It’s a brisk Saturday morning in mid-March as the Kiss-Me-I’m-Irish holiday celebration starts early as parents, grandparents and neighbors, decked out in their cable knit sweaters and tweed caps, gather along Temple Street in West Roxbury, Mass., not far from downtown Boston.
Green is the color of the day, as youngsters wearing Celtics jerseys and Ireland soccer jerseys mill about the crowd, swatting at green, white and orange balloons that hang from light posts above. Irish flags proudly fly on neighborhood porches.
The Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up To Boston” blares from speakers in front of Mike O’Brien’s house, which serves as the epicenter of the action.
“Look at this, look at this,” says O’Brien, motioning beyond his front yard. “Look at the smiles on their faces. It’s amazing.”
Spanning the length of nearly 50 houses, street hockey rinks, each with shamrocks painted at center “ice,” buzz with the choir of kids simply playing and having fun. Picture a parade, only without the inconvenience of it going anywhere.
If it weren’t so authentic, this grassroots sliver of Americana – wrapped in green, white and orange – might have been considered too good to be true.
The Shamrock Shootout has once again taken over as the emotional heart of West Roxbury, an already tight-knit section of a city that loves its Irish heritage and its hockey.
What started out with 100 kids just six years ago has swelled to a record number of participants this year, 550 kids, playing on 20 rinks.
The event sign-up, which is held at a nearby pub and restaurant to accommodate the overflow crowds, features lines around the block as 520 spots are filled in 15 minutes.
“There are many
“It’s probably the biggest day in West Roxbury,” says Anne-Marie Russell, who had all four of her children, twin 12-year-olds, a 9-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, playing. “It’s exciting. This is when you find out how many kids live in West Roxbury because you see them all here.”
The kids, from kindergarten to seventh grade, wear their free Shamrock Shootout game T-shirts. They play with free street hockey sticks that were custom cut that morning in a nearby backyard. They eat free pizza at lunch and make up the rosters of more than 30 teams with themed names: The Irish Steppers, The Green Alligators, The Clovers, The Fiddlers, The Limericks. Some of them have green hair.
They play six 25-minute games from morning until afternoon – and maybe a championship game in one of four age divisions, but this was less about the scores than about being the toast of their town.
“It’s a very kid-focused community,” says Alan Weatherbee, who was coaching his young son’s team, The Irish Rovers. “Overall, I think there are many things that happen throughout the year to bring the community together. This one, in particular, is very popular. To pull it off takes a village.”
The Shamrock Shootout is O’Brien’s brainchild, his answer to the question, “How can we get the kids out of the house?” He managed to take it a step further by getting an entire town out of the house.
“This is a total community event,” says O’Brien, who has four kids and grew up as the youngest of nine in the same house on Temple Street. “We have over 100 volunteers. We have a lot of great, great local sponsors. It’s a lot of networking, a lot of hustle. You wear out your shoes, but it’s fun. A lot of people want to get involved. It’s a special community.”
Residents laud O’Brien’s work. And no wonder. By every measure, this is a grassroots success story. It’s a hockey story, too, as many of the participants are part of the more than 700-member Parkway Youth Hockey Association. Many, it should be noted, were not.
“All our kids hang out together, they play together,” says Paul Conneely, a vice president in the Parkway association who was in the midst of coaching The Limericks at the time.
“They’re at the hockey rink together, they’re at the baseball field together. Hockey’s very big in this community. … CHANGE UP, LIMERICKS, CHANGE UP!”
West Roxbury, home to the prep school Catholic Memorial, which has produced a handful of hockey notables, including Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, recently retired Boston University head coach Jack Parker and Harvard hockey coach Ted Donato, has more than its share of interest in hockey.
“People get involved,” says Conneely, one of the many police officers who call West Roxbury home. “It’s contagious. It’d be nice to see it going into other neighborhoods. I’d like to see it keep going. … LIMERICKS, CHANGE UP!”
Earlier in the day, a fireman, wearing a good deal of his gear, warms up a team by playing goal. Later in the day, a police captain kneels down to pet a small dog – a small dog wearing a Celtics scarf. And by the end of the day, more than six hours after it started, after Congressman Stephen F. Lynch makes an appearance, after 200 pizzas and countless help-yourself desserts have been consumed, after an Irish step-dancing show from a team of West Roxbury girls, the rink in front of O’Brien’s house hosted the four championship games.
There were wins and losses, of course, but they weren’t at all the point. As it turned out, the MVP of the Shootout, for the sixth consecutive year, was West Roxbury.
“This is their favorite holiday,” Golden says. “They say that they live for this.”