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250 years of celebration - New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade

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Celebrating 250 Years of the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is the name of the groundbreaking illustrated history of one of the of the most famous and frequently contentious parades in the world. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Parade Grand Marshall Mary Higgins Clark and the books press representative Turlough McConnell about the sure to be bestseller, that tells the whole parade story, good and bad.

It may come as a surprise to some, but controversy has been a frequent participant in just about every Saint Patrick’s Day parade ever marched in New York City.

From it’s earliest moments 250 years ago, the parade has often produced an element of the unexpected – thanks to varying degrees of crowd control and public order, or political statements, or even contested banners or contested participants.

In the remarkable new book Celebrating 250 Years of the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, celebrated New York historian John T. Ridge has assembled for the first time a comprehensive and often moving look at one of the most famous and frequently contentious parades in the world.

The celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day in New York City can be traced as far back as 1762, when a man named John Marshall hosted a dinner “at Mount Pleasant, near the college,” to mark the Irish patron saint’s day. Although there’s no record of a parade having taken place on the day, it is the first recorded example of a celebration in the city of the Irish patron saint’s feast day.

After that it kept on growing. In the 19 century it became quite common for the spectators to cause huge delays in the line of march by insisting on shaking the hands of their parading friends, or the politicians and bigwigs – even the grand marshal often had to contend with all the glad-handing.

Grousing parade officials have been a familiar element of the parades over three centuries, too: frequently complaining that routes were either too long or too short, or that the crowds were allowed to roam too freely, or that the participating groups were grandstanding shamelessly and holding up everyone else.

It’s surprising, in some respects, how little has changed. Trust the Irish, who have always excelled at discovering drama in even the most mundane arrangements. Quinnipiac University Press Representative Turlough McConnell, who was instrumental in the book’s genesis and promotion, told the Irish Voice it was a journey of discovery for all involved.

“The book came about because John Leahy, President of Quinnipiac University, has been involved in the parade for many years – since he was a young guy – and he always cared about the parade and has made it a big part of his life.”

In 1997 Leahy was appointed Grand Marshall of the parade and he decided to use his role as an educator in 1997 (the 150 anniversary of Black ’47, the darkest year of the Irish Famine) to educate people on the Great Hunger. He was also one of the people instrumental in getting the history of the Famine introduced to the High School curriculums in Connecticut.

“In the last few years Leahy felt the parade needed a real endowment to continue the work it has done,” McConnell says. “To date the parade has existed on a core voluntary group putting it together. Leahy decided that since the 250 anniversary of the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day parade is this year he would publish a book on the history of the parade as a milestone, through Quinnipiac University Press.”

Leahy appointed his Vice President of Public Affairs, Lynn Mosher Bushnell, as general editor of the book. “She thought she’d go out there and there’d be a whole archive of easily accessible historical materials to research. But there was nothing. There were just some photographs here and there. There was no archive, no central place.”

That proved they were doing groundbreaking work. Mosher Bushnell took on the project over two years, conducting research at every historical archive and every newspaper in New York. The most helpful place for source material turned out to be the Irish American archive at New York University (NYU) where she gathered previously unseen images for the book.

Meanwhile historian Ridge had written a chronology of the parade in 1989 that had impressed Leahy. Ridge was commissioned to write the text for the new book in association with the research material complied by Mosher Bushnell.

“The book has images that stretch all the way back to the late 1800’s,” says McConnell. “It’s a great historic document that we have about the parade that never existed before. Currently the exhibition that accompanies the book is on display at the Irish consulate and we’ve been invited to bring to the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix, Arizona – where there is a significant former New York population.

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