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The Gra-a-nd Parade

June 2024
14min read

Every March 17 on Fifth Avenue shamrocks bloom, bagpipes skirl, and colleens prance prettily along. Begorra, it’s a great day for the Irish!


The emotion stirred up in Irish hearts by New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, probably the oldest and largest annual ethnic demonstration in America, was described a few years ago by the late Tim Costello. Tim was a dignified saloon keeper who frowned on most of the usual outbursts of Gaelic sentimentality; the singing of “Mother Machree,” for example, left him unmoved. “Nobody ever mentions Father Machree,” he often complained. “The poor man was undoubtedly working himself to the bone, trying to hold the family together, while Mother Machree was gabbing with the neighbor women, and all the dishes piled up in the sink.”

But Saint Patrick’s Day parades moved Tim deeply. He cherished a comic cartoon, which hung behind his renowned bar on Third Avenue, depicting such a parade in Atlanta, Georgia. The sketch shows thousands of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen massed on the sidewalks of Peachtree Street silently watching a procession which consists of two Negro musicians, one blowing a trumpet and the other beating a drum, with one small and solitary Irishman, bedecked with shamrocks, marching proudly behind them. On the Saint Patrick’s Day when Costello was discussing the emotional impact of the Irish parade in New York, he had risen from his bed in the morning determined to get through the day without too much drinking. A friend who greeted him late that afternoon in the overcrowded Costello saloon noticed that his resolution had gone to pot and asked him what had happened.

“I was doing fine” Tim said unsteadily, “until I decided to go over to Fifth Avenue and watch some of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. I was standing there on the sidewalk, behaving myself, when who do I see coming marching up the avenue but an old fellow I know who must be eighty years old. He’s wearing a tall silk hat with green ribbons draped around it, and he’s leading a band of pipers, waving an old Irish blackthorn stick. I take one look at him, and the next thing I know I’m in the bar at the Biltmore, weeping and buying drinks for everybody in the house.”

For anybody with a touch of Irish in his ancestry who finds himself in New York on Saint Patrick’s Day, the lure of the big parade on Fifth Avenue is irresistible; it even draws fugitives out of hiding. In 1921, near the end of Ireland’s rebellion against the British, three Irish Republican Army gunmen came to New York seeking a traitor who had fled from County Cork after betraying a group of rebels to the Black and Tans. The task of finding the Judas among Manhattan’s millions of people seemed impossible until one of the pursuers reali/ed that March 17 was only a lew days away.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll see him at the parade for sure. Hc may be a bloody informer, but he’s still an Irishman, isn’t he?”

Sure enough, a member of the mission recalled recently, the traitor was spotted on Fifth Avenue watching the parade with misty eyes. He was trailed to his nearby hideout in an apartment building on Fiftyseventh Street and was shot there a few days later. An Irish patriot in the New York Police Department, who was in on the plot, is supposed to have held back traffic while the executioners made their escape.

The Irish have been parading on Saint Patrick’s Day in New York for more than two hundred years. The feast day was observed in the American colonies as early as 1737; on March 17 of that year the Charitable Irish Society in Boston, a group of Yankees of Irish descent, held a dinner, which soon became an annual affair. In the colonial period that was the favored way of celebrating the day: Gaelic: contingents would gather at evening banquets (or convivial tavern breakfasts) and make many eloquent toasts. A Saint Patrick’s Day dinner in New York in 1766 featured twenty toasts, number nineteen being a wish that “the Enemies of Ireland … be tormented with itching without the benefit of Scratching.” The parades, which are said to have started in New York in 1763, were marches through the streets which ended at the taverns where the feasts were to be served; at first, they were probably as informal as the one mentioned in a Philadelphia lady’s diary on March 17, 1778: “A crowd of Irish soldiers went by this afternoon, with one on horseback representing St. Patrick.”

