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09/29/2023 07:41 AM

Bernadette Canning: The Luck of the Irish

Branford resident Bernadette Canning, the 2024 Grand Marshal of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade, brought the luck of the Irish when entering her family’s 70-year-old Irish Soda Bread recipe in the Guilford Fair, winning a blue ribbon. Photo courtesy of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Call it the luck of the Irish — or, in this case, a love of everything Irish — for Bernadette Canning, the 2024 Grand Marshal of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The Branford resident’s first attempt at entering her family’s 70-year-old Irish Soda Bread recipe recently wowed judges reviewing the crowded “Family Recipe” Specialty division at the Guilford Fair. They awarded Bernadette’s tasty results with a blue ribbon.

While it’s not a secret recipe — after all, Bernadette’s three sisters and her brother all use the same recipe — it is a closely-held piece of their family’s Irish traditions, says Bernadette, whose heritage is 100% Irish.

“My entire life, when somebody walks in the door, you put the water on for tea. So we would always have tea and Irish Bread,” says Bernadette. “As part of an Irish-American family, we have a tradition, growing up, that my mom would always make Irish Bread, and that was the same recipe I entered into the contest. And since I was in my 20s, I’ve always made a number of loaves around St. Patrick’s Day and delivered them to friends and neighbors, just as a way of sharing our holiday tradition.”

As one who has lived in the New Haven area her entire life with deep ties to her family’s Irish heritage, Bernadette and her husband, John Tolbert, gravitated toward the area’s Irish-American clubs.

Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee members represent the area’s 4 Irish organizations that make up the Associated Irish Societies: Ancient Order of Hibernians, Knights of St. Patrick, New Haven Gaelic Football & Hurling Club/Irish American Community Center, and West Haven Irish American Club.

Both Bernadette and her husband are members of the Knights of St. Patrick and the West Haven Irish American Club. Bernadette is also a member of the New Haven Gaelic Football and Hurling Club/Irish American Community Center.

Bernadette has been part of the Parade Committee for about 13 years. She credits John with bringing her into the program.

“My husband joined this volunteer organization first, and I followed,” says Bernadette.

While Bernadette was serving as a parade committee officer, John was serving as president of the Knights of St. Patrick. Bernadette also notes that her sister, Monica Canning-Ball, and husband are currently on the parade committee. Monica also is currently president of the West Haven Irish American Club.

“We’re all in the vortex of involvement, so to speak,” says Bernadette. “I love that my volunteer work and my passion have aligned. I guess the bottom line is find something you connect with and volunteer.”

Based on the time, talent, and dedication volunteers contribute to parade programs, fundraisers, and other events and areas of support, one volunteer per year is selected to move into an officer position. Before becoming an officer, Bernadette served as the parade’s Corporate Chairperson.

On the way to becoming Grand Marshal, Bernadette has moved up the officer ranks through the roles of Chief of Staff, Secretary, and Chairperson. Due to a pandemic pause that halted the parade, Bernadette has enjoyed a bit of an extended run as an officer.

“Because of the pandemic, I have had the exceptional experience of being an officer for six years rather than four,” says Bernadette.

Going back a few more years, Bernadette can clearly remember participating in the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade as a kid.

“I lived in the New Haven area. We were members of the St. Mary Parish, and I probably was in second grade the first time I marched in my school uniform. That was my first experience in the parade, but I also vividly remember going to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade as a child. It was a big event,” says Bernadette.

One thing Bernadette says she didn’t realize until she joined the parade committee as an adult was that the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization.

“Although we work with the City of New Haven to put the parade on, it is not a City of New Haven event. We have to raise funds every year to put the parade on,” says Bernadette.

As a public event that’s free to the community, the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade is Connecticut’s largest single-day spectator event, attracting more than 325,000 people to New Haven each year.

Funds raised for the parade go back into the community, from the honorariums paid to marching units to support the continuation of those programs to the cost of police and security, Public Works, and other city-supported services required to put on the huge event.

The parade committee works to raise funds year-round and also gives back by organizing initiatives that support other community programs. For example, earlier this year, a “Luck of the Irish” label contest was developed as a collaboration between Branford-based Thimble Island Brewing Company, The Trinity Bar and Restaurant, and Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter. Benefiting the parade and the shelter, the contest delivered a check for $1,400 to the shelter and landed the winning pet, Zander, a black Lab mix rescue pup, on a special-release label.

“For us, that was very successful, and we gave 20 percent of our profit from that fundraising initiative to the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter,” says Bernadette. “We try to give back to the community that supports us.”

A children’s book drive for New Haven Reads is up next, taking place in October, says Bernadette, who works full-time as a practice manager at Children’s Medical Group in Hamden.

Balancing work, life, and parade makes for a busy schedule but one that’s well worth it, says Bernadette.

“Being an officer for a big event, such as the New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade, is quite a commitment. I’m very proud of all of the work of our officers and volunteers and proud to be a part of this organization.”

In her role as Grand Marshal, Bernadette will have the honor of donning the marshal’s banner and leading the 2024 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March.

“As Grand Marshal, you’re leading the parade, and you have a lot of people behind you, and that’s very symbolic of this organization,” says Bernadette. “I have the honor of being the focal point and receiving the recognition for our organization, but no one does it without their friends and family and businesses and people that are very generous that give all the time to a community event.”

To learn more about the 2024 Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade or to make a donation, visit