On a balmy Saturday morning, the streets of Manhattan teemed with St Patrick’s Day revellers in their thousands, decked out in shamrock green colours ready for the Fifth Avenue parade, the 251st of its kind and of course, like everything here, the biggest and best in the World.
We arrived at our meeting point on 45th Street, where my daughter was to skip, hop and jig the route up to Central Park with the ubiquitous and talented Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance. A couple of burly Irish bagpipe players had just kicked off, followed closely by the rhythmic drumming of a high school band from New Jersey, behind whom we were to follow. A three-hour wait to join the parade was anticipated, but it didn’t curb an ounce of the participants’ enthusiasm; or was it because we were bang on the doorstep of an Irish pub?
Amy and I snuck in: a lemonade for her and a touch of curiosity for me. As we snaked ourway through a throng of NY Firemen supping on pints of the obligatory black stuff, I couldn’t help but marvel over the emerald sea of kitschy-clothed Manhattanites celebrating everything that is Irish.
And after imbibing a little Irish courage of my own, I whipped out my handheld recorder and learnt about the importance of having a tad (any will do) of Irish ancestry.
“Today is my Christmas…I’m not really into too many other holidays,” 32-year-old McGill enthused in his thick New York dialect. Proud of his 50 per cent Irish blood he explained: “My father instilled a lot of Irish pride in me when I was a youngster. Sadly, he passed away five-years-ago, but this was his favourite day of the year…and now it is mine.” He was “hanging out” with his sister and cousin for the day.
First-timers to St Patrick’s Day celebrations, a giggly group of girls standing close said they planned to “bar-hop” their way across the city. “Maybe we’ll manage 17 bars to mark the 17th March!” Jill Laguori laughed. The shamrock tattooed 22-year-old felt her 25 per cent Irish genes were enough of an excuse to party.
“My grandfather came over to New York years ago to look for work, and I am so proud of him, his history and my heritage…and while I’ve never been to Ireland, it’s on my list,” Kelly Zukowski explained while waiting at the bar. She’s a mix of Irish (her Irish mother named her Kelly, a popular Irish name), and Polish ancestry.
A table of jolly-looking older gentleman nursing their Guinness and wearing “All Hallows” white-satin school sashes invited us to join them.
“There’s about a dozen of us from Old Hallows High School, Class of 1969, joining today’s parade,” Thomas DeRito, 61, explained. They first marched in this historic parade as “junior highs” (aged 17), and they have been raising money ever since to keep The Bronx-based school, one of the first Irish Congregation of Christian Brothers boys’ schools founded in America, afloat. DeRito, whose grandmother hails from County Clare, hasn’t missed many years in-between neither…
Kevin Duignana, also from Class ’69, keenly chimed in: “The school, founded in 1909, follows the principles of Catholic missionary ‘Brother Edmund Rice’, who originally petitioned Rome to set up a teaching order to help educate, both morally and scholastically, the poor children of Ireland.” Today, 670 boys, predominantly of African-American and Hispanic origin, attend the school.
Peter Donahue (centre): “New York is probably the epicentre of Irish emigration, from 1840s to early part of 20th Century and even now, given the recent mini-wave of immigrants from Southern Ireland owing to the economic situation.”
What does St Patrick’s Day mean to them today? “I feel it’s all about celebrating our heritage and continuing the traditions handed down by our parents and grandparents,” Peter Donahue, 60, rounded off before emptying his pint.
Our cue came at 230pm and the bar emptied. The Niall O’Leary dancers quickly assembled into neat rows in the bright sunshine behind the school’s banner, ready to perform before the cameras and the green masses lining Fifth Avenue.
And on a day when it’s cool to brag about one’s Irish connections: I am proud to say Amy jigged alongside some honest-to-God 100% pure Irish folk—the charming Greene children aged 9, 7 and 6…
Kenneth, their father, while pleased to maintain one of the Irish traditions on this day, muttered in his thick Irish brogue as he adjusted his son’s tie for umpteen time: “It’s the first St Patrick’s Day where not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips by this time of the day!”
Niall O'Leary dancers "Snaking into Brownian Motion" on Fifth Avenue, alongside Central Park