Between jigs and reels, the last great show of Irish influence in New York
The Fifth Avenue parade is a compelling and curiously elegiac phenomenon. No floats, no Mardi Gras playfulness: just a five-hour statement of identity
Members of the Emerald Isle Step Dancers, from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, make their way up New York’s Fifth Avenue as they take part in the St Patrick's Day Parade. Photograph: Tina Fineberg/AP
St Patrick’s Cathedral is filthy. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said as much on Sunday as he stood on the steps of the Fifth Avenue landmark and detailed an inventory of problems that could easily double as a synopsis of the Irish building boom.
“This cathedral, simply put, is cracking. The bricks are crumbling and falling; the renowned windows are rattling and splitting. The heat, the air and the plumbing is old. The outside, as you see, is crusted with grit and the roof is leaking.”
Then, wearing a hard hat chosen in colour-tone with his cassock, he removed a ceremonial cloth covering a small patch of brick that had recently been cleaned: its celestial whiteness made the rest of the cathedral look soot-dusted. It might have been a symbol for all of New York: the grandeur and bright lights often disguise the grime.
Certainly, St Patrick’s seemed as magnificent as ever on Saturday morning when, from 7.30 in the morning, invited guests and dignitaries, the devout and the curious filled its every pew for the pre-St Patrick’s Day parade Mass. The interior has been overwhelmed by a vast framework of scaffolding but still, the old place has hauteur. As Fr Richard Gibbons, the parish priest of Knock, delivered a fizzing homily, four Asian women walked in. They might have been sisters and were dressed from head to toe in that ultra-green shade that belongs to the film library of Barry Fitzgerald.
Everyone is Irish
The women wore matching green headbands and were dead solemn and provided the most striking example of the cliche that was repeated over and over as the crowds began to gather along the barricades to watch the Saturday parade: everyone is Irish on St Patrick’s Day.
It is a mixed-up scene, this 252-year-old pageant. Hispanics, Irish, Afro-Americans, French: it didn’t matter . . . everyone was in costume.
“It’s been like that since I was a little kid,” Mike Kelly shrugged. “And nobody really knows why. Maybe it’s the luck of the Irish thing. But the day is about having a good time and sharing it with your family . . . for us, it was about singing the Irish songs that were taught to us. It is a family thing.”
A retired NYPD detective, Kelly stood hunched against the lunchtime drizzle calling his whereabouts to a friend down the phone and struggling to compete with the melancholic strains of a passing pipe band. He wore a peaked woollen cap with the same authority as Sean Connery did in The Untouchables . He is a veteran of more St Patrick’s Day parades than he remembers and was enjoying this one in plain clothes.
“Different,” he said of the Irish days of decades ago. “This parade 25 years ago was a bloodbath. Everybody was drinkin’, drinkin’, drinkin’. Ohhhh! You have no idea. And then fighting. Central Park was crazy on this day. And then over the years it got cleaned up. I would say Thanksgiving is probably the best parade in the city and then this. The city is safer and cleaner now.”
And it’s true that New Yorkers who recall St Patrick’s parades of the 1970s and 1980s remember those Irish days of being wantonly drunken: Hell’s Kitchen bars open and busy at 5am and by noon the streets strewn with characters straight from a Shane MacGowan song.