- Historic Sites
The Gra-a-nd Parade
Every March 17 on Fifth Avenue shamrocks bloom, bagpipes skirl, and colleens prance prettily along. Begorra, it’s a great day for the Irish!
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
The emotion stirred up in Irish hearts by New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, probably the oldest and largest annual ethnic demonstration in America, was described a few years ago by the late Tim Costello. Tim was a dignified saloon keeper who frowned on most of the usual outbursts of Gaelic sentimentality; the singing of “Mother Machree,” for example, left him unmoved. “Nobody ever mentions Father Machree,” he often complained. “The poor man was undoubtedly working himself to the bone, trying to hold the family together, while Mother Machree was gabbing with the neighbor women, and all the dishes piled up in the sink.”
But Saint Patrick’s Day parades moved Tim deeply. He cherished a comic cartoon, which hung behind his renowned bar on Third Avenue, depicting such a parade in Atlanta, Georgia. The sketch shows thousands of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen massed on the sidewalks of Peachtree Street silently watching a procession which consists of two Negro musicians, one blowing a trumpet and the other beating a drum, with one small and solitary Irishman, bedecked with shamrocks, marching proudly behind them. On the Saint Patrick’s Day when Costello was discussing the emotional impact of the Irish parade in New York, he had risen from his bed in the morning determined to get through the day without too much drinking. A friend who greeted him late that afternoon in the overcrowded Costello saloon noticed that his resolution had gone to pot and asked him what had happened.
“I was doing fine” Tim said unsteadily, “until I decided to go over to Fifth Avenue and watch some of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. I was standing there on the sidewalk, behaving myself, when who do I see coming marching up the avenue but an old fellow I know who must be eighty years old. He’s wearing a tall silk hat with green ribbons draped around it, and he’s leading a band of pipers, waving an old Irish blackthorn stick. I take one look at him, and the next thing I know I’m in the bar at the Biltmore, weeping and buying drinks for everybody in the house.”
For anybody with a touch of Irish in his ancestry who finds himself in New York on Saint Patrick’s Day, the lure of the big parade on Fifth Avenue is irresistible; it even draws fugitives out of hiding. In 1921, near the end of Ireland’s rebellion against the British, three Irish Republican Army gunmen came to New York seeking a traitor who had fled from County Cork after betraying a group of rebels to the Black and Tans. The task of finding the Judas among Manhattan’s millions of people seemed impossible until one of the pursuers reali/ed that March 17 was only a lew days away.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll see him at the parade for sure. Hc may be a bloody informer, but he’s still an Irishman, isn’t he?”
Sure enough, a member of the mission recalled recently, the traitor was spotted on Fifth Avenue watching the parade with misty eyes. He was trailed to his nearby hideout in an apartment building on Fiftyseventh Street and was shot there a few days later. An Irish patriot in the New York Police Department, who was in on the plot, is supposed to have held back traffic while the executioners made their escape.
The Irish have been parading on Saint Patrick’s Day in New York for more than two hundred years. The feast day was observed in the American colonies as early as 1737; on March 17 of that year the Charitable Irish Society in Boston, a group of Yankees of Irish descent, held a dinner, which soon became an annual affair. In the colonial period that was the favored way of celebrating the day: Gaelic: contingents would gather at evening banquets (or convivial tavern breakfasts) and make many eloquent toasts. A Saint Patrick’s Day dinner in New York in 1766 featured twenty toasts, number nineteen being a wish that “the Enemies of Ireland … be tormented with itching without the benefit of Scratching.” The parades, which are said to have started in New York in 1763, were marches through the streets which ended at the taverns where the feasts were to be served; at first, they were probably as informal as the one mentioned in a Philadelphia lady’s diary on March 17, 1778: “A crowd of Irish soldiers went by this afternoon, with one on horseback representing St. Patrick.”
A more impressive parade, with the music of a British army band, was staged in enemy-occupied Manhattan during the Revolution in 1779. Lord Rawdon, an Irish-born colonel in the king’s forces, led a march of his four hundred Volunteers of Ireland soldiers (New York Irishmen enrolled in the British service) from lower Broadway to the Bowery, where they crowded into a tavern for a Saint Patrick’s Day dinner. Lord Rawdon’s hospitality failed to pay oft: many of the volunteers later deserted and went over to Washington’s army. The enraged Rawdon offered a bounty of ten guineas for each deserter’s head, or five guineas for a turncoat brought back to him alive.