Erin keeps local heritage alive with annual Irish Day celebrations
By KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist
Erin may be 3,873 miles away from Ireland on a map, but the Irish spirit is alive and well in this Tennessee city.
This year, Erin will celebrate it’s 60th Annual Wearin’ of the Green Irish Day Parade and Arts & Crafts Festival, which includes a parade, arts and crafts festival, banquet, and many more festivities intended to connect the modern-day residents of Erin with the city’s Irish immigrant past.
What is now the city of Erin began in the 1860s as a few stores and a railroad camp for Irish immigrants building the Memphis, Clarksville and Louisville Railroad (MC&L). The railroad was finished two days before the outbreak of the Civil War, but the workers remained. They named their new settlement Erin and by 1863 it was being featured on federal Civil War Maps as containing a depot, hotel, and roundhouse.
Angie Nielson, city recorder for Erin, said local legend details why the workers chose to stay in Erin out of anywhere else along the railroad line they built.
“Erin was first settled by Irish Railroad workers in the 1860s,” she said. “The clear creek, the wooded hills, and the fog hovering over the valley of the West Fork of Wells Creek, reminded the Irish of the ‘Auld Sod.’ Shouts of ‘Erin Go Braugh’ (Ireland Forever) could be heard from the Irish work camp at the end of the work day.”
While trains no longer run through Erin, the old railroad has become part of the Betsy Ligon Park and Walking Trail and Railroad Memorial Pavilion honoring those original town founders. In the 1960s, Erin also began another tradition to honor its history and Irish heritage: the annual Irish Day Parade.
Local physician Oaklus S. Luton first proposed the idea with support from the Erin Board of Mayor and Alderman as well as local civic clubs, schools, and businesses. The first parade featured Tennessee First Lady and Erin native Lucille Clement serving as the parade’s grand marshal. In 1966, the tradition was started of naming a “Lord High Mayor” for the parade to honor a local person who has shown dedication to the community.
“The coveted Lord High Mayor is chosen for the year – this honor is recognition for community service and is voted on by the civic originations,” Nielson said. “Emerald Awards are also given by each organization to a person that goes above and beyond the general public may not realize.”
Other traditions have also been a continual part of the celebration.
“There are always beauty pageants, an Irish banquet, musical events, food and craft vendors, a carnival, and usually a Demolition Derby,” Nielson said. “This year the demolition derby is rescheduled for May 7 due to a conflicting derby scheduled in Kentucky with a much larger purse.”
Honoring the military is another important aspect of the festivities.
“Fort Campbell is one of the main focuses of the parade,” Nielson said. “The Fort Campbell Honor Guard along with their band have participated for many years. Fort Campbell will also provide military equipment for show.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on celebrations in the past two years, this year’s theme – Back on Track – reflects Erin’s goals for the future.
“In 2020 the celebration was canceled for the first time,” Nielson said. “In 2021, the celebration was moved to May. This year, 2022, we are getting Back on Track, to the way things have been since that every first celebration in 1963.”
The popularity of the Irish Day celebrations is a major draw, sometimes bringing in 25,000 people to the city with a population of just under 2,000. Since 1997, a group of people from Galway, Ireland have made the trek to Erin to celebrate. A correspondence was struck up between the group and the city with several local citizens visiting them in Galway. The Galway group has returned multiple times to visit Erin as well.
No matter where they come from, Nielson said everyone in Erin is “a wee bit Irish” because of this longstanding tradition.
“This is a 60-year tradition; it is part of our heritage,” she said. “This year will be presenting our small county being somewhat back to normal, if that is possible. This is who we are. We are the Irish, whether you were born here or not. We are ‘Big Green’ at the schools, our mascot is a leprechaun. The letterhead and logo for the city of Erin contains a shamrock.”