The Gra-a-nd Parade

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The Saint Patrick’s Day parades on Fifth Avenue in the eighties and nineties were much more boisterous than the dignified processions of today. In iyOi the vice-chairman of the parade, Kilkenny-born James J. Comcrfoid (now parade chairman, and a judge of Xew York City’s Criminal Court), refused to allow Hrcndan Rchan, the high-spirited Dublin playwright, to appear in the parade. “AVe don’t want a personality who has been advertised so extensively as a common drunk,” ^udge Comerford said. Such a stricture would have outraged the two-fisted gangs of Irish volunteer firemen from the Lower East Side who in parades before the turn of the century pulled their hand-drawn Ore trucks u{) Fifth Avenue. Their ranks were full of Behan types; after the parade broke up near the cathedral, they would hurry to the shantytown district of Jones’s Wood around Sixty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, where they caroused until morning.

The parade in 1890 covered the longest route in the city’s history; it began at Washington Square and went on to the Polo Grounds at 155th Street, a distance of nine miles. (The city’s longest parade in point of time was that of the 1937 American Legion Convention, which lasted from nine one morning until three the following morning.) The old-time parades had colorful features that arc long since gone. Around 1900, for example, there were as many as five hundred horse-drawn carriages in the line of march. When Fifth Avenue was a street of palatial private houses, the upstairs windows of the mansions would be crowded with cheering Irish maids and household servants who tossed cookies and cakes to the smiling marchers. And the grand marshal of the parade, his aides, and most of the other dignitaries rode horses, many of which were borrowed for the day from brewery wagons.

The tradition of mounting the parade’s leaders on horseback held firm until 1932, when it was broken by the dapper Mayor James J. Walker, that year’s grand marshal, jimmy backed away from the saddle, explaining to amused reporters that lie recalled a previous grand marshal, Paddy Collins, whose large white horse, frightened by the crowds, had sought refuge in the cellar of a corner saloon. “It took two hours to get Paddy out of the cellar, and two days to get the horse out,” Walker said. “Besides, I have a Board of Estimate meeting tomorrow, and it wouldn’t do for me to preside at it standing up.”

Another year on another horse the same Paddy Collins cut a figure on Fifth Avenue that a few older watchers of the parade remember with admiration. That was in iyi?, the only year when the parade was cancelled because of bad weather. A driving rainstorm soaked and scattered the marching units before the parade could be formed. When the cancellation was agreed on, Paddy and his fifty mounted aides galloped up Fifth Avenue like Irish Paul Reveres to take the news to John Cardinal Farley, waiting at the cathedral; Paddy clattered along in the lead, roaring at the wet crowds on the way, “It’s oil! It’s oil! It’s all called off!”

“In many ways,” says a man who was there to see it, “Paddy’s ride was a much more thrilling sight than any parade could have been.”

Today’s Saint Patrick’s Day parades in New York are conducted with a decorum that would have baffled the Irish marchers of a century ago. Judge Comerford and his committee from the sponsoring and participating organizations—the Ancient Order of Hibernians from the five boroughs of the city and surrounding suburban counties, the local Irish county societies, colleges, schools, Friends of Irish Freedom, Clan-na-Gacl, Irish Republican Brothci hood Veterans, and various groups of New York City employees such as the Holy Name societies of the New York police and fire departments, and the postmen’s Emerald Society—sec to it that there is no clowning, no commercialism, no political exploitation, no comic paper hats, no placards or signs “of an offensive nature.” Everybody walks, except for a selected group of equestrians at the heat! of the parade. There are no floats or vehicles, and no animals except the equestrian unit’s horses and the Ogth Regiment’s Irish wolfhound mascot. A sharp-eyed committee deputy is stationed at every block on Fifth Avenue from the starting point at Forty-fourth Street to Sixty-fifth Street, with policemen at his beck and call; if he sees any unseemly conduct—which is not unknown—the guilty contingent is pulled out of the parade, led into a side street, and dispersed with a warning not to come back next year.

Bands are advised to stick to an approved list of Irish airs, which includes “Carry Owen,” “The Boys of Wcxford,” “The Wearing of the Creen,” “Harrigan,” “O’Donnell Ahn,” and, of course, “Tammany” and “McNamara’s Band.” There is little likelihood that the New York parade will ever be the scene of an embarrassment such as the one that befell James M. Curlcy, Uic perennial mayor of Boston, at his city’s Saint Patrick’s Day march some years ago. A band hired to parade with Curley almost wrecked him politically by playing “The Isle of Capri” instead of the traditional “Tammany.” Curley later managed to convince an indignant meeting of Corkmen in South Boston that the composer of “The Isle of Capri” was an Irishman; the Mayor promptly led all of them in singing the praises of the Italian island.