MANHATTAN — For those on the wagon, St. Patrick's Day is a holiday to avoid.
That's why more than a dozen treatment centers and national recovery organizations, such as the Betty Ford Center and Hazelden, are sponsoring an alternative. They've joined the Irish Consulate General in New York and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to host the first annual Sober St. Patrick's Day event.
Family-friendly festivities at the March 17 event will kick off at 3 p.m. at Regis High School on the Upper East Side — about a block away from the parade route's end on East 86th Street — with Irish step dancers twirling, pipe bands playing and musicians such as singer KT Sullivan and accordion player John Whelan serenading traditional tunes.
"It's a community effort to embrace a new spirit: You don't have to be drunk to enjoy St. Patrick's Day," said William Moyers, vice president for community affairs for Hazelden, a Minnesota-based organization that has an outpatient clinic in Chelsea and the sober college residence, Tribeca Twelve. "I think it reflects a new realization that there is an alternative — to celebrate this important holiday without drinking."
Though Moyers lives in Minnesota now, he's a member of the event's honorary committee and remembers growing up on Long Island, where he and his high school friends would gather, take a train to the city for St. Patrick's Day and enjoy the revelry with other imbibers.
"Alcohol was as endemic to St. Patrick's as leprechauns and four-leaf clovers," said Moyers, who called himself a "Scotts-Irish guy" who started drinking in high school, hit "rock bottom" in his 30s and has now been sober for 18 years.
"When I was getting sober, I thought, 'I guess that means my Irish is behind me,'" he said. "But it's possible to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, like it's possible to celebrate weddings and anniversaries, while being sober. St. Patrick's Day means the same thing to me, I just celebrate it differently."
Spending the holiday with a Guinness, Jamesons or another alcoholic beverage traces its roots to a legend about St. Patrick: After an innkeeper who was less than generous with a glass of whiskey was chastised and told that a devil living in his basement fed on dishonesty, the innkeeper changed his ways. St. Patrick banished the devil, the story goes, and proclaimed everyone should have a drop of the "hard stuff" on his feast day.
William Spencer Reilly, a television executive who almost lost a family member to addiction, dreamed up the sober event to redirect the focus on Irish culture, hoping it could help counter the "stigma of public intoxication" on the holiday, as well as help the thousands of New Yorkers who are in recovery.
Neighborhoods such as Murray Hill, for instance, were outraged last year when a St. Patrick's pub crawl turned their neighborhood into a giant sewer with bar patrons puking in the streets, residents said.
"Reclaiming the true spirit of the day is what this is all about," Reilly said in a statement. "And, for those people not in recovery, our message isn't that we are against drinking on St. Patrick's Day. It's that we want this holiday to be more about enjoying the beauty of Irish culture.”
Malachy McCourt, one of the event's honorees who has written about being a recovering alcoholic, told the Irish Voice, "Come and starve your disease, enjoy fellowship and fun and you will remember what you did when you wake up on the 18th of March."
The Sober St. Patrick's takes place Mar. 17, at Regis High School, entrance on 60 E. 85th St., between Park and Madison avenues, 3 – 7 p.m. Tickets: $12.
An Al-Anon Meeting will be held before the party at 2:30 p.m., and an open AA Meeting will be held after at 7 p.m. downstairs.