Tuesday 22 May 2018

In praise of St 'Patty'

A million people will turn out for New York's St Patrick's Day parade, for which preparations are taken extremely seriously by a veteran team of organisers. Siobhán Brett reports from New York

No floats: A group of dancers march during the St Patrick's Day parade in New York. Photo: Getty
No floats: A group of dancers march during the St Patrick's Day parade in New York. Photo: Getty

The organisers say it is the world's biggest and oldest parade. Next Saturday on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, approximately one million people will line the blocks between 44th and 79th Street to watch approximately 100,000 marchers parade into the Upper East Side in the name of St Patrick and Ireland for the 257th consecutive year.

The event costs $1m, paid for by sponsorship and private backing. There are no floats, just people. A four-hour TV broadcast is the costliest part. Some 600,000 people watched it last year, and almost that number again streamed it online.

The St Patrick's Day Parade is widely beloved but has been dogged, too, by conflicting priorities and dramatically differing answers to one question. Who gets to march?

On a Sunday last month, in pursuit of an improved understanding of the event's anatomy and workings, I attended the annual St Patrick's Day Parade Grand Marshal and Parade Aides Installation Reception.

Until 1989, women could not serve as parade grand marshal. Loretta Brennan Glucksman, the philanthropist and former broadcaster, will this year be the fourth woman in the position since 1762. Until 1992, a grand marshal needed to be a member of an insular fraternal organisation that has a separate arm for women, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Until 2016, gay and lesbian groups were prevented from participating. This restriction had a chilling effect for many sponsors and attendees, including the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio (whose decision to boycott in 2014 and 2015, insofar as it was made to provoke change, would seem to have been an effective one).

On February 25 this year, more than 500 people filtered through the entrance to Antun's, a dated wedding and event venue 12 miles outside Manhattan in the borough of Queens. For $1,000 a table, they congregated for a buffet and drinks reception to honour the grand marshal, Brennan Glucksman, and her 12 aides.

Here, a plumbers union. There, the Breezy Point Catholic Club Pipe & Drum Band. Bronx-born John Lahey, himself grand marshal in 1997, is the parade's chairman. His appointment coinciding, as it did, with the 150th anniversary of "Black 47", Lahey decided to make the famine commemoration the overt theme of his marshalship. Suddenly, he had plenty to say.

There was an image of the parade as a boisterous drinking event in circulation at or around that time, Lahey said, and noted with an academic's satisfaction (he is the outgoing president of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut) that he has been recognised for restoring a level of solemnity to the event with his approach.

Kids pulled out of school

"There are a lot of parades in the city," said Lahey, "but the St Patrick's Day parade is the one to which the wider New York community best relates. The nice thing about it being on a Saturday, this year, is that's when you get the children."

Should it not always be on a Saturday for that reason, I wondered. No, according to Hilary Beirne, the parade's executive secretary, who I met at the event in Queens. It doesn't make a difference, said Beirne, because it's an Irish-American holiday and a lot of kids are pulled out of school.

He became more serious. "We're the only one that gets to do it on the same date every year, and that's because we were grandfathered in. We can't let that go," he said. "There was a brutal snowstorm one year and still it went ahead on the 17th, out of concerns pertaining to legal precedent."

Beirne moved to the US in 1988. Two weeks later, his uncle Frank, then parade chairman, roped him in to work at the "reviewing stand". He has been in a senior committee role for 20 years.

"He should be president of this," a gregarious passer-by who worked at the New York Department of Sanitation said, slapping Beirne on the back and displacing a clutch of envelopes in the crook of an arm containing mass tickets for the morning of the 17th.

"The Irish Americans today aren't as involved in the parade in the way they should be," Beirne observed later. "At the logistical end. When I say Irish Americans, I mean the younger generation."

Indeed, the venue was filled with people who seemed to be mostly of retirement age. A preponderance of Kathleens, Pats, Philomenas, and Seans. A smattering of flat caps bobbed on a sea of business-casual green. A number of death notices were rattled off as the ceremony began.

"Tradition," said Beirne. "A day for us in this country to put our best foot forward and demonstrate Irish pride. We have to manage it carefully, because you have such a large parade. A lot of people look at us and say 'you're fuddy duddy'. But we have to be that.

"Put it this way," Beirne continued. "People like order. As a result, they feel comfortable coming and participating in the parade. That has certain expectations as to structure, format, and decorum of the people who come. It's a bucket-list item for people," he said.

I sat down briefly with Loretta Brennan Glucksman, clad on this day in a raw silk suit of green, several emeralds, and a pair of quilted black leather flats. "When they first called me it was January of 2017," she began. "That's how long this has been going on."

Later, I met a man named Reilly Dundon, who has occupied the role of "formation runner" since 2004, leading a 30-person committee, and participated in 43 parades in all. Dundon was first recruited while he was in college in the 1970s. "There is more of an American presence, now," he said, due to the decline of Irish-American immigration. Presently, Beirne approached the lectern and waited for quiet. "I'll have to start doing what the parish priest does," he said, "calling out the people who are not in their seat!"

Laughter went up around the ballroom, which was bookended by large ice sculptures. "The 257th parade," Beirne announced. "Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. The parade is dedicated this year to Catholic education and 20 years of the Good Friday Agreement, and by any measure one or other would be focus enough," he said.

Outside, some band members talked among themselves in a circle, drinking Coors Light and watching a toddler beat at a marching drum. A padlocked piano self-played alongside. "As you march up 5th Avenue, be careful where you scratch," the emcee was finishing on a giddy personal high."Our cameras are on you at all times!"

Twenty days remained until the parade. I called my mother when I got home. "My goodness, you wouldn't get it in Ireland," she marvelled. She's right.

@siobhanbrett

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