LITTLE ITALY — Sober St. Patrick’s Day reached a milestone on March 17.
After a decade of promoting the richness of Irish culture without “binge drinking and other misuse of alcohol,” the group gained widespread recognition with its first appearance in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade through Midtown.
“I dreamt about that for 10 years,” said William Spencer Reilly, founder and chairman of Sober St. Patrick’s Day. “For us to walk up 5th Avenue, holding a banner that said ‘Sober St. Patrick’s Day’ really spun heads.
“But so many people were cheering us on, and the fact that we’ve arrived, and that we were accepted by the parade and the parade committee — I think that says everything about the way this movement is growing.”
After the parade, which passed before St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the group’s members and supporters retreated to Lower Manhattan for the NYC Sober St. Patrick’s Day Party in the youth hall of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street.
Irish culture filled the hall with traditional music, dance, and food. The organization’s Emerald Spirit Award was presented to William Cope Moyers, a former CNN producer and current vice president of public affairs for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, based in Minnesota.
Reilly is a longtime Broadway theater and television producer who also served as executive director of the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, which is the arts center for the Archdiocese of New York.
During the party, Reilly recounted how he got the idea for Sober St. Patrick’s Day 11 years ago while watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade pass by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown.
“Out of the corner of my eye I caught a young man — he couldn’t have been more than 22 years old — and he was holding a can of beer,” Reilly said. “He was drunk as a skunk and all of his friends were too.”
The young man, Reilly added, wore a T-shirt with the slogan, “St. Patrick’s Day Today, Hungover Tomorrow.”
Reilly was reminded of a common belief that many teens and young adults are introduced to “binge drinking” on St. Patrick’s Day.
“So,” Reilly continued, “I went up to him and I said, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty wild T-shirt,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, isn’t it cool?’ And right then and there, a light came on: ‘What if next year, in 2012, we have a rip-roaring party with world-class entertainment, great Irish musicians, singers, and dancers, and no alcohol. And then we ‘Reclaim the Day,’ which is our slogan.”
Redefining the feast of St. Patrick’s Day is linked to traditional piety, Reilly said.
Back in the day, he said, “the pubs were closed on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland.”
But in the 21st century, people thought Reilly was crazy for promoting sobriety on March 17. However, the Sober St. Patrick’s Day was an instant success that he said has grown each year since.
Moyers is the son of author, journalist, and political commentator Bill Moyers who also served as press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson. While accepting the Emerald Spirit Award, Moyers described his own journey from addiction to recovery.
“New York is where I hit my bottom 33 years ago this August,” Moyers told the audience. “I was 30 years old. I was flattened by my addiction. But I believe in my own life, and in the work that I’ve done for Hazelden and Betty Ford, the only bottom with this ill- ness is death, and anything short of that is a way out.”
He praised his father and his mother, Judith Moyers, for never giving up on him. His own memoir, “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption,” was published in 2007.
“My mother and my father, who I was with last night — they’re 87 years old now — are still supportive of me.
“So if you’re a family member who’s struggling with a loved one who has this illness, don’t let go of them. … There is hope.”
Entertainers included an all-star band of world-class Irish musicians: John Whelan, on button accordion; Brian Conway, fiddle; Jerry O’Sullivan, piper; Flynn Cohen, mandolin; and Brendan Dolan on keyboards. Susan Graham performed solo on the harp.
Dance routines were performed by the Don- ny Golden School of Irish Dance, which has classes in Brooklyn and Mineola, New York. Enders Island St. Edmund’s Pipes and Drums Band from Mystic, Conn., also performed.
The parade, a New York City tradition since 1762, returned this year after staging truncated parades in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reilly said the group plans to march in it next year. Meanwhile, its message of fun sobriety is gaining momentum and has reached other cities.
“We want to share it with a lot of high schools in Brooklyn and Queens,” he said. “Unfortunately, St. Patrick’s Day has become the No. 1 day for the introduction of binge drinking among high school and college kids. So we’re just trying to raise awareness.
“We’re not against anyone having a drink. We’re just against them having nine or 10 drinks.”