A more impressive parade, with the music of a British army band, was staged in enemy-occupied Manhattan during the Revolution in 1779. Lord Rawdon, an Irish-born colonel in the king’s forces, led a march of his four hundred Volunteers of Ireland soldiers (New York Irishmen enrolled in the British service) from lower Broadway to the Bowery, where they crowded into a tavern for a Saint Patrick’s Day dinner. Lord Rawdon’s hospitality failed to pay oft: many of the volunteers later deserted and went over to Washington’s army. The enraged Rawdon offered a bounty of ten guineas for each deserter’s head, or five guineas for a turncoat brought back to him alive.

After the Revolution, Saint Patrick’s Day parades in New York were organized by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, which was composed, like the Philadelphia society of the same name, mainly of Irishmen who had served under Washington or who had supported him financially. (A prominent Friendly Son in New York, an undercover agent for Washington in Manhattan during the war, had the memorable name of Hercules Mulligan.) The Friendly Sons, like most Irish in America then, were Protestants; the founder of the association in New York, Daniel McCormick, was treasurer of Manhattan’s Grand Lodge of Masons. The Sons were also bitterly anti-British because many of them had been forced to flee from Ireland to America for political reasons. These Irish Protestants were strongly resented by New Yorkers of British birth or descent because of their ancestry and politics. The British New Yorkers outrageously taunted the parading Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day by dragging through the streets comic effigies of Saint Patrick made of straw and rags and hung with potatoes and codfish. Brawls between the two factions became so bloody that in 1803 the city passed a law imposing a ten-dollar fine on anybody dragging an effigy of the saint through the streets.


The character of Saint Patrick’s Day parades began to change in the decades before the Civil War, when the potato famine in Ireland brought a huge influx of Irish Catholic peasants to New York and other eastern seacoast cities. The sudden invasion of these Papist aliens stirred up a strong antipathy among American Protestants and fanned the persecution that blazed up in the Know-Nothing party of the 1850’s and again in the American Protective Association of the 1880’s. To defend themselves, the Irish Catholics banded together in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a militant organization with close ties to the Roman Catholic hierarchy; in 1844 the group guarded the old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at Mott and Prince streets in downtown Manhattan against threatened attacks by anti-Catholic mobs. It was the Hibernians who in 1838 took over the management of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and converted it from a rough and informal social outing to a large, well-organized civil rights demonstration.

The big change took place in 1832. By then there were enough Irish militia groups in New York to make the parade into a long, impressive march of well-drilled, smartly uniformed state guard regiments and volunteer companies. The route was moved uptown; the hour-and-a-half procession crossed Twenty-third Street from Third Avenue to Eighth Avenue and circled back to City Hall, where it was reviewed by Mayor Ambrose C. Kingsbury and the City Council before it marched on to be greeted by Archbishop John Hughes at the cathedral on Prince Street.

“Green filled the eye everywhere,” one historian wrote of the day, “girls in green dresses and bonnets, men in broad green scarves, the military companies in green uniforms, and green banners, Hags and emblems waving in the wind.”

First in the line of march were Irish horse troops, light artillery, and companies of dragoons, followed by volunteer companies bearing such Irish names as the Emmet Guard—headed by Lieutenant John Kelly, later the boss of Tammany Hall—the Smith O’Bricn Guard, the Irish Rifles, and the Montgomery Rides. Then came the city’s three Irish militia regiments, the 9th, the 75th, and, marching in a parade for the first time in its brand new uniforms, the 69th. (The Ogth later became famous as the Fighting 69th in the Civil War and again in World War I in France with Colonel “Wild Mill” Donovan as its commanding officer and Father Francis Patrick Dulfy as its chaplain.) In 1860, before going oil to the Civil War as part of General Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade, the 69th embarrassed Xcw York City officials by flatly refusing to march in a parade honoring the visiting Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

Then as today, the Irish military units were followed by various Irish county associations, fraternal groups, and chapters of the Ancient Older of Hibernians. In later years, the parade included elegantly decorated floats drawn by teams of six or eight horses. A print of a Saint Patrick’s Day parade passing through Union Square in the 18jo’s shows one Moat displaying as its centerpiece a huge bust of Daniel O’Conncll, the liberator of Ireland’s Catholics, surrounded on a velvet pedestal by young women in long, flowing gowns (one of them strumming a harp) and a watchful Irish wolfhound.

