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


ooksellers like Barnes and Noble, who are creating displays for it in their windows here in New York, have embraced the book. They suspect it will sell particularly well at Christmas. The biggest thing about the book is that all proceeds from it will go to an endowment for the parade in years to come.”

The launch of the book dovetails nicely with the fact that the Grand Marshall of the 2011 parade is an author, the 80 million books bestseller Mary Higgins Clark, who speaks, McConnell says, to the character of the parade. She has great character herself, having survived tragedies in her personal life, and she’s a terrific representative for the Irish.

“She’s a brilliant choice for the 250 anniversary,” says McConnell. “She is someone who will live in history, her books will live on, and she’s someone who’s just a modest, wonderful Irish American woman who cares about her heritage. She says that when she marches up Fifth Avenue she will bring the ghosts of all the Irish marched. She’s taking them all with her.”

McConnell admits that his own understanding of the parade has changed over time. “When I came here in the 1970’s from the North it was a bit of an affront to me. I didn’t understand why they could be so excited about being Irish when we were having such a terrible time at home politically. It took me many years to understand that Irish America is a different place. It took me a number of years to understand that Irish America played and would play a significant role in the story of Ireland itself.”

McConnell says he was surprised to learn the parade has almost always been controversial. “When you think this parade began 14 years before this country became a nation, 14 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, they were having a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration, it’s astounding. In a new biography of George Washington they mention how he walks up Fifth Avenue and bumps into a crowd of Irishmen marching in the parade. We’ve been here since before the country was a nation.”

The most longstanding (and for the younger generation, perhaps the most galling) controversy surrounding the parade is its continuing exclusion of Irish gay groups from being allowed to march under their own banners. The standoff, which was highly contentious and almost shut the parade down, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling and a stalemate that harms Irish America’s reputation every March 17, critics contend.

“The parade has always had controversy. In Ireland there’s an old saying that it’s the row that matters. It’s a real indicator of the parade’s Irishness that it can row.”

Mary Higgins Clark, the 2011 Grand Marshall and an ardent promoter of the new book told the Irish Voice that the greatest surprise of her professional career was being asked to Grand Marshall in the first place.

“I received a call from John Fitzsimons who asked me if I would come to dinner. He said you’re going to be invited to be the Grand Marshall of the parade. I almost dropped the phone. It no more occurred to me – ever – that I would be invited. It wasn’t one of my secret wishes, it wasn’t a case of if a dream came true – it literally never occurred to me that I would be invited to do it.”

Higgins Clark has happy memories of the parade down the years and so the decision to say yes came quickly. “My own memories of the parade involve the wonderful bands and the bagpipes and all those schools marching. And the spirit of it – rain or shine, hot or cold, the spirit of the thing was so joyous.”
McConnell adds that her selection was a savvy one because of what she represents to her 80 million readers: resourcefulness, smarts and grace under pressure. Modest as ever, Higgins Clarks demurs the accolades. Courage in the face of adversity is an Irish tradition, she says.

“The old Irish said goodbye to their children and didn’t see them again. So many of them buried children. My husband’s grandmother had 13 children. Four lived. It was said once that it was safer to be a soldier in the trenches than a baby in New York because the care wasn’t as good.”

The Irish has a sense of humor that never fails them no matter what she adds, and that sustains her. “My brother-in-law was only buried a week ago and we were great pals. He was my younger brothers best friend since they were five – so he was brother not brother-in-law. On the day he died his wife give him a little malt whiskey and asked him how did that taste Ken? He replied “like shit.” His final words. Don’t you love it? Right to the every end the wit and the humor is terrific.”

Regardless of the continuing controversies and the day when they’re inevitably put to rest, there is one thing that unites all the Irish says McConnell. “What are parades all about, why are we sharing and dressing up and doing all of this stuff? It’s about community. It’s the greatest expression of community there is, other than the ballot box. We put ourselves out there, the parade has always captured our strengths and our weaknesses.”