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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Students from St. Joseph High School in Ogden perform as they take part in the parade. Thousands turn out Saturday, March 12, 2011 for the St. Patrick's Day Parade as it moved through the Gateway in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's "bigger than you think," Dick O'Connor said about the local Irish community. "And it swells at this time of year."

Swell it did, as hundreds lined Rio Grande Street, all bedecked in green and gold, donning shamrocks, shiny bead necklaces and the occasional Irish kilt for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The sound of bagpipes filled the air and nearly a hundred Bassett hounds howled their way past the crowd.

Real Salt Lake, Utah's major league soccer team, led the march and participants — including clowns on toy horses, girls on roller skates, even a leprechaun driving a car and many a dazzling Celtic dancer in traditional costume — followed.

O'Connor, who is vice president of the Utah Hibernian Society, which organizes Utah's second-largest annual downtown parade, said the event and its attendance, gets bigger every — year. It took this year's 93 entries just under two hours to march the nearly mile-long route through the center of the crowded Gateway mall.

"It doesn't matter who you are, everyone is unofficially Irish on St. Patrick's Day," said Susan McLoughlin Grant, who has attended every St. Patrick's Day parade for the 13 years she's lived in Utah. "It's always a great time when you can celebrate your heritage."

Grant can be spotted sitting with her family and friends in the same spot every year, just below the Starbucks cafe. She always wears her authentic Irish cable knit sweater, which is decorated with various Celtic and Irish symbols, including a Celtic cross made of official Connemara marble.

The green feather boa and frilly felt hats "are just for added fun," said Heather Whitehead Sampinos, who shares an Irish heritage with Grant.

Bill and Nancy Liston often march in the parade but decided to stay on the sidelines this year.

"We do it all," said Nancy Liston, who proceeded to name a plethora of activities their Irish family takes part in every year at this time. Bill Liston said he's appreciative of the local support for such a happy holiday, one he didn't get to celebrate much growing up in Salt Lake City.

The parade, which is held to honor the courageous Irish emigrants who fled their homeland because of famine and extensive poverty, became an annual tradition in Salt Lake City in the late 1970s, and Bill Liston can remember coming every year since.

"I love any reason to party," said Karen Guthrie, who marched the parade with her Scottish deerhound, which stands 3-feet tall and recently won "Best in Show" at a local dog show. Frizzy-haired "Maida" wasn't fond of the crowds and unusual noises that came with it, but she was a "trooper" as she stayed with a fairly large showing of four-legged Irish breeds.

"Not everyone is able to have one of these dogs, so it is neat to let everyone see what they are like," said Aaron Tibbetts, who accompanied his 115-pound Irish wolfhound through the parade. He said the dogs are "stately, noble and beautiful," and with their size, they definitely commanded the attention of many paradegoers.

"Being out here is just a wonderful way to celebrate our Irish roots, Ireland and obviously St. Patrick's Day," Tibbetts said.

Holiday festivities will stretch well into the week, with St. Patrick's Day Mass, held at 5 p.m. on Sunday, at St. Joseph the Worker Parrish, located at 7405 S. Redwood Road, in West Jordan; a St. Patrick's Day luncheon held at Memory Grove on Thursday; and Irish Poetry Night, held Saturday, March 19, at 231 E. 100 South in Salt Lake City.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com