An Irishman's Diary


IN A CAFE in New York’s East Village last Friday night, the woman behind the counter – blonde and breezy and wearing a jaunty hat – noted my accent with some unease. I was “Irish – right?” – she guessed.

Then she asked: “Are you here to watch us make a total mockery of your culture?” Taking her cue, I agreed that yes, the plan was to observe the events of March 17th from between my fingers and maybe afterwards go for a long walk in Central Park and weep. The hat woman smiled. But before she resumed shouting orders for soy chai lattes and the like, she declared: “On behalf of all Americans, I apologise in advance.”

It was only the eve of St Patrick’s Day, and the city was already en fête. In the streets of the lower East Side, it felt like you’d stepped back into the mid-19th century when New York teemed with newly arrived Irish emigrants. Except that, clearly, it wasn’t just the Irish who were celebrating.

Even in St Mark’s Place, a “Little Tokyo” full of Japanese restaurants and tattoo parlours, they were getting in on the act: if sometimes confusingly, as on a sign urging customers to celebrate the occasion with “miniature clover tattoo” (only $50).

But all joking aside, I did half dread the thought of Saturday. Despite it dawning to sunshine and unseasonably mild temperatures, I was unconvinced that this would be a great day for the Irish. So it was all the more surprising when, watching the parade from the footpaths of Fifth Avenue, I found myself rather uplifted by the experience.

Here, after all, was a once-despised minority that had ended up being given the run of the city. Or had taken it. The parade is what a New York friend of mine calls a “traffic-slaughtering display of ethnic power”. And yet the triumphalism was somehow muted. If the bands were loud – like some of the shades of green on display – there was a quiet dignity to most of the marchers.

It’s true that the parade is very old-fashioned. It’s also true that the range of self-expression allowed by the organisers is not wide.

Never mind the lack of floats, or Macnas-style dramatics, or the long-running refusal to let gay people march as gays. The fact is that, with a few exceptions, participants can only define themselves in one of three ways.

There’s band membership. There’s membership of a profession (as long as it’s an heroic profession). And finally, there’s association with a county society. In this last respect, the New York parade is like the GAA. You may be black, or lesbian, or descended from martians on your mother’s side. But it’s your county affiliation that brands you. So say it once, say it proud: you’re from Cavan, or from Louth, etc.

Thus, somewhere between a body of Vietnam Veterans and the New York Fire Department (bearing 343 flags for its 9/11 dead) on Saturday was the Mayo Society. Among whose members I noticed a man nonchalantly pushing a baby buggy while sporting a cloth cap and a Mayo GAA jersey.

The juxtaposition implied a certain heroism on his part. And as a Mayo supporter, I suppose he had suffered in his own way. No doubt he was a hero to somebody, if only himself.

Then there’s the sheer extent of the march, which is also deeply impressive. I watched the first hour and a half, or so, before adjourning to Langan’s Bar on 47th Street to see the rugby. Then two hours later, I went back to the parade. And sure enough, it was winding relentlessly onwards, with bands and societies still waiting to join in, queuing patiently in the shaded side streets for their hour in the Fifth Avenue sun.

OF COURSE, back in Langan’s and a thousand other pubs, it wasn’t just the Irish rugby team that was getting hammered. In conjunction with the parade, there was also an epic drinking festival under way, which was somewhat less uplifting. If Fifth Avenue was Ireland’s idealised face – or the Ancient Order of Hibernians’ idea of it, anyway – Sixth Avenue and

Broadway was the portrait in the attic.

As for the other great Irish stereotype, New York ensured that it would not go neglected, either. To wit, Madison Square Garden had thoughtfully laid on an green-themed night of boxing for March 17th, under the catch-phrase: “Get your Irish up”. Yes: drinking and fighting. It’s what we do.

The event was headlined by Birmingham Irishman Matthew Macklin’s attempt to win a world middleweight title. But throughout the undercard, the promoters played up any Hibernian credentials: from New Jersey-born welterweight Danny McDermott to local light-heavyweight Seanie Monaghan, “who comes to us tonight from the Irish riviera – Long Beach”.

Some identities were more complicated, as in the supporting feature: an explosive-sounding bout between Chicago’s Donovan “Da Bomb” George and Edwin “La Bomba” Rodriguez of the Dominican Republic.

“Da Bomb” (who was safely defused after 10 rounds) carried the flag of Ireland. But being Greek-Irish – and Cypriot Greek at that – he had to carry those two flags as well, in case he upset the relatives. There were so many flags in the ring beforehand, it looked more like UN headquarters than a boxing arena.

Anyway, the Paddy’s Day package had the desired effect. The event was sold out, and by the end – as encouraged by the organisers – some of the attendance did indeed have their Irish up.

After Macklin’s brave defeat to the brilliant Argentinian Sergio Martinez, there was bit of a scuffle in the arena. I didn’t see what started it, although a burly man in an Irish rugby jersey was centrally involved. In any case, security guards arrived at the scene quicker than one of Martinez’s left hooks. No sooner was the Irish up than it was put down again.