- 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
Like many annual festive spectacles, the parade is now seen on television. The sight of the Fighting Ot)th leading the march up the avenue with its band beating out “Carry Owen,” and the rich, lilting brogue of commentator Jack McCarthy in his usual greeting —“Cod bless all here, and a happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you, wherever you may be”—set a mood in the opening scene of the television show that millions of Irish watchers in suburban living rooms eagerly welcome. McCarthy lias been covering the Saint Patrick’s Day parade for the local independent television station WPIX every year that it has been televised, and consequently he has become as closely identified with the parade and as well known to Irish-Americans in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as the late Cardinal Spellman or Jim Farley. Although McCarthy was born (of Irish parents) in mid-town Manhattan, the brogue that gives his running commentary on the parade a deep green tinge is not an affectation; the Irish sentiment overwhelming him on Saint Patrick’s Day makes him talk that way.
When the Saint Patrick’s Day parade was first shown on television, in 1949, it was allotted one hour of air time. During the telecast, the station was flooded with telephone calls from people who wanted the parade kept on the air longer. The announcer was told to keep the show going for an additional half hour and then, when the (alls continued to conic in, for another hour more. In the end he and the cameraman were at their posts on Fifth Avenue for six hours, until the last of the high school bands was making its way past the reviewing stand in the darkening twilight. Since then the station lias always televised the entire parade, which has now been shortened to four hours. The route also has been shortened in recent years; it still starts at Forty-fourth Street, but now it ends at Eightysixth Street instead of Ninety-sixth. The object is to relieve some of the traffic congestion caused by the parade’s tradition, and exclusive legal privilege, of staging its march on whatever day March iy happens to fall, instead of on a Sunday or a holiday, when stores and offices are closed.
Cutting down the size of the parade has been a struggle for Judge Comerford and his committee, who carry on the “moral obligation,” as they call it, of managing the march, which now numbers some 120,000 Irishmen and pseudo Irishmen. “If we let in all the organisations from all over the country who want to march in it,” Judge Comcrford says, “the parade would last more than twelve hours.” There are fifty-three disappointed groups marking time on the waiting list at the moment.
The parade is still not short enough to please the Fifth Avenue merchants, who in 1967 claimed that the Irishmen’s insistence on marching and disrupting the avenue’s traffic on a business day had cost between $350,000 and §500,000 in lost sales. In 101,], the storekeepers of the Fifth Avenue Association persuaded the city to pass an ordinance that requires other Fifth Avenue marches, such as the Germans’ Stcubcn Day parade, the Poles’ Pulaski Day parade, the Greeks’ Independence Day parade, and the Puerto Ricans” Hispanic Societies parade, to be held on Sundays or legal holidays. However, Irish politicians in Gity Hall managed to insert a clause exempting any parade from that restriction if it had marched annually on New York streets for ten years previous to 1914. The Saint Patrick’s Day parade, of course, just happened to be the only parade that met that qualification. However, in 1944 the half-Italian Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia permitted the Italians’ Columbus Day parade on October 12 to move to Fifth Avenue from Central Park West, on the grounds that Columbus Day in New York is a legal holiday, although stores are open. The enraged Fifth Avenue merchants later tried to get Mayor William O’Dwyer to remove the Columbus Day parade from the avenue, claiming that it was violating the 1914 ordinance, but O’Dwyer, well aware that the city has two million Italian-American voters, told the merchants that they were wasting their time. The Italians still march on Fifth Avenue on October 12.
The good followers of Saint Patrick can never rest assured that new challenges to their privilege will not arise. Indeed, such a crisis arose in the summer of 1966, shaking the Ancient Order of Hibernians to its venerable foundations. A bill was proposed to the City Council by a member with the obviously un-Gaelic name of Woodward Kingman, asking that all parades be moved to a Sunday or a legal holiday; even worse, at about the same time, Mayor John V. Lindsay began to consider a plan to move the Saint Patrick’s Day parade from Fifth Avenue to the roads inside Central Park. Rallying his forces against these attacks, Judge Comerford pointed out to his fellow Hibernians that both the Kingman bill and the Central Park plan were undoubtedly inspired not only by the Fifth Avenue Association but also by the rising power of modern atheism. “The people trying to tear down the parade,” the Judge said, “are the same people who have been spreading all this talk lately about God being dead.”
In taking on Judge Comerford, the would-be reformers of the parade found themselves facing a formidable opponent. In his native County Kilkenny he had commanded at the age of nineteen a company of 120 Irish Republican Army guerrillas in the fighting against the Black and Tans. The underminers of the parade were no match for this determined Irishman. The Kingman bill was easily disposed of, and then Judge Comerford went to have a talk with the Mayor. At one point in his strongly impassioned argument, the Judge exclaimed, “How can you put this magnificent parade into the setting of a park at a time of year when there is not a green blade of grass on the lawns and not a leaf on the trees?”