Revelers with fondness for anything Irish start to mark St Patrick's Day

NEW YORK (AP) - Crowds cheered and bagpipes bellowed as New York City's annual St Patrick's Day parade kicked off on Saturday, and people with a fondness for anything Irish began a weekend of festivities from the Louisiana bayou to Dublin's Parnell Square.

With the holiday itself falling on a Sunday, many celebrations were scheduled instead for Saturday because of religious observances. In New York, the massive parade, which predates the United States, was led by 750 members of the New York Army National Guard. The 1st Battalion of the 69th Infantry has been marching in the parade since 1851.

Other participants this year include Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

Chicago was preparing for its own big parade and an eye-catching local custom: dyeing the Chicago River green. Dublin's five-day St Patrick's Day festival was unfolding with a new addition. For the first time, up to 8,000 visitors from around the world were due to march in a so-called people's parade on Sunday, when Ireland's capital city also intends hold its usual procession of bands and pageantry.

Mr Kenny, who visited Chicago for St Patrick's Day last year, was again making the holiday a jumping-off point for an extended trip to the United States, with stops in Washington and on the West Coast over the ensuing several days.

"I will use my visit to promote Ireland's many strengths and to further reinforce our deep and abiding political and economic relationship with the United States," Mr Kenny said in a statement this week.

He and President Barack Obama were scheduled to meet at the White House on Tuesday and exchange shamrocks, a tradition that dates to President Harry Truman's administration. Mr Obama also is slated to meet separately on Tuesday with Mr Peter Robinson, the leader of Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government.

Thousands of revellers gaudily garbed in green crammed the oak-shaded squares and sidewalks of downtown Savannah, Georgia, on Saturday, for a celebration that's a 189-year-old tradition.

Led by bagpipers in green kilts, a parade kicked off Saturday morning, hours after customers began lining up at downtown bars. More than 1,000 worshippers also packed the pews of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist for the Mass that traditionally precedes the parade.

Ms Bev Kehayes, of Greensboro, North Carolina, joined friends near the start of the parade route. She made hats with green feathers and flowers just for the occasion.

"It's good, clean fun. Heaven forbid there's a little alcohol involved," said Ms Kehayes, who says she's missed only three of the celebrations in Savannah in 29 years.

In Maine, St Patrick's Day prompted Governor Paul LePage to relent on a vow to veto any Bill that reached his desk before lawmakers pass his proposal to pay a state debt to hospitals. He signed a measure on Friday allowing bars to serve alcohol a few hours earlier than usual, starting at 6am, on the Sunday holiday.

About 2,400km south-west, the city of Houma, Louisiana, was holding its unconventional celebration - an Irish-Italian parade, with a celebration that features both Irish cabbage and Italian sausage - on Sunday. The event resumed last year after a 10-year hiatus.

In Rolla, Missouri, the Missouri University of Science and Technology continued a St Patrick's tradition that began in 1908, when students declared that the patron saint of Ireland also was the patron saint of engineers. A slate of events, which earlier this week included a student portraying St Patrick being transported downtown on a manure spreader, were to wrap up with a parade Saturday.

But along with the festivities, in some places, came warnings from police that they would be on the lookout for drunken drivers and other misbehaviour.

New Jersey Transit officials said alcoholic beverages would be barred on Saturday on any train between Manhattan and Hoboken, New Jersey, a nightlife-friendly city across the Hudson River. Transit police arrested 16 people during St Patrick's Day last year, including two people who were charged with aggravated assault on two conductors.

In Baltimore, where last St Patrick's Day weekend was marred by a video-taped beating of a visiting man, fights and vandalism, police were stepping up patrols and barring drinking in an area where revellers spilled out of bars last year.