The sounds, sights and spirit of Ireland down to the gray, wet Irish weather flowed through the parking lot of The Limelight bar and grill over the weekend for a rollicking Irish social in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
Clad in his Donegal tweed cap and green vest, 82-year-old Muggs McNamara serenaded the rain-soaked, whiskey-warmed crowd of 300 friends, family members and Irish wannabes Saturday afternoon with two signature ballads, “Clancy Lowered the Boom” and, of course, “McNamara’s Band.”
Backed by Sacramento’s Rattlin’ Boys, McNamara – a beloved educator and baseball player – is famous for singing at his son Joe McNamara’s St. Patrick’s Day parties. But the extended McNamara clan has grown so large, Joe said he had no choice but to take the party public.
Those dancing in the rain or under the big white tent were truly McNamara’s band of Irish, Polish, English, Greek, Italian and African Americans, nearly all with at least a drop of Irish blood, at least by marriage. More than 215,000 residents in the Sacramento region report some Irish ancestry, according to the 2013 census, About 700 were born in Ireland.
Muggs McNamara’s pale blue eyes twinkled green, reflecting the bright green wigs, dresses, eye shadow and shamrocks sported by his daughter-in-law Deborah McNamara, who’s Jewish, and her Irish Catholic friend Becky McReynolds.
They danced in the rain with abandon, their green hair bobbing to the beat.
“We threw this party at our home for eight years and I had to prepare food for more and more people,” Deborah McNamara said. “So every year I’d get more green, even though my husband, Joe, said, ‘No, you’re not doing it!’ ”
Joe McNamara just shook his head and smiled. He said he sees the social as an opportunity to celebrate Sacramento’s Irish American roots, which stretch back to the Gold Rush.
“I still drink Guinness stout, but I’ve got a cultural filter,” he said. “St. Patrick’s Day has turned into Cinco De Mayo. It’s come to mean getting drunk and it drives me crazy.”
Joe McNamara leavened the holiday – the official date is March 17, which is Thursday – with corned beef and cabbage, bangers and mash, bagpipes and Blood Red Sky, a U2 cover band featuring restaurateur Kurt Spataro.
When Irish Catholics began migrating to California in the 1800s, they ran into discrimination from Protestant settlers, Joe McNamara said. In 1879, an ad in the Sacramento Union for a cook specified “No Irish Need Apply.” Joe’s grandfather John McNamara came to the U.S. from County Clare in 1912 and, like many Irish, heard there was work in Sacramento on the Southern Pacific Railroad.
John McNamara fought in World War I and earned two Purple Hearts. He returned to Sacramento and met Josie Lane at a St. Patrick’s Day dance. They married and had five children, including former Major League manager John McNamara and their youngest, Frank Muggs McNamara.
“My mother called me her little Muggins, an Irish term of endearment meaning ‘My little baby, my little angel,’ ” Muggs McNamara recalled. “My brother shortened it to Muggs, or Muggsy.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, “we’d walk to Memorial Auditorium for Irish music, dancing and people talking about the old days,” he recalled. He said he fell in love with Denis Day’s “Clancy Lowered the Boom,” “about a sort of Irish Lone Ranger.”
Muggs mounted the stage and in his Irish brogue belted out, “Clancy was a peaceful man if you know what I mean. The cops picked up the pieces after Clancy left the scene. He never looked for trouble, that’s a fact you can assume. But whenever they got his Irish up, Clancy lowered the boom!”
The crowd, some in stovepipe green hats, others in green headbands, joined in the chorus of “boom, boom, boom boom!”
Connie Powers of Roseville, whose dad came from County Cork, nursed an Irish coffee and declared the song made her “feel 100 percent Irish in my heart. It mean’s you’re tough, resilient, happy and like to drink.”
Muggs McNamara spent 45 years as an educator, including 16 as principal at Caleb Greenwood Elementary, 10 at John Bidwell Elementary and five at St. Anne School.
He retired in 2005 and spends his time visiting the sick, attending funerals, going to Mass and playing softball.
“I’m blessed with a happy countenance and so is my wife, Sally,” he said. “We’ve been happily married for 55 years and whatever I am she has made me.”
He’s lived by the advice his mother and Sally McNamara’s grandmother Mrs. Donahue gave him: “Do the best you can in any situation, period.”
Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy said both his great grandfathers worked on the railroad with the McNamaras.
“Joe McNamara’s great grandfather was the best man at my great grandfather’s wedding at St. Francis Cathedral,” Kennedy said.
He added that he wasn’t surprised Muggs McNamara is still going strong.
“My great Uncle Dan Finn was fire chief at Fire Station 4 off Alhambra Boulevard, and when he retired he became the fire captain at the old Fairgrounds,” Kennedy said. “He told them he was 72, and they fired him when they learned he was actually 90.”
Kennedy got a little misty eyed gazing at four generations sharing time-honored ballads and customs.
“It’s a great feeling of pride we’ve been here so long,” he said, “and to be a part of not just the history, but the future of Sacramento, means a lot to me.”
Phillip Reese contributed to this story.