This is a book which can
begin to be judged by its cover, truly celebrating 250 years of the New
York City Saint Patrick's Day Parade. It gets better as you read. The
author, Hibernian historian John Ridge, had earlier self-published a
carefully researched and documented shorter history (180 pages plus 24
pages of illustrations), "The St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York"
(1988), which made him the logical candidate to write this sweeping
Ridge actually spent a couple of years in additional
research aimed at producing a true historian's magnum opus on the
Parade. He has given us the distilled essence of the original work,
without losing the essentials in the transformation truly a masterful,
entertaining and an informative accomplishment.
The Quinnipiac University Press Green-jacketed cadets of the
Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, Mary Baldwin College,
Just as the impact of the Parade is more than the reading of the
banners of the marching units, so too does the book have a major visual
impact. The editor, Lynn Bushnell, has artfully chosen literally
hundreds of authentic images to illustrate the story of this
celebration. There are illustrations from before photography through
photos from the 2010 Parade. It is a visual treat as well as being a
most engaging text.
Although the festivities seem straightforward enough, it
is really a súgán of religious, civic and ethnic strands that come
together into a celebration that seems universal, at least in the
Western World. Patrick, bloodlessly, brought the message of salvation
through the Christian faith to the people of the land where he had
previously been held in slavery for some seven years.
Waterford historian James Doherty has explained how
Irish Franciscan Friar Luke Wadding, OFM, convinced the Holy Father in
Rome (1632) that Saint Patrick's Day, March 17th, should be a Feast Day
of the Church Universal. For the rest of the story, we must look to the
New World, specifically to the Dutch island of Manhattan, the first
place in the New World where men and women of different races and
creeds (including Irish-speaking Catholics) lived in relative harmony.
The celebration is
at the same time religious, civic and ethnic.
One thing which the Irish discovered in America, was a relative freedom
to be Irish, something denied in Ireland, to a greater or lesser
degree, depending on government policies in London which, at times,
included both cultural and physical genocide (e.g., the "Penal Laws,"
and before that, the "Statutes of Kilkenny" and, most excessively,
Cromwell's dictum to send the native Irish "to Hell or to Connaught,"
as described so well by historian Peter Berresford Ellis, and by
historical novelist Walter Macken.
Walking wounded a poignant presence in 1944 parade
1998 Grand Marshal Albert
Reynolds, Irish Prime Minister from 1992 to 1994, who convinced English
Prime Minister John Major to join in the initiation of a peace process
The celebration on the streets of New York is really an American
celebration. It is an Irish-American celebration because the Irish in
New York were the first significant self-conscious minority ethnic
group in town. The celebration is at the same time religious (Holy
Patrick, Patron Saint of the Irish), civic (a patriotic American
demonstration that immigrant and native alike enjoy the freedom of the
streets of the city) and ethnic (offering our Irish culture for the
enrichment of American life). Each of these elements, in and of itself,
is worth celebrating; together the effect is synergistic that is that
the whole celebration is actually greater than the sum of its parts.
The Parade showcases "Irish" organizations and their
"Irish" contribution to the mosaic of American life. It is not intended
to be the vehicle for special interests, whether for the cause of
saving of Saint Bridget's Church, for opposition to abortion, "legal"
or otherwise, or for the legitimization of a gay lifestyle. The Courts
have sustained this First Amendment exercise of freedom of speech, and
of association. The only "political" banner allowed (since 1948) is
"England Get Out of Ireland."
It is not that my interpretation of this "High Holy Day"
as it is known among many of New York's Irish, is the only one that can
be honestly held. There are alternative interpretations, one of which
we present in our pages this day. On ABC-TV's Good Morning America, on
Saint Patrick's Day 1977, the late Johnny Concannon (then public
relations officer of the Parade Committee) arranged for me to "debate"
raconteur Malachy McCourt on the nature of the Saint Patrick's Day
Parade. McCourt and I didn't agree on much, but I was so enthralled by
his wit I often failed to riposte. We did find consensus, though, that
Ireland should be free of foreign domination, and that the parade might
help with the message.
The coat of arms and motto
of the 69th New York: "Gentle When Stroked, Fierce When Provoked."