As the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York became a demonstration of Irish Catholicism, it was closely identified with Saint Patrick’s Cathedral; Patrick is the patron saint not only of Ireland but of the Catholic archdiocese of New York as well. In 1879, when the new cathedral on Fifth Avenue at Fiftieth Street was opened, the parade moved to Fifth Avenue.

By that time the Irish were becoming such a powerful political force in New York that the aspect of the parade as a civil rights protest had grown dim. In fact, things had changed so much that in 1888, when Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, Peter Cooper’s son-in-law, refused to review the parade because Irish politicians had tried to high-pressure him into doing so, his refusal was hailed as a rare act of political courage.

The Saint Patrick’s Day parades on Fifth Avenue in the eighties and nineties were much more boisterous than the dignified processions of today. In iyOi the vice-chairman of the parade, Kilkenny-born James J. Comcrfoid (now parade chairman, and a judge of Xew York City’s Criminal Court), refused to allow Hrcndan Rchan, the high-spirited Dublin playwright, to appear in the parade. “AVe don’t want a personality who has been advertised so extensively as a common drunk,” ^udge Comerford said. Such a stricture would have outraged the two-fisted gangs of Irish volunteer firemen from the Lower East Side who in parades before the turn of the century pulled their hand-drawn Ore trucks u{) Fifth Avenue. Their ranks were full of Behan types; after the parade broke up near the cathedral, they would hurry to the shantytown district of Jones’s Wood around Sixty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, where they caroused until morning.

The parade in 1890 covered the longest route in the city’s history; it began at Washington Square and went on to the Polo Grounds at 155th Street, a distance of nine miles. (The city’s longest parade in point of time was that of the 1937 American Legion Convention, which lasted from nine one morning until three the following morning.) The old-time parades had colorful features that arc long since gone. Around 1900, for example, there were as many as five hundred horse-drawn carriages in the line of march. When Fifth Avenue was a street of palatial private houses, the upstairs windows of the mansions would be crowded with cheering Irish maids and household servants who tossed cookies and cakes to the smiling marchers. And the grand marshal of the parade, his aides, and most of the other dignitaries rode horses, many of which were borrowed for the day from brewery wagons.

The tradition of mounting the parade’s leaders on horseback held firm until 1932, when it was broken by the dapper Mayor James J. Walker, that year’s grand marshal, jimmy backed away from the saddle, explaining to amused reporters that lie recalled a previous grand marshal, Paddy Collins, whose large white horse, frightened by the crowds, had sought refuge in the cellar of a corner saloon. “It took two hours to get Paddy out of the cellar, and two days to get the horse out,” Walker said. “Besides, I have a Board of Estimate meeting tomorrow, and it wouldn’t do for me to preside at it standing up.”

Another year on another horse the same Paddy Collins cut a figure on Fifth Avenue that a few older watchers of the parade remember with admiration. That was in iyi?, the only year when the parade was cancelled because of bad weather. A driving rainstorm soaked and scattered the marching units before the parade could be formed. When the cancellation was agreed on, Paddy and his fifty mounted aides galloped up Fifth Avenue like Irish Paul Reveres to take the news to John Cardinal Farley, waiting at the cathedral; Paddy clattered along in the lead, roaring at the wet crowds on the way, “It’s oil! It’s oil! It’s all called off!”


“In many ways,” says a man who was there to see it, “Paddy’s ride was a much more thrilling sight than any parade could have been.”

