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.
On Saturday, the pubs were busy and dozens of borough teenagers costumed up in green were intent on having a good time. St Patrick’s Day gives people a chance to dress foolishly and get away with it.
Many men wore Aran sweaters, as former mayor Ed Koch used to do. Others went the whole hog: britches, waistcoat and shillelagh in hand. Women vamped up in green. Most watched the parade for a while and then split for the pubs.
“Bar hopping, obviously,” smiled Lucas Klyne when asked of his plans. Klyne stood on a junction on Sixth Avenue. The sleet was pelting down and some of his friends were shivering. Klyne was born in Carrick-on-Shannon and his parents moved to New York when he was three. But he returns to Leitrim often and has attended St Patrick’s Day parades there.
“In Ireland, it is not as big a deal as here. Why is it so huge here? You get to meet random people that you’ve never met. And New York is such a huge meeting place. The best thing is that when you go to bars in the States, it is all about dancing and loud-ass music and shit. In Ireland, you sit around and talk to people. So on this day, you get to do that here too. And everyone is into it, it doesn’t matter where from.
‘Really old 1900s shit’
“That probably comes from the really, really old 1900s shit – emigration and all that and all these nationalities coming in and mixing. When the immigrants in the 1900s had a holiday, people didn’t really recognise it. And for some reason St Patrick’s Day is the one that took off.”
Then the lights changed and the traffic, blurry in the sleet, stalled so Klyne dashed across towards the Old Castle pub, a 55th Street landmark run by Eugene Rooney, the former Mayo footballer.
Inside, everyone was watching Ireland lose to France in the rugby and then Dublin playing Tyrone in the GAA. Families and die-hards stayed on Fifth Avenue to watch the parade, which remains staunchly conservative and 20th century in tone: band after band playing and associations marching, all turned out impeccably.
No floats; no Mardi Gras playfulness: just a five-hour statement of identity. It is a compelling and curiously elegiac phenomenon, the Fifth Avenue parade. Maybe that is because it is the last great power show of Irish influence in New York.
“Oh, I think the Irish still have influence,” Mike Kelly contended.
“The Irish basically built the city and there is still an influx coming here. To say they don’t . . . it’s not true.”
Sodom and Begorrah
By nightfall, it wasn’t quite the Sodom and Begorrah of old but the streets of Manhattan were noisy even through the rain and sharp cold.
Leprechauns stood in line in McDonald’s and an exhausted Scots piper sat alone in the window of a Dunkin’ Donuts while nearby his band-mates held an impromptu session outside a pub.
On Sunday night the streets were quiet. If you searched, you could find quality Irish music sessions in various pockets of the city but the last manifestation of St Patrick’s Day was the emerald shine from the tip of the Empire State Building.