The Parade has always had a military escort for "the Irish societies
parading on Saint Patrick's Day." Since 1851 that escort has come from
the 69th Regiment of New York, whose lineage goes back to the 21st of
December 1849. The purpose of having Irish regiments in the New York
State Militia was not only the security of the State of New York, but
also to train a military cadré to assist in the future liberation of
Ireland. Ridge has written most poignantly about the Regiment's
participation in the 1944 parade, where a guard from the 69th New York
State Guard (mostly World War I veterans) preceded some 300 members of
the 165th U.S. Infantry, the "Old 69th," mostly wounded men (some
riding in open-top cars) returned from combat in the Central Pacific.
Flannery, 'Wild Bill,' Anderson MIA
There are a number of illustrations of the 69th in the
book, and one of the most striking photos is of a three-star private
soldier of the 58th Infantry Battalion of the Irish Army Reserve
Defence Force (formerly known as the FCA, An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúl) is
standing to attention as he "watches U.S. Army soldiers pass." The only
problem is that there were no U.S. Army soldiers in the 2010 Parade;
the troops were of the 1st Battalion / 69th Infantry of the New York
National Guard - the "Fighting 69th." There are a few other inaccurate
or inadequate captions (e.g., Page 114, the "Young Colonials" being
identified merely as "Fife and Drum Corps").
The Quinnipiac University Press American Civil War Irish Brigade
Re-enactors from "A" Company, 69th New York Volunteers.
The only real sins, as far as the photos are concerned, are sins of
omission. Although Michael Flannery, who was out in Tipperary in 1916,
and was, in 1983, one of the most controversial Grand Marshals ever,
appears properly in the text, his image is nowhere to be seen. "Wild
Bill" Donovan, Alexander Anderson, Geoff Slack and Joe Healey, all of
the 69th, at least for their historical value, should all be in the
book, especially General Healey investing Cardinal O'Connor as an
Honorary Member of the Regiment. Perhaps the most serious deficiency is
the absence of an index. The Irish
Brigade Civil War reenactors, who every year precede the image of
Thomas Francis Meagher on County Waterford's banner, and who appeared
so impressively, in color, on WPIX-TV, only appear in a tiny B&W
That said, there is a wonderful write-up on the late
Frankie Beirne, past chairman of the Parade Committee, with a terrific
photo on the facing page. A photographer has captured Msgr. Robert
Ritchie, the Rector of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and on a facing page,
the interior of the Cathedral during the Mass for the deceased members
of the 69th Regiment. My own favorite photos, however, are in
black-and-white: a 1909 photo of the Kerrymen's Patriotic and
Benevolent Association, with their banner, on parade; and, from 1965,
"Marchers from Cardinal Dougherty High School, Philadelphia, PA."
During our debate on ABC-TV's Good Morning America
34 years ago,
Malachy McCourt left me flat-footed, and hugely amused. The problem
with debating Malachy is that, even when you disagree with him,
everything he says tends to be so entertainingly well-spoken that you
hate to interrupt. McCourt parried one of my most nimble jabs, when I
pressed a point that Irish Christian Brother Charles B. Quinn, the
parade Grand Marshal in 1982, had made in class, in Iona College, some
years earlier. Brother Quinn pointed to the good fit between Irish
culture and tradition, and Roman Catholicism, which has come to express
itself in the idiom of Irish speech (in both languages). Malachy
thundered, "Irish Catholicism! I'll
tell you what Irish Catholicism really is Irish Catholicism is a thin
veneer of Christianity hammered over the hard oak of Irish paganism!
That's what Irish Catholicism is." Touché!
Liam Murphy, is Heritage Editor of TheWildGeese.com, and also serves as
military liaison for The New York Saint Patrick's Day Parade and
Celebration Committee. A native of Irvington, N.Y., Liam is a former
editor of the National Hibernian Digest, and a member of AOH Division
11, in Tarrytown, N.Y. He was a co-founder of the Irish Brigade
Association, served as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and as vice
president of the Civil War Round Table at Virginia Miitary Institute,
where he earned his undergraduate degree. He holds a Masters degree in
American history from Fordham University. Liam can be reached via
e-mail at liam@TheWildGeese.com.
This feature was edited by Gerry
and produced by Joe Gannon.