Today’s Saint Patrick’s Day parades in New York are conducted with a decorum that would have baffled the Irish marchers of a century ago. Judge Comerford and his committee from the sponsoring and participating organizations—the Ancient Order of Hibernians from the five boroughs of the city and surrounding suburban counties, the local Irish county societies, colleges, schools, Friends of Irish Freedom, Clan-na-Gacl, Irish Republican Brothci hood Veterans, and various groups of New York City employees such as the Holy Name societies of the New York police and fire departments, and the postmen’s Emerald Society—sec to it that there is no clowning, no commercialism, no political exploitation, no comic paper hats, no placards or signs “of an offensive nature.” Everybody walks, except for a selected group of equestrians at the heat! of the parade. There are no floats or vehicles, and no animals except the equestrian unit’s horses and the Ogth Regiment’s Irish wolfhound mascot. A sharp-eyed committee deputy is stationed at every block on Fifth Avenue from the starting point at Forty-fourth Street to Sixty-fifth Street, with policemen at his beck and call; if he sees any unseemly conduct—which is not unknown—the guilty contingent is pulled out of the parade, led into a side street, and dispersed with a warning not to come back next year.

Bands are advised to stick to an approved list of Irish airs, which includes “Carry Owen,” “The Boys of Wcxford,” “The Wearing of the Creen,” “Harrigan,” “O’Donnell Ahn,” and, of course, “Tammany” and “McNamara’s Band.” There is little likelihood that the New York parade will ever be the scene of an embarrassment such as the one that befell James M. Curlcy, Uic perennial mayor of Boston, at his city’s Saint Patrick’s Day march some years ago. A band hired to parade with Curley almost wrecked him politically by playing “The Isle of Capri” instead of the traditional “Tammany.” Curley later managed to convince an indignant meeting of Corkmen in South Boston that the composer of “The Isle of Capri” was an Irishman; the Mayor promptly led all of them in singing the praises of the Italian island.

Like many annual festive spectacles, the parade is now seen on television. The sight of the Fighting Ot)th leading the march up the avenue with its band beating out “Carry Owen,” and the rich, lilting brogue of commentator Jack McCarthy in his usual greeting —“Cod bless all here, and a happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you, wherever you may be”—set a mood in the opening scene of the television show that millions of Irish watchers in suburban living rooms eagerly welcome. McCarthy lias been covering the Saint Patrick’s Day parade for the local independent television station WPIX every year that it has been televised, and consequently he has become as closely identified with the parade and as well known to Irish-Americans in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut as the late Cardinal Spellman or Jim Farley. Although McCarthy was born (of Irish parents) in mid-town Manhattan, the brogue that gives his running commentary on the parade a deep green tinge is not an affectation; the Irish sentiment overwhelming him on Saint Patrick’s Day makes him talk that way.

When the Saint Patrick’s Day parade was first shown on television, in 1949, it was allotted one hour of air time. During the telecast, the station was flooded with telephone calls from people who wanted the parade kept on the air longer. The announcer was told to keep the show going for an additional half hour and then, when the (alls continued to conic in, for another hour more. In the end he and the cameraman were at their posts on Fifth Avenue for six hours, until the last of the high school bands was making its way past the reviewing stand in the darkening twilight. Since then the station lias always televised the entire parade, which has now been shortened to four hours. The route also has been shortened in recent years; it still starts at Forty-fourth Street, but now it ends at Eightysixth Street instead of Ninety-sixth. The object is to relieve some of the traffic congestion caused by the parade’s tradition, and exclusive legal privilege, of staging its march on whatever day March iy happens to fall, instead of on a Sunday or a holiday, when stores and offices are closed.

Cutting down the size of the parade has been a struggle for Judge Comerford and his committee, who carry on the “moral obligation,” as they call it, of managing the march, which now numbers some 120,000 Irishmen and pseudo Irishmen. “If we let in all the organisations from all over the country who want to march in it,” Judge Comcrford says, “the parade would last more than twelve hours.” There are fifty-three disappointed groups marking time on the waiting list at the moment.

