BEL AIR – Here in Maryland’s most Irish town, Shamrock Park is within walking distance of three pubs proudly serving Dublin’s classic draught, Guinness.
“We’re pretty much cranked up here by 8 a.m.” on St. Patrick’s Day, said Chris Schlehr, the town administrator of Bel Air, a community of around 12,000 residents in the middle of Harford County, about 30 minutes north of Baltimore.
More than 1 in 6 residents here has Irish ancestry, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau figures. This estimate gives Bel Air — among Maryland towns with more than 10,000 people — the distinction of having the highest percentage of Irish-blooded individuals.
The town’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration on Main Street is “intense,” said Schlehr, who added that the crowds worry him a bit.
“It’s pretty much chaos,” said Dan Brown, co-owner of Sean Bolan’s, an Irish bar at the heart of the town.
March 17 is the biggest day of the year for the establishment, which moved to Bel Air from Baltimore’s Federal Hill because of the business potential from the county’s population boom, Brown said. Harford County gained more than 25,000 residents over the last decade, according to the 2010 census.
“I try to stay away,” said Angie Amoriello, of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Amoriello is an employee at the Shamrock Coffee Co., a neighborhood coffee house two doors down from Sean Bolan’s.
Amoriello’s Italian heritage isn’t blighted by the town’s zealousness for Ireland.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Amoriello said. “I was raised here and it’s what I know.”
Bel Air embraces its Irish roots all year round.
The town’s police cars have emerald green stripes along the sides. The community trash barrels dot the sidewalks with the same deep green and are emblazoned with an Old-World-looking coat of arms.
But this Irish pride intensifies around St. Patrick’s Day. The downtown businesses decorate their windows and nearly every restaurant — even the local Italian joint — puts on St. Patrick’s Day specials, said Patti Pearce, owner of the downtown florist, Flowers by Design.
For Pearce, who is Irish on her mother’s side, St. Patrick’s Day means making arrangements of green carnations, daisies, stalks of pale green bells of Ireland and whole potatoes. The masses that crowd the streets come by her shop for green carnation stems and boutonnieres.
“It is one of the busiest days of the year on Main Street Bel Air,” Pearce said. “People come from all over.”
Moore’s Candies, which specializes in homemade chocolates and is just down the road from Pearce’s store, has its own St. Patrick’s Day tradition: Irish sweet potatoes.
“It’s vanilla butter cream with coconut flakes, rolled by hand in cinnamon,” said employee Ray Poe, of the unique sweets. The confectioners sell “pounds and pounds and pounds” of the delicacy, which they only make around St. Patrick’s Day.
“They’ve been making them for a long time,” Poe said. Moore’s Candies, with locations in Baltimore and Bel Air, has been in business since 1919.
Poe, like so many others in Bel Air, said he has some Irish stock.
“Somewhere in my body there’s an Irish part,” Poe said. “That’s what’s great about America: We’re all a bunch of mutts. I mean that in the best terms possible.”
Maryland’s Irish heritage is abundant. Many other communities have high rates of Irish ancestry that are just a hair shy of taking Bel Air’s title.
Irish immigrants may have settled in the areas north of Baltimore because that is where industry — namely, marble and limestone quarrying — that needed unskilled workers was located, said Stephen A. Brighton, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Brighton is heading up an archaeological fieldwork team in Baltimore County at the site of an industry-related Irish enclave.
During the famine in Ireland, which began in the mid-1840s, large numbers of Irish immigrants probably came down into Maryland from the ports of New York and Boston, Brighton said. Smaller numbers of Irish immigrants, he said, came into Baltimore and settled in Fells Point, then moved out west along what is now Falls Road.
Only three of the state’s counties, along with Baltimore City, are less than 10 percent Irish: Montgomery, Somerset and Prince George’s. Less than 5 percent of Prince George’s residents report Irish lineage, making it the Free State’s least Irish county.
On St. Patrick’s Day, more people in these counties will have to subscribe to Bel Air resident Geoffrey Close’s philosophy on ancestry.
“I don’t know what I am,” Close said. “But I pretend I am (Irish) on St. Patrick’s Day.”