'Celebrating 250 Years' Brings Parade to Life

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'Celebrating 250 Years' Brings Parade to Life

A Review By Liam Murphy / Heritage Editor

Click on image to buy the book

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 examination.

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, Staunton, Virginia.

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 for Ireland.

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 photo.

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."

"Celebrating 250 Years of the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade" is definitely a "keeper" to be treasured, and not only by historians, sociologists and anthropologists -- at least for the next 250 years of the New York St. Patrick's Day Parade. WGT

Malachy vs. Murphy, March 17, 1977

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!

Celebrating 250 Years of the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade
By John T. Ridge & edited by Lynn Mosher Bushnell
Published by The St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee Inc. and The Quinnipiac University Press, 2011

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 Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

Copyright © 2011 by Liam Murphy and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: Heritage, NY, Parade, Patrick, St

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