the various groups and organizations that were to march in the parade.

“I’m disappointed, but it had to be done,” Gray said of the cancellation. “I’m concerned about all the small business that will be impacted, and for the people who are sick, of course. On Sunday, we did go down to Corktown and people were outside, because it was such a beautiful day outside.”

Along with the parade, the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass and “Sharin’ O the Green” celebration at Most Holy Trinity Parish, scheduled for today, was also canceled, coupled with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordering all pubs and bars to close starting at 3 p.m. March 16. 

Though many St. Patrick’s Day plans have been derailed, Gray has a backup plan.

Originally, Gray had rented party buses for her family and friends to travel to the parade, the Detroit Red Wings’ “Irish Heritage Night,” and all the St. Patrick’s Day festivities on March 17. The events are canceled, but the party bus reservations aren’t.

“I hired them so they wouldn’t lose business,” Gray said. “So they are going to pick up my friends and family and bring them to my house and take them home afterward. So we’ll be here.”

Gray and her family will have a small party, eating, drinking beer (Guinness — Gray insists her family does not drink green beer), praying the rosary, and, provided it’s nice outside, jump on the trampoline in the backyard.

“My grandchildren will be here, so we’re have a family gathering,” Gray said. “We’ll remember St. Patrick, say the rosary as a family, having dinner together. We’ll try to find one of the online Masses. My kids will be over here, to help me figure it out.”

Resilient Irish spirit

Gray was slated to be this year’s grand marshal after years of serving and being involved in Irish organizations in the Detroit area. Her grandparents hailed from Galway and South Connamara, Ireland, and it was from them she learned the stories, songs and devotions of the Irish people.

Gray grew up in a predominately Polish neighborhood in southwest Detroit; her family were parishioners at Ste. Anne Parish, but her mother’s parents would stay for a few weeks each year, filling the home with Irish songs and stories of her family “crossing over” to America.

Peggy Gray, second from the left, marching with the Ladies of the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ McAuley Division, based in Oakland County.

“We learned early on, things like the Potato Famine, how it wasn’t a famine, but a potato blight,” Gray said. “There was plenty of food, but the Irish weren’t allowed by foreign occupiers to do anything but grow potatoes; we couldn’t grow corn. We knew about discrimination of ‘Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply;’ we knew that.”

Gray also learned about devotions to Our Lady of Knock and May Crownings, a devotion she still practices at the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall in Redford and parishes across the area.  

Gray also volunteers at the Fr. Solanus Ancient Order of Hibernian chapter on the east side of Detroit, coordinating the annual “Souperbowl” fundraiser for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Every fundraiser features Irish musicians and dancers, many who give their time for the cause.

As the Ancient Order of Hibernians is an Irish-Catholic organization, each event begins with a Mass. Given the restrictions against Mass, Gray and her family will make the most of praying the rosary and visiting a church, if possible.

In a normal year, “then we start the music and dancing and humor,” Gray said. “All our dances in Caeli dancing are stories of Irish history, with a lot of references to the Catholic religion, because they weren’t allowed to practice, so the dances were how we kept the faith going when we couldn’t speak of it.”

This year, with the spread of COVID-19 and the ban on public Masses, the St. Patrick’s Day spirit is a little diminished, Gray admitted. But her Irish ancestors also had to deal with times of trouble, including the suppression of the Roman Catholic Church during Britain’s occupation of Ireland, and the Irish persevered as a people of hope and faith.

“I think people love the Irish so much because we are so much fun,” Gray said. “The Irish are people who endured a lot of distress, but never lost their faith, their humor, the music and dancing; everybody loves that. We are all inclusive; anyone who want to join, can. We’re so happy, and we want people to join in the fun. The Irish try to be a people of charity without the grandeur, and that’s maybe why people appreciate it.”

As another St. Patrick’s Day rolls by, albeit under bizarre conditions, Gray is trying to show a defiant spirit of Irish optimism, thinking about the needs of others and hoping for the best.

“I’m thinking about people who were supposed to have a wedding with 300 people and now they can’t; there are people who are way worse off than we are,” Gray said. “Of course, you have all the people who are sick, their loved ones who are sick. It’s all difficult. But our ancestors went through worse this. They handled it, so we can handle it.”