Miriam Lord: Leo beams with pride amid march madness
Varadkar’s Doonbeg joke melted away as he paraded on the sunny side of the street
Stuck forever on Fifth Avenue.
Or so it seemed.
The governor moved on. The mayor stopped by briefly to say hello, then set off again. Gerry Adams barrelled past, smiling broadly and wearing a big green badge on his lapel. The grand marshall’s horse-drawn carriage clattered in and out of view. The soldiers over from Finner Camp in Donegal marched past without seeing him.
And the Taoiseach remained stationary in the shade of St Patrick’s Cathedral as the parade passed him by.
It can be very cold on the unsunny side of the street – which is where Leo Varadkar unexpectedly found himself midway through his big trip to the United States, and this before he even got to New York to march in the parade.
Why the long delay?
“He’s waiting for the united Irish counties.”
Full marks for optimism, but even in the middle of this emerald-tinted transatlantic vision of Irish-America, nobody was expecting the Fourth Green Field to come rolling through Manhattan to join the march anytime soon. Even the former Sinn Féin leader, fresh from a function at Gracie Mansion where Mayor Bill de Blasio formally proclaimed “March 17th, 2018, in the city of New York as Gerry Adams Day”, didn’t hang around to see if that happened.
If Varadkar put his foot in it with his dodgy planning joke in Washington last Thursday, at least he knew he messed up. An oblivious De Blasio bagged himself the March 17th, 2018, Diplomatic Tin Ear Award for so lavishly feting Adams and all aspects of his past in Northern Ireland in the presence of his other guest of honour, the Taoiseach.
Afterwards Leo said he was pleased for Gerry to have been given such an honour, gritting his teeth because of the cold, obviously.
Meanwhile, back at the parade, the banner of the United Irish Counties Association finally appeared on the horizon and the Taoiseach and his partner, Matt Barrett, along with the rest of his delegation, set off at the front of the group.
Earlier, at the start of the march, they walked the few blocks to the cathedral with the governor, Andrew Cuomo. He was a moving election poster, thanks to his broad Tricolour sash with “Governor Cuomo” embroidered across it in big gold letters.
There was big media interest in the presence of Varadkar, Ireland’s first gay prime minister taking a VIP part in this annual celebration of all things Irish where LGBT groups were excluded until very recently.
You could see how proud he was of the opportunity to take part in this world famous occasion with Matt. “I’m going to be able to march in the parade now with my partner, which is something that is a sign of change and a sign of great diversity, not just in Ireland but among the community here as well,” said the Taoiseach as the crowds gathered.
The previous evening he went for a drink in the famous Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village and met Brendan Fay and Kathleen Walsh of the Lavender and Green Group, two people who campaigned for years to have LGBT groups march in the parade. “They let us take part two years ago but they put us at the back.”
Brendan was delighted to see an Irish Taoiseach now being given a place of honour at the event. Leo Varadkar marched at the front.
A backwards rolling maul of photographers and TV camera crews developed in front of the politicians as they slowly moved forward.
“Back up! Back Up! Ten feet ahead at all times!” roared the cops as Leo, looking rather bemused, stepped out in his navy overcoat and Kelly green muffler.
The crowds behind the barriers cheered, shouts of “Leo, Leo, over here!” intermingling with “Hey, who is this guy? Who the hell is this guy?”
‘Irish prime minister’
“He’s the Irish prime minister.”
“Oh, wow! Oh, wow!”
The famous 69th Infantry, better known as the Fighting Irish, led off the parade, complete with two gorgeous Irish wolfhounds.
The crowds may love this spectacle in New York, but it’s very heavy going. No floats, fantastical or funny, just rows of military, fire and law enforcement officers, marching bands and pipe bands. Who knew there were so many pipe bands. The plumbers and steamfitters have one, so do the carpenters, not to mention the New York Sanitation Emerald Society Pipe, and so on. More than 100 marching bands following a broad green line painted right down the middle of Fifth Avenue for the day.
One group bore a wonderful name – The Friends of Irish Freedom Suburbanettes Twirlers, MA. Perhaps the mayor might name the next St Patrick’s Day after them.
Comical press conference
It wasn’t the best of starts to this special day for Leo, who is not yet a year in office. An almost comical press conference beforehand wouldn’t have done much to boost his confidence.
Leo's visit was a pleasant diversion for some politicians in Washington, where Trump is sacking all around him
The Taoiseach wanted to expand on his thoughts about trade with the US and general feelings about the parade and his groundbreaking role in it.
First question (on the Doonbeg controversy): “Do you want to apologise to the Irish people?”
Leo said he thought he’d clarified the issue and had nothing more to add.
Second question (in relation to that speech, where he unwisely overegged an anecdote): “You don’t believe you made a show of yourself at Capitol Hill?”
“No. No. I don’t.”
To be fair, he didn’t make a show of himself. He was warmly received by his hosts in Washington, Irish-American politicians in the main, where there seemed to be a genuine welcome for the Taoiseach. His cheesy repetition of the line about having once been an intern on Capitol Hill may have become tiresome to those of us who had to listen to it for the umpteenth time, but it wasn’t meant for home consumption and went down very well with his audiences.
To be sure, his use of the word “piss-take” was ill-judged and showed inexperience, but it didn’t seem to bother them at the lunch. The Americans may be prissy in these matters, but Leo’s vocabulary malfunction didn’t make the news.
In reality, his visit was no more than a pleasant diversion for some politicians in Washington, where Trump is sacking all around him and the White House is said to be turmoil yet again. Short of skinny-dipping in the freezing Potomac with Dr Matt, Taoiseach Varadkar wasn’t going to be making any waves here.
Back at the parade, and setting off from the cathedral, where Cardinal Timothy Dolan was ruling the roost under a gazebo at the bottom of the steps, Leo looked a bit apprehensive at first. He was gingerly holding a little plastic Tricolour at hip level and attempting tentative little waves when he heard his name called out.
He got better though as he relaxed.
He met people such Mary Walsh Mahon, who told him she left Newtownforbes in Longford when she was 14-years-old. “She lives in West Babylon, Long Island, and they have a very successful chain of restaurants now, you know,” whispered a friend.
There were selfie stops. Peter McKenna from Minnesota was there with his mother, Mary McKenna, who was in her wheelchair and all decked out in green. “She’s 95 but was determined to come into the parade to say hello to you. And she has every intention of coming to visit Ireland one more time.”
Betty and George Sission from Rathfarnham were on holiday and decided to look at the parade and they got a selfie too.
A crowd of women roared “Fine Gael. We’re Fine Gaelers!” stopping him in his tracks. As he motored along, with so many people calling his name along the way, Leo began to come out of his shell. “Happy St Patrick’s Day,” he shouted back.
“Look, there’s the Irish prime minister!” “Hey, Leo!” “Leo, Leo, Leo!”
It could turn a politician’s head.
And suddenly, he was out on his own.
Marching along, smiling, waving.
And on the sunny side of the street too.
It was sort of emotional. How did he feel walking down Fifth Avenue with the crowds cheering?
“Errm, eh, good, I suppose, yeah,” he laughed bashfully. “But good, yeah, good. It’s a really nice occasion.”
We hope he savoured it.
It was already snowing back in Dublin.