by Majella Murray
The first St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York took place 249 years ago, in 1762. The Parade, which marches up 5th Avenue, from 44th Street to 86th Street, is now a New York tradition, watched by more than two million people. It is the largest and most popular of the city’s many parades. The St Patrick’s Day Parade is held to honour the patron saint of Ireland and the Archdiocese of New York, and celebrates Irish faith, culture, history and heritage.
In 1756, St Patrick’s Day was celebrated in New York City for the first time. The celebrations were confined to the Crown and Whistle Tavern. Six years later, in 1762, fourteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a group of homesick Irish soldiers held the first parade, on Lower Broadway. At this time, the wearing of the green was a sign of Irish pride and was banned back home. However, in New York, these Irishmen could not only wear green, but could freely speak the Irish language, sing Irish songs and play Irish tunes on their pipes. Since then, the annual parade and celebrations have continued uninterrupted.
In the early days, the Irish immigrants would gather at their parish churches and march to old St Patrick’s Cathedral (now at Motts and Prince Streets). Here, the Archbishop would address the crowd before they would disperse to their local Irish bars and pubs. When St Patrick’s Cathedral moved uptown, the parade moved with it.
Around 1851, a single Grand Marshall was selected to lead the parade and, coupled with the large numbers of immigrants who had arrived since the Famine, the parade grew considerably. It was around this time that the ‘Irish’ 69th Regiment began to lead the marchers and the Ancient Order of Hibernians became the official parade sponsor. The parade today is still escorted by a unit of soldiers; and for the past 150 years or so, the “Irish Infantry” National Guard 69th Regiment, with their Irish Wolfhound, have led the parade up Fifth Avenue.
The parade is held on 17 March each year, except when St Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday. Because of religious observance, the parade is then held on the Saturday before. It starts at 44th Street, at 11.00am. The parade is reviewed by the Archbishop of New York, outside St Patrick’s Cathedral, which is on 50th Street. Thereafter, it makes its way up past the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Irish Historical Society, and finishes at 86th Street, between 4.30pm and 5.00pm.
The Grand Marshall is usually an Irish American, however, some famous Irish Grand Marshalls have included Albert Reynolds (1998) and Maureen O’Hara (1999). In 1993 there was no Grand Marshall.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 people normally participate in the parade. It is a true marcher’s parade. The committee don’t allow floats, cars or other commercial interests to take part. Instead, the parade has up to four hundred bands, all thirty county societies, police, fire-fighters, Irish societies of the city, various schools, colleges, Emerald societies, Irish language and Nationalists’ societies. The parade is also televised.
The 2002 parade was special, in that it was dedicated to the many police, fire-fighters and rescue-worker ‘Heroes of 9/11’. It was also the first time that the parade was ever reviewed by the President of Ireland, on this occasion, President Mary McAleese. At midday, the entire parade (which stretched for over a mile-and-a-half) paused for two minutes. As the Cardinal said a prayer for all the victims of 9/11, the entire parade turned around and faced southward, towards the site of the Twin Towers. For the first time ever, in the city that never sleeps, a pin could be heard drop on Fifth Avenue. This was a fitting tribute to all the men and women who lost their lives on 9/11. It has been estimated that the 2002 parade was the largest ever, with up to 300,000 marchers and three million spectators lining the parade route.
**This story was originally printed in Ireland’s Eye, March 2011**