Delray Beach’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade began 45 years ago with an Irish bar owner carrying a green pig.
The parade down Atlantic Avenue on Saturday has grown into what its organizer calls “a public relations bonanza” for Florida firefighters in tough times.
More than 500 firefighters from across the state as well as Boston, New York City and two foreign countries rode firetrucks and marched with bagpipes, drums and Dalmatians.
“There are those who don’t appreciate us until they’re in need,” Harold Schaitberger, the president of the 300,000-member International Association of Fire Firefighters, told parade participants in a pre-parade pep talk.
“They attack our benefits and retirement,” Schaitberger said. “I hope the citizens of Delray Beach and Florida will realize in their time of need that none of you question your responsibility even in an economy that’s gone bust.”
Organizers estimated a crowd of more than 100,000 watched along the parade route where 12 ladder trucks from Miami to Martin County hoisted giant banners proclaiming their hometowns.
Pipe and drum units provided music. Honor guards marched with flags and ornate fire axes.
“Children need to see clean-cut firefighters marching tall and proud with honor and dignity,” said parade organizer John Fischer of Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue.
“This parade couldn’t come at a better time than now when firefighters across the country are being attacked by politicians,” Fischer said, cautioning the firefighters not to ruin it by drinking too much free beer at Old School Square after the parade.
Parade founder Maury Power died in 1996. His green pig named Porkchop is no more.
The organizers of Garlic Fest, another annual Delray Beach event, took over the St. Patrick’s Parade in 2008 hoping that a firefighter theme might draw more spectators.
“This is now our premier event in Florida,” Fort Myers firefighter John McMahon said. “A firefighters parade! I wouldn’t miss it for the world. My brothers are here.”
The Dublin Fire Brigade Pipe Band from Ireland performed in 2010, transforming the parade into an international event.
Ten firefighters from Belgium appeared a bit bewildered before Saturday’s parade. “St. Patrick’s Day isn’t that big in Belgium because we don’t have a lot of Irish people,” Carl Verstrepen explained.
But three firefighters from South Hedlund in western Australia were pumped for their fourth Delray parade.
“Delray Beach has become our second home because everyone here makes us feel so welcome,” Bob Fry said for the Aussies.
Schaitberger, who served as parade grand marshal, said Delray Beach is known around the country as one of the best places for firefighters to be on St. Patrick’s Day.
“The big parades are in New York City, Boston, Savannah — and Delray is right there,” he said.