The parade is still not short enough to please the Fifth Avenue merchants, who in 1967 claimed that the Irishmen’s insistence on marching and disrupting the avenue’s traffic on a business day had cost between $350,000 and §500,000 in lost sales. In 101,], the storekeepers of the Fifth Avenue Association persuaded the city to pass an ordinance that requires other Fifth Avenue marches, such as the Germans’ Stcubcn Day parade, the Poles’ Pulaski Day parade, the Greeks’ Independence Day parade, and the Puerto Ricans” Hispanic Societies parade, to be held on Sundays or legal holidays. However, Irish politicians in Gity Hall managed to insert a clause exempting any parade from that restriction if it had marched annually on New York streets for ten years previous to 1914. The Saint Patrick’s Day parade, of course, just happened to be the only parade that met that qualification. However, in 1944 the half-Italian Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia permitted the Italians’ Columbus Day parade on October 12 to move to Fifth Avenue from Central Park West, on the grounds that Columbus Day in New York is a legal holiday, although stores are open. The enraged Fifth Avenue merchants later tried to get Mayor William O’Dwyer to remove the Columbus Day parade from the avenue, claiming that it was violating the 1914 ordinance, but O’Dwyer, well aware that the city has two million Italian-American voters, told the merchants that they were wasting their time. The Italians still march on Fifth Avenue on October 12.

The good followers of Saint Patrick can never rest assured that new challenges to their privilege will not arise. Indeed, such a crisis arose in the summer of 1966, shaking the Ancient Order of Hibernians to its venerable foundations. A bill was proposed to the City Council by a member with the obviously un-Gaelic name of Woodward Kingman, asking that all parades be moved to a Sunday or a legal holiday; even worse, at about the same time, Mayor John V. Lindsay began to consider a plan to move the Saint Patrick’s Day parade from Fifth Avenue to the roads inside Central Park. Rallying his forces against these attacks, Judge Comerford pointed out to his fellow Hibernians that both the Kingman bill and the Central Park plan were undoubtedly inspired not only by the Fifth Avenue Association but also by the rising power of modern atheism. “The people trying to tear down the parade,” the Judge said, “are the same people who have been spreading all this talk lately about God being dead.”

In taking on Judge Comerford, the would-be reformers of the parade found themselves facing a formidable opponent. In his native County Kilkenny he had commanded at the age of nineteen a company of 120 Irish Republican Army guerrillas in the fighting against the Black and Tans. The underminers of the parade were no match for this determined Irishman. The Kingman bill was easily disposed of, and then Judge Comerford went to have a talk with the Mayor. At one point in his strongly impassioned argument, the Judge exclaimed, “How can you put this magnificent parade into the setting of a park at a time of year when there is not a green blade of grass on the lawns and not a leaf on the trees?”

“Now wait a minute,” Mayor Lindsay pleaded. “Don’t start getting poetic.”

After the meeting, the chastened Mayor announced to newsmen with a wry smile: “I have managed to persuade Judge Comerford and his parade committee to hold the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue this March seventeenth.”

In appreciation, the parade committee did Mr. Lindsay a little favor. When he had made his first appearance as mayor in the parade of 1966, the city had just endured a long subway strike and was in the midst of a hot battle over a civilian police-review board; Lindsay had been received by the crowds in cool silence. He was dubious about marching again. But the committee assured him that all would go well; they saw to it that he was given a place in the parade just behind a colorful band of pipers that always stirs up wild applause.

“All along Fifth Avenue the Mayor was greeted with tremendous cheering,” a committee member remembers. “Who was to say for sure whether the cheering was for the Mayor or for the pipers who were marching a few steps in front of him? Anyway, he was beaming when he came to the reviewing stand, where we gave him the usual Saint Patrick’s Day greeting—‘May you be in heaven for twenty minutes before the Devil discovers that you’re dead.”


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