Inside the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade

Waving to the Parade Committee
How It’s New York: It’s the 251st New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, celebrating the patron saint of Ireland and the Archdiocese of New York.
How It’s Irish: The biggest civilian parade in the world honors the man who brought Christianity and literacy to Ireland.
Blogger John Kearns explains why he is “so bound and determined to march on a beautiful day or in the driving snow.” Surreptitious bathroom usage! Sneaking beer in coffee cups!
It’s a chance for the Irish, the Irish-Americans, and the Irish-for-a-Day to give one another a warm welcome.

Late one Saint Paddy’s Night past, amid all of the discarded cups and cans, the seashells filled with cigarette butts, and the other debris left behind by the revelers at Marty O’Brien’s Public House, Kevin McKee, my friend from Chicago whom I only see on Saint Patrick’s Day, was about to take his leave. Since we had had such a good time, as we always do, I made a suggestion.

“Y’know, we should keep in touch during the year.”

“No, John,” said he. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

For McKee, like another jolly fellow from the north, comes around but once a year and, like that other jolly fellow’s annual visit, McKee’s marching with us has become a tradition – one that we have upheld every year of this century (except one).

The uninitiated or the skeptical might ask why. Why fly from other cities and countries, take trains and boats from other states and boroughs for this old tradition of marching? Why are we so bound and determined to march on a beautiful day or in the driving snow?

True, the parade is exclusionary and stodgy and conservative and martial. It may be out of touch with modern Irish culture. But the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is an Irish-American institution older than the United States itself and a chance for the scattered members of the Irish diaspora to get together for one day in the center of the world. The New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is the granddady of all the other parades, the biggest civilian parade in the world. If you are going to be anywhere in the world on Saint Patrick’s Day, Fifth Avenue is the place to be.

Pre-March Party

Each year our Saint Patrick’s Day tradition begins in McKee’s hotel near the parade route. This year, a gorgeous Saturday with more people in green on the street than usual, we gathered together at a suite at the Waldorf=Astoria. Our crew this year, assembled between 11am and noon, was larger than in previous years. It included fellow writers Mark Butler and Kevin McPartland, along with Steve Weiss, Adam Berger, Larry Zhou, Kevin McKee, my wife, Daisy, and myself. With an Irish tricolor on the wall and some pizza and beer for refreshments, the parade on the muted TV, and rebel music played loudly from an iPod, we had some good laughs and a proper warmup for our march.

Getting to the Muster Point

Our plan was to march with County Cork, the ancestral county of my mother’s family, the Linehans. Cork was not scheduled to step off from West 47th Street until 1:45. So we were able to enjoy the party in the suite while keeping one eye on the Line of March on the computer and the other eye on the groups marching past the TV cameras at 65th Street. It was easy to see that the parade was behind schedule (as it always seems to be.) But, it was hard to gauge just how far behind things were. We couldn’t relax too much. Plus, we knew it would be a challenge to get from 49th and Park on the east side of the parade to 47th and Sixth, on the west side.

So, we planned to go around the parade. Once we got everybody ready to go, we headed down Park Avenue to 42nd Street, cut through the Helmsley Hotel’s walkway, spent as little time in Grand Central as possible, and zigzagged through the crowds of young people west on 42nd Street until we reached 6th Avenue, where we worked our way up to 47th. We were relieved to see that the Cork banner was still there.


John Kearns on the right, with his intrepid crew

The worst part about marching in the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is the waiting. There is a lot of standing around on the side streets off of Fifth Avenue, not knowing when your group will get to march. And, you don’t get to see any of the parade.

However, for a group of people who had begun the day with refreshments at luxury hotel suite, there were two more pressing concerns. First, how do we find a bathroom in the middle of the Diamond District?

Second, how do we quench the thirst we just worked up fighting our way through the streets of Midtown?

Here is where our group’s creativity came into play. McKee used his Chicago deal-making skills to negotiate terms for bathroom usage with the owner of a jewelry store. At the same time, the other guys were able to find an obliging deli owner who was willing to pour some lager into coffee cups for us.

While we were waiting, we chatted with some Corkonians who pasted shamrock stickers on each of our cheeks. We also met and took photos with an Asian woman who was part of the bagpipe band that would lead us up the Avenue.

Making the Turn

The best part of marching in the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade comes right after the tedious wait –making the turn! After all the standing around and multiple false alarms, your group starts moving. The marching bands strike up their tunes, drums start thumping in front of you and behind you, and the bagpipes’ skreeling echoes in the concrete canyons. You see your County’s banner unfurling and you turn from the side street onto the Avenue. You go from the sidelines to the center of the show following the green line painted in the center of Fifth Avenue and waving to the biggest crowds you’ll see all day. It is always a thrill to become an official part of a marching tradition that goes back two and a half centuries.

The March

After a block or so, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, its gothic towers bathed in spring sunlight, came into view. Built by “Dagger John” Cardinal Hughes in the 19th century when 50th Street was considered too far uptown to be habitable, it is one of the pre-eminent structures of Irish America. His Eminence Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Archbishop of New York was out on the red-carpeted steps of the cathedral to greet us.

The cathedral was just one of many landmarks we passed on the way uptown. We followed the green line past Rockefeller Center, the Trump Tower, and the grandeur of 57th Street. And you certainly get a different perspective on these sites as you stroll past them in the middle of the Avenue.

The space opened up and more sunshine came pouring down on us as we reached the Grand Army Plaza with the Plaza Hotel to the left, the General Motors Building to the right, and the gold sculpture of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Irish-American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the middle.

Then with Central Park to our left, the march started to go more quickly: fewer stops to let cars across the parade route. We passed the parade committee at 65th Street and got a hearty welcome from them.

As we marched we waved to the crowd and shouted “Up Cork!” It was usually easy to spot the lively people who were likely to cheer along with you. But, sometimes we took up the challenge of getting some of the quieter-seeming people to shout as well.

There are moments when it seems a little silly to assemble in such large groups in the middle of the Big City and walk around waving to each other, but there is something touching about it as well. It’s a brief moment of togetherness and recognition. It’s a chance for the Irish, the Irish-Americans, and the Irish-for-a-Day to give one another a warm welcome.

Evenually, the Cork banner turned off of Fifth Avenue onto 79th Street. Unfortunately, the parade does not go past the American Irish Historical Society and the Met as it used to. As we turned off of the Avenue, the pipers (including our friend whom we’d met on 47th) stood and played along each side of the Avenue. It was a stirring conclusion to our march.

Now it was time to grab something to eat and to squeeze ourselves into an Upper East Side pub to finish off another year of revelry with Irish beer, music, and craic.

Before we once again went our separate ways.

Until next March 17th …

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