This year marks the 254th year the Green is paraded in New York City, a Parade and a celebration which is older than the United States of America. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is one of New York City’s greatest traditions. On this day, everyone is Irish in the Big Apple! New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is the world’s biggest and oldest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
For the past few years I have been fortunate to have been in New York for The St. Patrick’s Day Parade and celebrations. I say fortunate because growing up in Ireland being Irish was taken for granted. Not so in New York. Go into a pub in Dublin and announce in a loud excited voice that you are Irish and people will ignore you with that knowing look that somewhere in the hinterland there is a village missing its idiot. Go into an Irish pub in New York and make the same pronouncement you are offered a drink, a job, a place to stay and worse!! On the whole we took being Irish in Ireland for granted but in New York, New York there is no such complacency, to be sure, to be sure!
There is nothing, just nothing as impressive as the main event, The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an event which is older than the United States. The St. Patrick’s Day parade was first held in New York City on 17 March, 1762 when Irish soldiers with the British garrison marched through the city fourteen years before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Today it is the largest parade in the world. The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York was held on lower Broadway in 1762 by a band of homesick Irish ex- patriots and Irish military who served with the British Army stationed in the American colonies. This was a time when the wearing of green was a sign of Irish pride and was banned in Ireland. The parade participants revelled in the freedom to speak Irish, wear the green, sing Irish songs and play the pipes to Irish tunes that were very meaningful to the Irish immigrants who had fled their homeland. We had a great viewing position at the start at the corner of 47 th Street and 5th Avenue where we met a number of wonderful Old Hibernians who filled us in on the spectacle.
The iconography of the Parade is revealing. When the great wave of Irish migration to the United States started after the Potato Famine the Irish flooded into New York having first having to go through quarantine and vetting at Ellis Island. Penniless and without connections they settled in the worst area of New York, the notorious Hell’s Kitchen, now renamed “Clinton” by that never knowingly undersold group, The NY realtors. They suffered discrimination and worse, for this was the era of NINA, No Irish Need Apply. Irish immigrants often entered the workforce at the bottom of the occupational ladder and took on the menial and dangerous jobs that were often avoided by other workers. Many Irish women became servants or domestic workers or worked as seamstresses in the sweatshops of the Garment District.
Americans disdained this type of work, fit only for servants, the common sentiment was: “Let Negroes be servants, and if not Negroes, let Irishmen fill their place…” Many Irish men laboured in coal mines and built railroads and canals. Railroad construction was so dangerous that it was said that there was an Irishman buried under every tie.
Little by little, like so many immigrant groups before and after, they dragged themselves up and fought back. In days when strikes were broken up by Police and the hired thugs from the Pinkerton Agency the Irish were at the fore of the organised labour movement, they took part in politics aligning themselves with the Democratic party and they joined the Police and the City administration, often in the most menial roles but working their way up. They allied themselves with other groups, particularly the Italians as they went to the same schools and churches and they joined the Union Army in their thousands to fight in the Civil War against slavery and for a land which had rejected the rule of a British King and asserted “that all men are created equal.” It is for this reason the New York Parade is led by the 69th Infantry who distinguished themselves in the Civil War and gained the nickname “The Fighting Irish.” Irish wolfhounds march ahead of soldiers as sentinels. Their more practical role in the early days was to protect the marchers from anti-immigrant Nativists, think of Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York.”
Soon the Irish made themselves part and parcel of the story of America to the extent that over 40 million Americans claim Irish heritage. So here in New York there are no floats and displays but the emphasis is on the people marching and their achievements. So you get the Police Forces, the NYPD, the Colleges, the county associations, the Irish Bands and Dance schools, the historical societies, the fellow Celts from Galicia, Brittany and the Basque Country, The Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Emerald Societies and much, much more. And in this, the 254th year of the Parade, all these associations parade before the Cardinal Archbishop who reviews the Parade on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The iconography is clear, the Irish may have been treated with scorn by the WASP establishment when they fetched up on these shores but slowly and surely they have taken Manhattan and then some. After 9/11 the Parade was rededicated to the heroes of that day and for me the most moving spectacle is the fire-fighters of the New York Fire Department carrying 343 Stars and Stripes, one for each of their comrades who died in the Twin Towers on that fateful day.
However in the recent past the Parades in the Irish bastions of Boston and New York have been a PR disaster showing a meanness of spirit totally out of touch with Ireland and its people. Organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernian’s and with the Cardinal Archbishop’s representative chairing the committee’s they have long banned Gay groups but also anybody with LGBT sympathies or affiliation from the Parades. This year thankfully this has changed probably due to the more humane approach of Pope Francis on the Irish Community and sponsors and major TV channels bailing out rather than be associated with this archaic bigotry. In 2013 Mayor Bloomberg walked in the Parade as NYC’s Mayor’s have done in living memory. Mike Bloomberg being Jewish probably felt sensitive about not walking in the Parade even though nothing in his record suggests he would condone such discrimination. His Democratic Party successor Bill de Blasio born a Catholic and non-practicing feels no such qualms and has refused to be part of any Parade which discriminates against the LGBT community. It was quite an achievement for the organisers to alienate both the Mayor and Guinness as sponsors? The parade committee and the Archbishop behind the curtain showed themselves to be mired in a narrow and intolerant past that the wider nation and Ireland itself have long since left behind so it is good that has now changed and LGBT organisations will now be represented in the 2015 Parade.
Irish Politicians have always flocked to America to bask in the Green Glow at St. Patrick’s weekend with references to the 5 million living in Ireland and the 70 million who call Ireland “home.” However the Irish approach to their Diaspora is “old fashioned and condescending” and needs updating, according to Notre Dame Professor Kevin Whelan. Professor Whelan is the director of the Notre Dame campus in Dublin and a noted historian. His remarks were quoted in The Irish Times. He said it was utterly wrong to view Irish Americans as “plastic Paddys” who lacked knowledge about Ireland. “In fact our knowledge of Irish America is equally limited. We are totally disinterested and incurious about their lives. We need to broaden our view and have a much more generous version of what an Irish identity might mean,” he said.
As an Irish Expat living in London Professor Whelan’s remarks are spot on – particularly his observation that the Irish in the small island are utterly incurious about the reality of the life of the Irish abroad. Indeed they are, it is always when are you going to visit Ireland, are you going to retire to Ireland, jeez why would you want to go anywhere else isn’t this the greatest place (well no, actually!), etc; etc;??
Part of this lack of curiosity is entirely willful as Ireland, with its stifling control mechanisms and mind-sets, has dumped its “social problems” which includes the abused, those who want to have a say in their fertility or sexuality or those who want to have a fair economic chance in life not dependent on Nepotism, inheritance or corruption on other countries.
The thought occurred to me watching the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York that what Irish America was actually celebrating was being Irish but not in Ireland? They had the best of both world’s; a strong ethnic identity and culture but without the BS and excess baggage which meant they and, more importantly, their children had proper life chances. The Irish abroad, with the notable exception of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the oleaginous Cardinal Archbishop of New York, have had to deal with the reality of life without the thought control of the Catholic Taliban and have emerged stronger and more confident for it. It is that confidence in their own ability, identity and culture which is now celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day when the world turns green.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!