McCourt: Cheers for Book, Boos for Parade


McCourt: Cheers for Book, Boos for Parade

By Malachy McCourt

The Quinnipiac University Press
Mayor William L. Strong (1885 - 1887) expelling Irish politicians like a latter-day (and implicitly virtuous) Saint Patrick.

New York -- In the interest of advance transparency, I have to say that I am imbued with a bias toward New York's St. Patrick's Day so-called parade. Some say the whole charade was begun by Irish soldiers in the British army going to Mass on that day. So essentially, it's all about Irish hypocrites honoring another Brit who had destroyed a perfectly good pagan culture by flattening it with the hammer of Rome. It is not so much a parade as it is a procession of the prim and grim who appear to be in pursuit of sin and sinners up Fifth Avenue. It is an absolutely Roman Catholic affair that has no connection to or with ancient druidic Ireland.

It is always led by the 'Fighting 69th' Regiment, a group of mostly men renowned for shooting and killing other human beings in wartime. The criteria for selecting the Grand Marshal are secret, but one thing is certain democracy is not part of the deal. Consequently, they have had crooked politicians and divorced Catholics in the role.

It is not so much a parade as it is a procession of the prim and grim who appear to be in pursuit of sin and sinners up Fifth Avenue.

One of the greatest Irish labor leaders, Mike Quill, was kicked out of the parade because he wanted to ride in a carriage. One of Ireland's most talented writers, the irreverent Brendan Behan, was excluded and so went to Newark's parade, where he was welcomed with open arms and open bottles.

Once when my brother Frank and myself joined the Limerick contingent, an officious 'mini-marshal' tried to persuade the police to evict us, or worse, even though we were just having fun and merely waving to the throngs on the sidewalk.

That being said, let me get to "Celebrating 250 Years of the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade," the marvelous pictorial history of the New York St. Patrick's Day celebration, as written by John T. Ridge and edited by Lynn Mosher Bushnell. By the way, one group you will not find in the book, nor the parade, is from the gay community they are 'sinners' as opposed to the Ancient Order of Hibernian 'saints' who run the parade, so they are out. In Ireland, gay folk not only march in the various parades, but are also identified as such, and many times are awarded prizes for being the best contingent. But here they are excluded.

The Quinnipiac University Press
Early illustration of the parade, probably from the post Civil War period.

Outside of that, in the book there are pictures, paintings, drawings and caricatures depicting the history of this March 17th event for the last 250 years. It is probably the largest Caucasian event in the world, as it is said that 125,000 people cavort up Fifth Avenue and are observed by 2 million spectators, give or take 1,000. Interesting, too, that unlike the slamming of Mayor Mike Bloomberg for a remark about Irish drinking on the parade route, nobody seemed to take offense when then-New York Gov. Hugh Carey said the Irish march up Fifth Avenue and stagger down Third.

The text of "Celebrating 250 Years" is honest and straightforward about the internal disputes that caused division in the ranks of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, or hibernates, as I prefer to call them. The older and earlier marches were certainly more colorful, as like those in the parades of our Hispanic brethren today, there were floats, flower-bedecked stages and wagons galore.

One group you will not find in the book, nor the parade, is from the gay community.

What is astounding is, in all the years it's been in operation, the parade has never been cancelled. The book has some wonderful archival photographs of people smiling in the snow, laughing in the rain, trying to live up to that piece of doggerel song, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Despite the brutal suppression of Ireland by firearms and other weaponry wielded by Great Britain, those who display guns are given prominence on this saint's day, they being the military-school cadets, Marines, naval units, National Guard, and various police organizations fully armed. Of course, there are still prancing horses who lift their tails to get rid of some digestive awards to the delight of many children and spectators. Note, this book is a treasure trove of an aspect of New York City and its history never so readily available to the general public.

Right or wrong, these conservative Irish stuck to their swords and guns, their silly top-hats, their loud sashes, tailed morning-suits, and marched and marched with all the tenacity of jihadist Moslems, and this Quinnipiac University Press book is a faithful, colorful, detailed history of the people who reached the pinnacle of respectability, which I hope they will soon vacate and become Irish again.

The Quinnipiac University Press
1999 Grand Marshal Maureen O'Hara, with Mayor Rudy Giuliani (left) and Gov. George Pataki, in Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

There is a list of grand marshals, including the brothers Bill and Paul O'Dwyer, the women, Dorothy Hayden, Maureen O'Hara and a couple of hundred others, like Mike Gibbons, Ray Kelly and this year, Mary Higgins Clark. There was one man, because of his connection with the IRA, was branded a terrorist, and the Cardinal fled into the cathedral as he approached. There are many tidbits about things like the line of march and rules of marching inserted within. I, for one, did not know about the Federal Bureau of Investigation Pipe & Drum Band. J. Edgar Hoover would have liked that, as he was fond of cross-dress, and the kilt would be close enough.

Whether you are a sentimental Celt or a cynical one like myself, you cannot help being moved by the hope on the faces of the people photographed in this colorful memory book. Faces lit by nostalgia for a past that never was and for a future that will never be. The likes of this great collection, this 250 years of New York history, even though one-sided, will not be seen again in our lifetimes, so I urge one and all to get one while there are such things as books in existence. Ah! Get two. WGT

Writer and actor Malachy McCourt was born in Brooklyn and raised in Limerick, Ireland, from the age of 3. His aplomb as a raconteur lands him on the occasional talk-show. As well as being the co-author of the play "A Couple of Blaguards" with his brother Frank, Malachy has written his own New York Times bestseller memoir, "A Monk Swimming," published by Hyperion Press.  Malachy has been honored by many organizations, including City Club of New York  (Gadfly Award), Turning Point Inc. (Humanitarian Award), World of Hibernia (Super Irish Award), and NYCLU (Florina Lasker Civil Liberties Award). More about him can be found at

This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

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


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