St. Patrick’s Day Parade Prepares to Step Off for 250th Time


It’s a celebration of faith, culture and national heritage, and when the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan steps off on March 17, it also will be, in a special way this year, a sign of determination, hard work and staying power.

This year’s parade is the 250th, and the anniversary puts a shine on what is already so colorful and vibrant an event that it is known around the world. With flags flying, bagpipes skirling and bands filling the air with music, it’s no wonder the parade draws millions of spectators who pack the sidewalks of New York or, if they’re not lucky enough to be in town, view the festivities on television or the Internet.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. The original parades in the 18th century were small and informal. At various times through the years, especially in the first half of the 19th century, marchers had to contend with nativism on the part of those who had no use for the Irish, their Catholic religion or their presence in the United States.

As the Irish established themselves and found acceptance in their adopted country, the hostility toward them abated, and the parade, too, grew in size, popularity and prestige.

And while it is Irish through and through, from the Fighting 69th Regiment that leads it to the last Irish societies and marchers at the close, its significance transcends nationality. Many of those who are involved with it, including this year’s grand marshal, the international best-selling suspense author Mary Higgins Clark, have pointed out that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade symbolizes the struggles and successes of every immigrant group that came to the United States seeking opportunity and a better life for themselves and their children.

The parade is run by St. Patrick’s Day Parade Inc., a nonprofit organization; its operating expenses come entirely from private donations. The formidable job of planning and preparation for the event is done by the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, all of whose members are volunteers.

Leading the committee is John T. Dunleavy, who came to the United States from County Westmeath, joined the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1965 and retired as general superintendent in 1990. He has worked on the parade for 43 years, the past 16 as chairman. Talking with CNY, he remarked that the parade also celebrates the chance for success that the Irish found in the United States.

“It’s a land of endless opportunity,” he said. “The only restrictions are the restrictions you place on yourself.”

He noted, however, that St. Patrick’s Day is first of all a holy day, the feast of the patron not only of Ireland but also of the New York Archdiocese.

“Our day begins with Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, celebrated by the Archbishop of New York,” Dunleavy said. “It sets the tone for the whole day.”

The annual Mass, which includes petitions in the Irish language, will be celebrated this year by Archbishop Dolan and begins at 8:30 a.m. Attending annually are the grand marshal, parade officials, Irish dignitaries and prominent political and civic leaders.

The parade traditionally steps off at 11 a.m. at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street and soon passes St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 50th Street, where the archbishop and other clergy and guests are gathered on the cathedral steps or on the sidewalk in front to view it and to greet marchers.

The sidewalks on both sides of the avenue are filled with spectators who cheer, applaud and call out greetings to the marching units, which include police and firefighters; numerous pipe bands, marching bands and school bands; Irish dancers; and Irish societies, some of them representing schools and universities.

Spectators who have talked with CNY at the annual event mention that they have been coming to the parade for years, frequently with family members and friends, and often bringing the younger generation to induct them into the tradition and give them a deeper sense of their heritage. For anyone who attends the parade, or used to, a newly published book captures its spirit superbly in words and photographs, and provides a concise, thorough and lively account of its history.

“Celebrating 250 Years of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade” was written by John T. Ridge of Brooklyn, historian for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, and produced by Quinnipiac University Press in concert with the committee. It was published by Quinnipiac University Press, whose manager, Lynn Mosher Bushnell, is the book’s editor.

The book was launched, and Mary Higgins Clark was celebrated as grand marshal, at an event Feb. 9 at the American Irish Historical Society in Manhattan. The book’s author and editor participated.

Ridge, who is retired from the insurance industry, is a past president of the New York Irish History Roundtable.

“I’ve been involved in Irish things all my life,” he said. He told CNY that he has been attending the parade since he was a small boy, and that “it made a big impression.” It was an important family event, he added; although St. Patrick’s Day was not a school holiday in the Diocese of Brooklyn, as it was in New York where St. Patrick is patron. Ridge’s parents, born in Ireland, took their four children out of school for the day.

Ridge has collected Irish artifacts, including books and newspapers, since age 13, so he had a rich trove of original sources to draw on in writing the book and researching photographs.

Active in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, he has written articles about the Irish in New York, including some on the AOH that touched on the history of the parade. In 1988 he wrote a history of the parade that was published by the parade committee.

The idea for the book came from John Lahey, president of Quinnipiac University, and Ms. Bushnell said the project took two and a half years.

The many photos and prints—a majority in full color, many in evocative sepia or black and white—provide a stunning retrospective of the parade’s march through time. Well-written and engaging text is divided into sections under various headings, each dealing with an aspect of parade history and each filled with colorful facts and anecdotes.

There are sections on the earliest celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in New York and the original parades that launched the tradition. Among the many topics also covered are the AOH; the Fighting 69th; the Irish counties and their magnificent banners celebrating saints and heroes; and women in the parade. There even is a section on weather at the parade, with a photo of intrepid Irish spectators holding snow-covered umbrellas. One section, headed “Not Everybody Loves an Irish Parade,” deals with anti-Irish sentiment.

Every spectator knows that the Archbishop of New York always reviews the parade, his red or purple cape a bright flash of contrasting color amid all the green. The book reveals that the tradition began formally in the 1890s. Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Farley, who had attended nearly 40 parades, gave permission for the reviewing stand to be erected in front of the cathedral in 1910.

The book includes a message from Archbishop Dolan, and contains his photo as well as photos of Cardinals John O’Connor and Edward Egan, both of whom served as grand marshals.

Also included is a list of grand marshals from 1851 to 2010.

The book is available at $49.95 at bookstores and from Quinnipiac University Press at (203) 582-8655 or All proceeds will benefit the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Dunleavy, the parade chairman, told CNY that the book will be a valuable resource for those who study its history years from now. Ridge, its author, summed it up: “It’s a New York story. It’s an Irish story.”

Just like the parade itself.


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